Jake Tapper doesn’t seem to get rattled easily. He’s got a TV anchor’s unflappable poise and immovable hair, and radiates an almost eerie calm when a dozen explosive stories break during his daily CNN show. He’s weathered relentless online attacks from the right for his interrogations of Trump administration officials, and seemed unruffled when the president attacked him as a “CNN flunky” on Twitter. (Tapper retweeted the message, with an eye-roll emoji.)
But during a recent interview at CNN’s Washington headquarters, Tapper confessed he was feeling nervous.
On Tuesday, he’s publishing his first novel, “The Hellfire Club,” a political thriller set in 1954. It’s an ambitious debut, a meticulously researched work of historical fiction with a byzantine plot punctuated by explosive, Dan Brown-esque twists: a shootout at the Capitol, blackmail, murder, corruption, a stolen dossier, a terrorist attack at the House of Representatives and a top secret society made up of senior lawmakers, lawyers, chief executives and lobbyists, whose elite members engage in absinthe-fueled debauchery and other unsavory acts.
Tapper has spent the past four years working on the novel — a seeming eternity for someone whose metabolism is attuned to the wild gyrations of the 24-hour news cycle, during one of the most volatile and unpredictable eras in the nation’s political history. And now that his book is about to come out, he’s feeling jittery.
“It’s nerve wracking," Tapper, said sitting at his desk in his office, an elaborately decorated shrine to political losers that’s brimming with campaign posters (the oldest, he proudly notes, is from Henry Clay’s failed presidential run in 1844). “You tinker with it until the last possible second. I can’t pick it up without thinking, oh, I wish I could change this word.”
In about an hour, he would rush out to meet with writers and producers to plan the segments for his show, “The Lead With Jake Tapper,” knowing that by the time he went on air at 4, the days biggest news would likely be entirely different. At 6:58 that morning, Trump had savaged the network on Twitter, claiming that CNN hires only people who “are totally anti-Trump.” Tapper retweeted the message to his 1.7 million followers, adding, “This falsehood-filled tweet reminds me: @TheLeadCNN was No. 1 in cable news in the key demo for the month of March. Thanks for watching, tweeps!!!"
In other words, it was a fairly normal day for Tapper, 49, who’s become a quasi-celebrity, and occasional target, for his hard-nosed interviews and emotive forehead, which can cycle from a look of bafflement to dubious disdain and back during testy exchanges.
But while he’s used to absorbing criticism for his on-air work from anonymous Twitter trolls, his rivals at Fox News and occasionally the commander in chief, he’s surprisingly anxious about his fiction writing, which feels more personal than his broadcasts or his nonfiction books, he said.
“People are either going to like this book or they’re going to hate this book, and it’s all me one way or the other,” he said. “You write a story, you do a TV show, and if people don’t like it, well, you’re going to do it again tomorrow. This is years of work.”
Tapper has a better chance of breaking out than most debut novelists. It certainly helps to have your own TV show when you’re promoting a book, and Tapper will be plugging it far and wide, with planned appearances on Ellen DeGeneres, “CBS This Morning,” ABC’s “The View,” on late night with Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Conan O’Brien, and on CNN shows hosted by Wolf Blitzer and Fareed Zakaria.
He’s gotten a warm reception from some big name thriller writers, including David Baldacci, James Patterson, Alafair Burke and Harlan Coben, who called the novel “provocative and timely.”
But even with all the hype, Tapper faces a difficult hurdle: How can any work of political fiction, no matter how riveting, compete with the soap opera unfolding daily during one of the most scandal-packed epochs in American politics?
“We’re living through a bizarre era, it’s no question,” Tapper said. “What is actually going on seems so over the top that any producer would reject it.”
In some ways, writing fiction provided an escape from the melodrama of daily political news. “It was a relief from covering nonfiction, being able to control it, being able to make it up,” he said.
‘Speaking Truth to Crazy’
Before he was a cable news fixture, Tapper wanted to be a filmmaker or a cartoonist.
He grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a pediatrician and a nurse, and went to Dartmouth, where he studied history and visual art. After graduating, he enrolled in film school in California, but dropped out and began working for a family friend who was running for Congress.
He quickly realized he hated politics, which he found ugly and dispiriting, and began working for a public relations firm and freelancing as a journalist, writing for The Washington Post, the Washington City Paper and The New York Times Magazine. He bounced around, and eventually got a job at ABC, where he covered politics and became the network’s senior White House correspondent after the 2008 election.
Along the way, he wrote three nonfiction books, including “The Outpost,” about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
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 Tapper’s “Trade Wars” cartoon, a Star Wars-themed spoof that depicted Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as Yoda.).
While 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 Trump, in February 2017, Tapper could at times barely conceal his disdain as he castigated 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 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
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 Sen. 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.
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.
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 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,” 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.
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 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 — 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 ‘50s, 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, 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 Tapper’s interviews with evasive politicians.
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,” 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?”