Jake Tapper on What Happens to People Who Get Power
This Week on the Talk Easy Podcast with Sam Fragoso
Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
To celebrate this summer’s release of his third novel, All the Demons are Here, we revisit our 2021 conversation with anchorman and author Jake Tapper (CNN)! We discuss his approach to challenging politicians on air, the danger of “both sides-ism”, the mental instability he’s come across in Washington, and why all politicians think of themselves as the “hero” of the story.
In his second novel, The Devil May Dance, Tapper candidly reflects on the power dynamics between journalists and elected officials, CNN’s role in generating the Trump phenomenon, the mistakes made in the past four years, and why he believes the new media can (and will) “rise to the challenge” of better coverage in future elections. Then, before we go, we return to Tapper’s guiding journalistic principles, a passage from the late Walter Cronkite, and why he continues doing the work he’s doing.
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From the episode:
Sam Fragoso: I wanted to go back to a diagnosis of D.C. that you wrote in 1998 for the Washington City Paper.
Jake Tapper: Uh oh.
SF: You were in your late twenties at the time, and you wrote—
Power does weird things to people. More than once, I have found myself laughing my ass off and nodding in agreement while some fading star has held forth on something I could care less about. Offended me, even. Does that make me a nitwit, a himbo waiting to happen? I think it just makes me toweringly average in Washington, just another creature who is here because this is where the national vat of power lies, and I’m sitting here waiting for my bowlful.
JT: Yeah, I mean, that was an observation about what it was like to be in my twenties in Washington D.C. When you go to parties, and you’re trying to make connections. At that point, I was very early on in my journalism career [laughs]. Like days into my full-time journalism career. I was talking about when you’re trying to climb in a very competitive industry.
SF: I offer that response purely because of that first line: “Power does weird things to people.”
JT: That is one of the subjects that I talk about in my novel. The idea of, what do people do to get close to power? In the first book, The Hellfire Club, which came out in ‘18, the theme is really, what kinds of compromises are you willing to make in order to do good?
The thing that most people need to understand about Washington D.C. is that everyone here thinks they’re a good guy. Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka… I’m not comparing these people, but just everyone. Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Matt Gaetz, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Kevin McCarthy. Every one of them thinks that they are the hero of the narrative.
The theme of my first book was— what compromises are you willing to make in order to achieve the good that you want to achieve, and at what point do those compromises start overtaking your life so much so you can’t even remember the good that you wanted to achieve?
The theme of the second book, The Devil May Dance, is— who are you willing to get in bed with? When you dance with the devil, what does that do to you? The core of it is about the JFK-Sinatra relationship. What did it do to JFK to be allied with Sinatra, what did it do to Sinatra to be allied with mobsters?
Part of what I have witnessed in my decades in Washington are these phenomenons of… they all come here thinking they’re going to do good. They’re all the heroes of their own narrative.
Jake Tapper has written two New York Times bestselling novels, The Hellfire Club and The Devil May Dance, as well as the bestselling nonfiction book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, which was turned into a critically acclaimed film in 2020. He is the lead DC anchor and chief Washington correspondent for CNN. A Dartmouth graduate and Philly native, he lives in Washington, DC, with his wife, daughter, and son.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.