Tucker Carlson, stalwart defender of sexual privacy

The MSNBC host expresses completely opposite views of the virtues of sex scandals depending on the party affiliation of the accused.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

Last night on his MSNBC show, Tucker Carlson vehemently objected to the David Vitter story, insisting that Sen. Vitter’s repeated and continuous hiring of prostitutes was completely irrelevant and should not be discussed by anyone. Carlson became so upset over the Vitter story that he spent most of the segment screaming at and insulting his guest, Michael Rechtenwald, who was arguing that Vitter’s holding himself out as the Candidate of Family Values and the Sanctity of Traditional Marriage renders relevant his criminal prostitution activities. The video of the segment is here (I was invited to appear on Carlson’s show to do this segment, in defense of the Vitter post I wrote on Wednesday, but we were unable to work out the necessary logistics).

To begin the interview, the very first question Carlson asked was this: “How could you justify doing something like this? Why is it your business?” He then complained: “you are holding up this guy’s sex life to public ridicule. And you ought to be ashamed of yourself. You have no justification.” The crux of Carlson’s argument was this:

If you disagree with a policy position that a candidate or an elected official puts forward, why don’t you argue against it? . . . Instead you’re taking a shortcut and just trashing the guy’s personal life? What a sleazy shortcut that is.

He ended the segment by proclaiming to the guest that a politician’s personal life “ought to be off limits from creeps and scandal mongers like you.” I won’t rehash all of the arguments as to why it is not only legitimate — but also necessary — to highlight the fundamental contradictions between the rhetoric of a political official and his actions. I made all of those arguments here, in the Vitter post from the other day.

Suffice to say, it is self-evidently relevant whether politicians like Vitter want to use the law to coerce adherence to what they call “Family Values” and “Traditional Marriage” because doing so enables them to exploit for political gain animosity towards a small minority group or because they really believe in the need to promote such values. When their actions so profoundly conflict with their claimed beliefs (such as by living their own lives in contradiction to those professed values and/or by supporting laws that recognize highly un-Christian and un-traditional “second, third and fourth marriages” and divorces because so many of their good, moral constituents — and they themselves — want to take advantage of such un-traditional, un-Christian conventions), then the corrupt foundation of their arguments becomes quite apparent.

But in light of Carlson’s rather strident comments, I want to focus on his own behavior, by comparing his outrage over the Vitter story to Carlson’s participation in the media feeding frenzy over Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, when Carlson’s fervent belief in the imperatives of sexual privacy was nowhere to be found. Quite the opposite.

Leave aside the glaring differences between Vitter’s and Clinton’s extramarital affairs — namely, the hypocrisy involved (Vitter has injected sexual morality into the public arena by advocating laws to enforce sexual morality and by basing his campaigns on his sexual purity, whereas Clinton didn’t), as well as the issue of criminality (hiring a prostitute is a crime whereas Clinton’s affairs were consensual and non-criminal). To be (overly) generous to Carlson, let’s assume that discussing Clinton’s penile spots, cigars, and intimate marital struggles enjoyed the same justification as discussing Vitter’s criminal hiring of prostitutes.

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In rather stark contrast to his fury over the latter, Carlson certainly was eager to engage in the former:

CNN with Wolf Blitzer, August 2, 1998 — Carlson explaining away poll numbers showing that Americans didn’t care about the Lewinsky “scandal”:

BLITZER: Poll numbers have been very consistent, Tucker.

TUCKER CARLSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That’s true but I think there are probably two reasons for that. One voters have not had to confront — they’ve only had to confront the possibility that he had affair with 21-year-old intern not the fact of it. And I think once you endless loop of Clinton’s finger wagging, I did not have affair with this woman matched against his admission that he did, I think is going to hurt his numbers.

Number two I think you need to account for the fact people aren’t always straight with pollsters. People perceive the sophisticated answer to be, I don’t care about another person’s sex life. They may have feelings in real life that are different than that.

CNN with Wolf Blitzer, August 2, 1998 — arguing for the importance of the “scandal”:

BLITZER: Do you think [Clinton] can do that [admit the affair with Lewinksy]? Do you think he will do that, Tucker?

CARLSON: I think he may. He certainly seems to be under a lot of pressure from Democrats. I mean you heard Mr. Panetta, Gephardt has made noises similarly, Biden has, too. The problem, I think we are all forgetting here though is if he admits having an affair, with Monica Lewinsky that implies obstruction. I mean then you look at all the other facts we know about their relationship, and they take on a new significance. Why did she return, for instance, the gifts?

BLITZER: But she — Monica Lewinsky according to sources, close to this investigation, she repeatedly says he never directly told me to lie, under oath.

CARLSON: Correct. But that still doesn’t explain Clinton’s behavior. His meetings with Vernon Jordan. His conversations with Betty Currie. I mean there are a lot of things we don’t know that have already been testified to the grand jury. But all of them come under a very different light, once we establish that there was in fact an affair.

CNN with Wolf Blitzer, December 29, 1998 — claiming Bill Clinton “took advantage” of Monica Lewinsky:

TUCKER CARLSON, “WEEKLY STANDARD”: It’s not only Republican leaders who’ve been saying that, it’s hard to see who exactly is pro- witness, who’s anti-witnesses, and I think it’s even harder to figure out who witnesses will benefit. Monica Lewinsky, for instance. Apparently she’s a sympathetic character in person, would be sympathetic at a trial; who does that help? Does it help Ken Starr who reportedly beat up on her? Does it help Bill Clinton, who took advantage of her?

CNN’s Crossfire, June 4, 2003 — mocking Hillary Clinton’s claims about her reaction to her husband’s affair (at the same time, just incidentally, hilariously declaring that Clinton’s book, one of the best-selling non-fiction books of the last decade, was a flop):

CARLSON: The Hillary Rodham Clinton book blitz is under way and, not surprisingly, it’s kind of sad. According to excerpts from her book, “Living History,” Mrs. Clinton claims to be the only person in the United States of America who steadfastly believed her husband’s denials of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. She writes she was “dumbfounded, heartbroken and outraged” when he finally told her the truth. Now that you know that, do you still want to spend $28 to read the book’s other 576 pages? Booksellers are betting not.

CNN’s Crossfire, March 9, 2001 — describing Bill Clinton’s “legacy”:

There it is. There’s his legacy, Monica Lewinsky. Now, of course, as we noted at the open, she’ll be doing a new HBO documentary. And it strikes me as I watch this that 50 years from now people aren’t going to say, Bill Clinton, you know, the president who banned flights from the Grand Canyon. They’ll say, Monica Lewinsky’s boyfriend.

It goes on and on like that. Tucker Carlson was on CNN endlessly revelling in every last detail of Ken Starr’s investigation, urging more indictments and court proceedings, and never once — from what I can tell — objecting to the discussion of every scurrilous detail of Clinton’s sex life, including, literally, the shape and size and other characteristics of his penis. Carlson, that Righteous Defender of Sexual Privacy, was a giddy participant in — and beneficiary of — the entire sordid spectacle.

But now that the target of such revelations is a Family Values GOP Senator who has built his career on sexual and moral purity — and who, it should be noted, was “outed” not by some Congressional or media investigation targeted at him but rather by the bad luck of having patronized the services of a prostitution agency being criminally prosecuted by the Bush DOJ — Tucker is beside himself with rage. “Just trashing the guy’s personal life? What a sleazy shortcut that is.” A politician’s personal life “ought to be off limits from creeps and scandal mongers like you.”

During his segment last night, Carlson not only had the audacity to parade around as a Virulent Defender of Sexual Privacy, but even insisted that he was the Paragon of Nonpartisan Fairness: “If this were Russ Feingold I would be up there making the same argument.” And: “my impression was after the impeachment saga and the Bill Clinton years that the rest of us had reached this kind of consensus [to stay away from these issues.]”

That last statement was the only honest one he uttered, and its honesty was unintentional: After Tucker and his friends spent years in the 1990s digging as deeply and excitedly as possible into a tawdry sex scandal involving perfectly legal consensual sex, to the point where they impeached a twice-elected popular President, they have decided, now that Republicans are in power, that such matters are strictly off-limits, solely the “sleazy” province of “creeps and scandal mongers.” That deeply held standard of propriety will no doubt be maintained firmly in place . . . until the next Democratic President is inaugurated.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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