Jake Tapper on Republicans' need for "moral clarity" and why election liars have no place on CNN

Jake Tapper's latest novel tackles heady themes through the lens of 1960s politics and Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack

Published June 4, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)

Jake Tapper (AP/Evan Agostini)
Jake Tapper (AP/Evan Agostini)

CNN's Jake Tapper is out with another book — and it's got nothing to do with Donald Trump.

In fact, it's a work of fiction. Tapper's new novel, "The Devil May Dance," is on its face a book about politics in the early 1960's, complete with everything iconic from that time: from the Kennedys to the Rat Pack and so much more in between. But right beneath the surface of this period novel are veiled — and not so veiled — references to today's politics, as he explained during an appearance on "Salon Talks." 

Tapper's new novel, a sequel to his bestseller, "The Hellfire Club," again features Congressman Charlie Marder and his zoologist wife, Margaret. This time the couple from New York finds themselves in Hollywood, in such unlikely places as on the set of the classic film "The Manchurian Candidate." Charlie — who was a war hero — is a consultant, trying to help the film depict the military accurately. But his actual reasons for being there are far more complex. 

Tapper, a former Washington correspondent for Salon, explained that the deeper meaning behind the novel's title, "The Devil May Dance," is about the extent to which people dance with the devil in pursuit of power (the GOP's demand of absolute loyalty to Trump comes to mind). The book, while focusing on the 1960s storyline, also raises other contemporary issues, from "catch and kill" deals designed to protect well-known people from bad press — something we all learned about during the time of Trump — to an island where older men go to have sex with younger women (à la Jeffrey Epstein's Little St. James island) and celebrities being able to do whatever they want, in keeping with Trump's proclaimed philosophy: "When you're a star…You can do anything."

Beyond the book, Tapper discussed the politics of today — especially how there needs to be "moral clarity" surrounding the Jan. 6 insurrection. Tapper noted that the efforts of some GOP members of Congress to undermine the dangers posed by the Jan. 6 attack is an "affront to the police officers" who were injured defending the Capitol that day.

You can hear my conversation with Tapper about his book, the politics of the day and much more in our "Salon Talks."

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

"The Devil May Dance," can you tell people about it? 

Sure. So the basic premise was inspired by a real story, which is, as people know, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, which was Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Shirley MacLaine and a whole bunch of them. Just imagine your six favorite singer-actors today. If they were all best friends and hung out all the time and made movies together, which doesn't happen.

They worked their hearts out and got JFK elected in a very narrow election in 1960. Then Sinatra expected that President John F. Kennedy would stay with him during some sort of California swing, so he had his estate in Rancho Mirage, which is about two hours outside L.A. and near Palm Springs. He had it built up to add rooms and phone lines and a helipad, and at the same time, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, was going after organized crime. He noticed that some of the mobsters he was investigating, mostly Sam Giancana from Chicago, was a very close friend of Sinatra's and had stayed at that same compound.

Robert Kennedy in real life had a tough choice to make. Did he offend one of the biggest stars of the day who had helped his brother get elected or does he let his brother stay at a compound in a bed where literal mobsters had slept? That's the real story, and then the premise of my book is I just had my main characters, Charlie and Margaret, investigate to find out if Sinatra was actually mobbed up or if it was kind of just a gossip.

The title, "The Devil May Dance," I Googled it and there's no "Devil May Dance." You made it up. You wrote lyrics for the song. Why did you choose to actually create your own song to build the title around, and make this great scene near the end?

It's a great question. There are a couple reasons. First of all, because of intellectual property and copyright laws, you can only quote one line of a song in a book unless you get permission. I learned that in the first book. You try to set little mood scenes and you have a song, but the lawyers swoop in during editing and say, "you can only do one line." And in fact, in this one, they did the same thing and they said, "Tapper, what are you doing? You're killing me. You know you can only do one line and you have an entire Sinatra song in here."

Two, because the theme of the book is, "What happens when you dance with the devil?" What happens when you ally yourself with somebody who is a bad person, has lower standards than you, lower ethics, lower morals? What happens to you? Whether it's JFK with Sinatra or Sinatra with the mob, what effect does it have on you? Look at Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump. What is the effect on Kevin McCarthy like that? You ally yourself with somebody for some reason.

What happens? What does that do to you? That was the theme that I wanted the book to be about. The first book was about what happens to you when you compromise, and how far can you go when you compromise? That was the theme of "The Hellfire Club." This is more about dancing with the devil, and so that's why. I also thought it'd be fun. Now I'm not a musician, so there's no tune. I can't sing it for you, but in any case, that's that. That's the idea behind it, so maybe somebody we'll put it to music.

In the book you have Charlie, who's a congressman, and Margaret, the wife, who's a zoologist. There are some scenes, especially once scene that stands out where Margaret is pushing Frank Sinatra, standing up to him over and over. You made a choice to make Margaret a very strong woman, and it clearly was a choice. Why was that important to you?

Well, I'm married to a very strong woman. Charlie is a good guy and all that, but Margaret's the stronger of the two. I wanted it to be a married couple cause I'm a happily married man, and I kind of wanted to experiment with that because I've never read a book where there was a married couple as the protagonist together, and it was interesting. It was important to me because I'm a feminist. I come from a family of feminists. My daughter's named after a suffragette. It's important to us, and also, this isn't the reason, but women read books more than men. It's awesome. It's good to have strong women characters to meet the audience where they are.

You mentioned that you were happily married. How much is Charlie part of you?

I mean, that's a moral line for me and it's a moral line for Charlie. I felt like I would lose the audience if I had Charlie cheat on Margaret, to be honest. But by the same token, the way that both of these books have worked — this one more than the previous — is they have an adventure [together] and then they kind of have their own adventures. Now, Charlie hangs out with the Rat Pack and he is tempted. I mean, as I imagine, almost any man would be [tempted] hanging out with the Rat Pack, or any woman, to be honest. Then Margaret is seeing the darker side of Hollywood in her own adventure. I chose to have that as a moment of temptation because I thought it was important to show, and also, Charlie is drinking too much. That's one of the themes of the book. He's a World War II veteran. He has post-traumatic stress, even though that term didn't even exist, and he's self-medicating with liquor. I just thought it was important to show the temptations of that world. Again, he's dancing with the devil.

Is this supposed to be a tale for us? Not just about the Rat Pack, not just about the Kennedys, but about today's politics?

Yeah. It's definitely about today's politics, in addition to the politics back then. I mean, look, we live in 2021, which is remarkably different from even 2015 in terms of our awareness about women and young girls and exploitation. By writing about this era in Hollywood, when Tony Curtis leaves his wife, Janet Leigh for, I think a 16- or 17-year-old co-star, which happened in that year, 1961.

That was just going on all the time in Hollywood, by all of our favorite actors. It's mentioned a lot in the book, [what happens to] young women, which becomes a metaphor, kind of, for just women and the way women are treated in Hollywood — and hopefully in an entertaining and sinister way, and not in a preachy way. I tried to talk about how Hollywood and society in general treats women, by using the motifs and the facts of what was going on in reality, and then also obviously a lot of invented stuff, too, on Tom Sawyer Island.

I want to also get your reaction to some things that are actually in the news. We just learned the Trump administration sought phone records and email records of your colleague, Barbara Starr, a CNN correspondent at the Pentagon. How concerning is this?

Yeah, I was critical of it when Obama did it in terms of subpoenaing records from the Associated Press, and it's alarming still. I don't even know. I think it was a Barbara Starr story about North Korea, but the degree to which our government feels like they can subpoena the records of journalists in order to find out who their sources are is terrifying and chilling. Whether it's Trump or Obama, it is unacceptable.

I think my boss Jeff Zucker has asked the Justice Department to give them an explanation as to what happened and why. We're told that it wasn't the content of her conversations or emails, but just the metadata. Who called her, who she called, who emailed her, whom she emailed, etc. It's shocking. It also tells how incompetent the government is at keeping track of who has secrets in their government.

If they want to subpoena the records of their own employees to figure out who's talking to the press, I don't like it, but that's their own employees. Those are the people who have the top secret classified information and status and all that, but they have so little control or understanding of their own people, and who has the secrets, that they're going to the people who report it. It's incompetence and it's very disturbing and upsetting. I don't know if it was political people or career people, and it doesn't really matter, it's unacceptable and hideous.

The big story in the news now, and it keeps reappearing, is the GOP's efforts to whitewash Jan. 6. Do you think we're better served not engaging in that debate? 

I think that we're in an era now where the truth and the facts are bothersome to too many Republicans, especially officials. They want to lie about it. I mean, there's that congressman, there's a picture of him in the house chamber terrified helping to barricade the door, and he's the same one who referred to it, as, "you'd think it was just any other tourist day."

It's denialism, but it's truly, when you think about it, an affront to the American people. That house, that Senate, that's ours. Those are our elected representatives. We elect them. Well, maybe not me because I'm in D.C. and I don't have representation in Congress, but you and your viewers and listeners and readers. If they are willing, these people, are willing to rewrite the attack on the people's house, that's un-American, undemocratic and it's a rhetorical and philosophical attack on the American people. I haven't booked Ron Johnson on my show in months. I haven't booked any election liar on my shows since it began, since the election lies began.

I find it very upsetting. I'm not saying I will never have them on because I think there would be value in having Kevin McCarthy on, and challenging him on all his election lies, although I don't think he'd ever agree to it. We in the media have a responsibility to present the facts and the truth to the American people, and that includes exercising some discretion when it comes to the sharing of lies and the amplifying of liars.

20 years ago we had 9/11. We're almost at the anniversary. George Bush famously said two weeks afterwards to the joint session of Congress, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists." Look where the GOP is today. We had a terrorist attack and you have them literally defending the people. To me, this is beyond the scope of anything we've seen and truly dangerous to our Republic. How do you see it?

I mean, I see it clear-eyed in the same way that George W. Bush saw it. George W. Bush got a lot of grief for the comments, but the truth is that acts of terrorism, like what Al-Qaeda did to the United States, are stark. It does demand moral clarity, and obviously I'm not comparing what happened Jan. 6 to Al-Qaeda and 9/11, but it's a moment of moral clarity. Now, I think one of the differences is if these people were lying to the rioters, the protestors, they in a way were victims. But not victims of the Justice Department, not victims of Congress, not victims of the media. They were victims of the liars, Trump and Kevin McCarthy and Fox, and all the others that spread the election lies.

They were victims of them. Their minds were, I don't want to say they were brainwashed, but they were. They were fed lies that activated them and incited them, and I think it's important that there be moral clarity about it because they obviously know. If you were outside the Capitol and you weren't being violent, then obviously I'm not talking about you, but if you were inside the Capitol storming, acting violently, as we saw video of, then you were committing an act of domestic terrorism in the name of overturning the election.

It is an affront to the police officers who sacrificed so much that day, Capitol Hill police officers, Metropolitan Police Department officers. To pretend otherwise, I find it stunning. There's an officer who has talked to Don Lemon a few times about what he went through that day and his horrible experiences with the D.C. Police, and he reached out to Kevin McCarthy's office because he wanted to talk to Republican Leader McCarthy. Last time I checked, McCarthy had not returned his call. In between then and now, McCarthy did a Back The Blue cycling event. Well, you can Back The Blue, but it's also important to reach out to police officers who want to talk to you about what happens to them while they were protecting you and your fellow members of Congress.

How concerned are you looking forward for our nation?

I know progressives will disagree with me in this, maybe not you, but other progressives will disagree: I maintain that it is important that we have a thriving, strong, fact-based Republican party. Tens of millions of Americans hold conservative views, and they deserve to have fair, competent and fact-based representation in government, at the state level, city level, federally, period. Now, again, I know there are some progressives who are like, "The whole Republican party is lousy. Who cares?" I don't feel that way.

That said, I am very concerned. That somebody who is a very conservative Republican, like Liz Cheney, can be replaced with a far more liberal Republican, like Elise Stefanik — and not just on ideology. Cheney voted for Trump policies more than the Stefanik did, so it's not even about Trump policies per se. The difference is that Liz Cheney is not willing to lie about the election or the insurrection and Elise Stefanik is. That's it.

It's very concerning to see Mitt Romney, again, a very conservative Republican on any number of issues: taxes, guns, abortion, but somebody who also says the election was not stolen. The insurrection was abhorrent, all that. He's booed by, of all people, the Utah Republican party. It's very disturbing and I hope it changes because, again, we need a fact-based, thriving Republican party to represent all these Americans who have these beliefs in small government, muscular foreign policy, whatever. They need to have people who are not willing to coddle election liars, insurrectionists, QAnon, etc. It's nuts. It does disturb me, very much so.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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