The CNN anchor spoke about his new book, “The Hellfire Club,” and the media’s coverage of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
By Kristen Mitchell
Jake Tapper, CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent, said while researching the 1950s and McCarthyism for his new novel, he started to see strong parallels to today’s political environment. Most importantly, he saw that history will remember who failed to show “moral courage.
Mr. Tapper talked about his debut political thriller, “The Hellfire Club,” at Jack Morton Auditorium on Wednesday. The novel follows Charlie Marder, a fictional congressman who uncovers a conspiracy at the highest levels of government in 1950s Washington, D.C. The Mr. Marder character lives in a world of real American leaders including Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Joe McCarthy and Robert Taft, a conservative Senate majority leader who thought he could keep “a foot in both camps” during Mr. McCarthy’s rise, Mr. Tapper said.
Mr. Taft did not rebuke Mr. McCarthy’s intense investigation into suspected communists in the U.S., and his failure to lead became his legacy.
“That’s just a note for people in this town about standing up for what is right and wrong,” he said.
Mr. Tapper read an excerpt from the book and took questions from the audience about his writing process, covering President Donald Trump and the media’s role in modern politics. The event was co-presented by Politics and Prose.
Mr. Marder was appointed to Congress with big ideas, but just like in the real world, he was forced to make compromises. Mr. Tapper said he wanted his character to illustrate a phenomenon he’s seen play out over and over again when good people of any political party come to Capitol Hill.
“You see the compromises come and eventually... you do see a lot of people just selling off little bits of their soul until there is nothing left,” Mr. Tapper said. “You take one step into the swamp, and then another, and then another, and the next thing you know, you’re up to your eyeballs in swamp water.”
Mr. Tapper started writing and researching his book during Barack Obama’s presidency. He carved out at least 15 minutes a day to write and worked with an outline of where he wanted the story to go. In his research, Mr. Tapper noted similarities in how the media covered both Mr. Trump’s rise and Mr. McCarthy’s rise. Journalists covered Mr. McCarthy without much analysis early on, publishing his baseless smears and inflammatory rhetoric without challenging the facts. The media also over-covered Mr. Trump’s political ascension in 2015, he said.
Mr. Tapper credits Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, for acknowledging the wall-to-wall coverage of Mr. Trump’s early primary rallies was too much. He wishes Fox News and MSNBC leadership would come out and say the same.
Mr. Tapper sees himself as one of the tougher journalists who covered Mr. Trump as a candidate.
During a June 2016 interview, Mr. Tapper pushed Mr. Trump on his assertion that a Hispanic judge could not fairly preside over a case against Trump University because the candidate touted plans to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It was the last time he would interview the future president.
“Could I have been tougher? Yeah, I’m sure that there were times I could have been tougher, but I feel like I did a lot of tough interviews,” he said. “I feel like if my children study this era the way I studied the ’50s, I think I’m going to look OK.”
Mr. Tapper criticized Mr. Trump’s attacks on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former aide with a history of substance abuse who spoke negatively about him in an interview, and a reporter with a physical disability. Mr. Trump’s indecency has a negative impact on the public, Mr. Tapper said.
The president’s negative opinions of the news media, including a particular disdain for CNN, have contributed to a growing media distrust among Republican voters. Still, Mr. Tapper encouraged young people to pursue journalism. Journalists were reporting on Washington, D.C., long before Mr. Trump arrived, and they will be here long after he’s gone.
Opinions change over time, he said, and the tone set by leaders makes a difference.
“We just need to keep doing what we’re doing and hope that something changes,” Mr. Tapper said. “Whether it’s attitudes or we just have to wait it out until we don’t have a president who is constantly berating and attacking the press.”