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CNN’s Jake Tapper Has Emerged as a Staunch Defender of Facts in the Trump Era. So Why Is He Writing Fiction?

CNN’s Jake Tapper Has Emerged as a Staunch Defender of Facts in the Trump Era. So Why Is He Writing Fiction?

He joined CNN in 2013 as the host of “The Lead,” and later took over its Sunday morning show, “State of the Union,” where he has aired segments featuring his quirky political cartoons (“Star Wars” fans and Trump supporters alike recently took offense at Mr. Tapper’s “Trade Wars” cartoon, a Star Wars-themed spoof that depicted Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as Yoda.).

While Mr. Tapper quickly established himself as a cable news star, it wasn’t until the Trump presidency that he became a viral sensation. During his combative interview with Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to President Trump, in February 2017, Mr. Tapper could at times barely conceal his disdain as he castigated Ms. Conway for defending false statements by the president. Screenshots of his incredulous expression ricocheted around the internet. “We are all that crease between Jake Tapper’s eyebrows,” the comedian Samantha Bee tweeted. Conan O’Brien aired an image of Mr. Tapper’s look of disgust and told him, “it looks like you just drank some sour milk.” HBO’s Bill Maher praised him for “speaking truth to crazy.”

“He’s not afraid to call out lies and misrepresentations,” CNN‘s Anderson Cooper said in an interview. “It’s always been important, but a lot of people are recognizing how important it is right now.”

Destroying Lies One By One

Mr. Tapper has been toying with the idea of writing a novel since college, and wrote one in his 20s that was never published. About a decade ago, he came up with the idea for a political thriller. He considered setting the story in colonial times or in the present day, and eventually settled on 1954, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was whipping up a panic about communism.

“The Hellfire Club” opens as a freshman Republican congressman, Charlie Marder, wakes up in Washington’s Rock Creek Park near a wrecked car after a night of drinking with the chairman of the House appropriations committee, with no memory of how he got there. A World War II veteran, Marder quickly made enemies on Capitol Hill when he tried to cut funding to a company that made defective gas masks for soldiers and caused the death of a man in his unit in France. Soon, he’s caught up in a larger conspiracy involving a secret society called the Hellfire Club.

Mr. Tapper, a political history junkie, had long been fascinated by the Eisenhower era, and filled in gaps in his knowledge by doing extensive research. He combed through newspaper archives and listened to TV and radio broadcasts from the era, and studied Congressional Quarterly Almanacs, reports from Senate subcommittees and transcripts from hearings on the Hill.


Jack Tapper is a huge political history buff as seen in this detail from his office at CNN.

Lexey Swall for The New York Times

Famous historical figures pop up regularly in the narrative, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, Jack and Bob Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, McCarthy and McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, who later became one of President Trump’s lawyers and stands out as one of the novel’s most memorable villains. “Cohn was such a vivid and nasty, but brilliant guy that I wanted to play that out a little bit,” Mr. Tapper said. “The idea that Roy Cohn years later would be the mentor of our current president was not the reason I did that, but it was interesting.”

Some of the more outlandish moments in the novel are grounded in historical fact, including one where McCarthy eats a stick of butter to prevent a hangover, and another scene in which a group of Puerto Rican nationalists shoot up the Capitol, injuring five members of Congress.

Mr. Tapper sold the novel, based on sample chapters and an outline, to Little, Brown shortly after the 2016 election, and spent the next year or so writing and revising it. He mostly wrote at night, sneaking into his study after his kids, who are 8 and 10, went to bed. “He’s always working, and I can’t imagine him sleeping,” said the novelist Matthew Klam, a friend of Mr. Tapper’s, who read a draft of the novel and gave him notes.

As he researched the overheated political climate in 1954 — when the country was convulsing over the Cold War, the Red Scare, racial divisions and the McCarthy hearings — Mr. Tapper began to notice parallels to our current hyper partisan era.

“In some ways, writing about 1954 was an interesting way to write about 2018,” he said. “There are, independent of my book, echoes today of what happened in the fifties, in terms of lies, in terms of indecency, in terms of how much people are willing to stand up against lies and indecency today, not just politicians, but also in the press.”

In one scene, Mr. Tapper describes Edward R. Murrow’s on-air interrogation of McCarthy, as Murrow, “in his calm and careful way, eviscerated the Wisconsin Republican, destroying his lies one by one” — a description that conjures some of Mr. Tapper’s interviews with evasive politicians.

Mr. Tapper, who has a photo of Murrow in his office, says he sees a bigger parallel, between Trump’s attacks on the media and similar rhetoric from McCarthy, who antagonized reporters at his rallies and derided newspapers as Communist propaganda outlets.

“I worry about it eroding public trust in media and journalism,” Mr. Tapper said. “Don’t get me wrong, politicians have been lying for a long time long before Donald Trump was born, but the degree of just nonstop rage, grievance, prevarication, I haven’t seen, probably because we haven’t had a direct line from a politician’s id to the public before. If we had, who knows what we would have gotten. What would McCarthy, what would Nixon, what would Bill Clinton have done if they’d had Twitter?”

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