It Came from San Francisco

The resistible rise of Tucker Carlson.

tucker carlson
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The name Tucker (it’s gender-neutral, n.b.) comes from the Old English tucian, meaning to torment, treat ill, afflict, harass, vex. Tuckers of all genders earned this sobriquet by making our clothes comfortable—through soaking, beating, and trampling fabric before we put it against our skin.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

That’s a true name-is-destiny definition for the Tucker under discussion here, the recently unchained bête of the left and pet of the right, with his endearingly canine moniker and golden retriever–like hair, a stray for now, but surely not for long. And what’s the lineage of this creature? Alas, I can tell you, because it is my own.

Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson and I both were born at San Francisco’s Children’s Hospital in May of adjacent years (him: ’69; me: ’70), making our origins as near to geographically identical as possible. I didn’t know him, but I do know him.

We both know how to tie bow ties, and we share a great many ties—not just to S.F. but to bucolic Petaluma, in Sonoma County, where our grandfathers George McNear and Hayes Wilsey, respectively, were landowners and connected through the marriage of close relations to the McNear and Swanson clans. The latter family, per a 1979 New York Times story, “gave America the TV Dinner.” (Read: the family that destroyed family.)

Both of our fathers were orphans. We share close family connections to U.S. ambassadors and Protestant ministers. We each left California for New England prep schools and stayed on the East Coast, finding ourselves living in New Jersey at low points in our trajectories. We were each disinherited. In his case, unsuccessfully, but in a manner no less painful.

Carlson came to the wider public’s attention in 2004, when he was cohosting CNN’s since-canceled debate program Crossfire and, in an exchange that went viral, Jon Stewart berated him with the rhetorical question: “How old are you? And you wear a bow tie? So this is theater. Look, I’m not suggesting that you aren’t a smart guy, because those things are not easy to tie, but you’re doing theater when you should be doing debate.... It’s not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.”

If you find it difficult to merge your conceptions of Tucker Carlson and San Francisco, consider the fact that he is not a mere Nancy Pelosi–level fan of the Grateful Dead but listens to African drumming to chill out and considers Jerry Garcia a “genius.” (A photo of him standing beside Garcia holds pride of place in his studio.) But another kind of San Franciscan—hidebound, wealthy, well-connected—isn’t as familiar to the uninitiated, who think S.F. is the most liberal town in America. There’s a secret, equally powerful strain of prejudice, clubbiness, and institutionalized cruelty there. As a teenager in the 1980s, I knew prominent people who thought nothing of calling Mexican men “boys,” collecting Nazi memorabilia, and making occasional use of the n-word—despite sharing their dinner tables and political affiliations with Black intellectuals and politicians.

They are still there. My father, who was barred (or “blackballed,” to use his word) from one of the city’s power institutions for, as he told me, being raised in a Jewish household and marrying (his second time out) a Jewish woman, had no qualms about joining that same organization when he had finally accrued the social standing to overcome all resistance. He introduced me into this circle when he married his fourth wife, whose blue-blood bona fides offered him a clear path to social advancement. In this, he was similar to Carlson’s own father, whose rise through marriage to a Swanson was accompanied by a swerve to the right. My dad and stepmother doled out political donations to Democrats and Republicans without discrimination. Just so long as they knew, as Dad liked to say, “what side their bread is buttered on.” In short, San Francisco is run by powerful people who believe in nothing but themselves.

As the novelist and San Francisco native Rachel Kushner put it in The Mars Room: “There was evil coming out of the ground there.”

Carlson seems to be both from this city and utterly at war with it. More than at war, in fact. He has a vendetta against everything San Francisco represents to the 99 percent of Americans who don’t know better and is completely a creature of the place. It’s a civil war being waged in public but also inside one man.

As every profile of Carlson notes, his mother, the sculptor Lisa McNear Lombardi, abandoned her two children, Tucker and his younger brother, Buckley, giving their muckraker journalist father, Dick, full custody of the boys when Tucker was six. Carlson never saw his mother again. While she joined the coterie of that decade’s most famous wearer of bow ties, David Hockney, he was raised in full-bore masculinity by a man whose most cited journalistic stunt was outing a trans woman for winning a tennis tournament. Lombardi left her kids to spend the rest of her life in gay bohemia. As Rosebuds go, it’s pretty on the nose.

Is it any surprise that Carlson’s college yearbook lists him as a member of the “Dan White Society”?

Carlson once said of his mother, “I bitterly hated her.” (He used strikingly similar language in private texts about Donald Trump.)

Lombardi died in 2011 and never got to see her son master the right-wing universe. By default, Carlson and his brother each inherited a third of her estate, despite the later emergence of a will that not just disowned them but, in a statement no longer than a tweet, disowned and insulted them: “I LEAVE MY SONS TUCKER SWANSON MCNEAR CARLSON AND BUCKLEY SWANSON PECK CARLSON ONE DOLLAR EACH; $1.00. EACH.” This document, adjudicated to be genuine, came to light only after it was too late to enforce it.

Though the most intriguing part of this handwritten document, which apparently had been stuck in a book, is this: “I LEAVE ALL OF MY EARTHLY GOODS AND POSSESSIONS TO MY WIFE MY HUSBAND.”

In a 2019 podcast interview with Adam Carolla, Carlson spoke at length about what his mother’s abandonment had done to him: “I always said to my wife for 25 years, I said the one thing I’m worried about is when I get a call from someone saying, ‘They found your mother’s body….’ And it’s going to wreck my life, and this whole facade that I’ve built over the years of, like, [a] normal person living [a] normal life will just implode.”

But, he went on, “it didn’t really affect me…. I think the lesson is, if you live like a normal, if you just pretend to be a normal person long enough, if you pretend that you’ve conquered your problems over time and act like you grew up in a perfectly happy Mormon family in Idaho Falls, if you act like that for 30 years, it becomes true…. I actually know I’m healthier than I used to be because I pretended to be.”

Back in 2005, I took the opposite tack, writing a memoir that hid nothing about my family or myself. For me, this wasn’t a way to heal, or a form of therapy, but a way to stand up as my own person and claim an identity separate from my family’s. I’m proud to say that one member of San Francisco’s old guard called me “a traitor to his class.” And so my life as my own person began. To quote Carlson’s first statement in the wake of being fired from Fox News: “When honest people say what’s true, calmly and without embarrassment, they become powerful.”

Tucker, listen to yourself, man.•

Sean Wilsey is the author of a memoir, Oh the Glory of It All; an essay collection, More Curious; and, in collaboration with the actress Molly Shannon, the memoir Hello, Molly! 
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