HH: My guest this morning is a familiar face, but from a different network. Jake Tapper, of course, is joining me. He is the host of his own show, of course, and the author of this terrific new book, The Hellfire Club. Jake and I have worked together before. He was the quarterback, and I split wide right with Dana Bash a couple of the presidential debates. But little did I know he was really Alan Drury on the side. The Hellfire Club, Jake Tapper, welcome.
JT: Thanks so much.
HH: Congratulations. This is terrific.
JT: It means a lot to me that you like it, because this book is in your wheelhouse.
HH: Yes, it is.
JT: Communism, the McCarthyism, the 50s, Eisenhower, whom I know you and I share a reverence for.
JT: So that means a lot to me.
HH: I get to ask the question, too, that connects to my radio show. Was Alger Hiss a Soviet spy, Jake Tapper?
JT: Yes, absolutely he was. There was a lot of evidence that he was, and Whittaker Chambers had the goods.
HH: Okay, so let’s set this up for people. It is Washington, 1954. You’ve got a freshman Congressman who’s come to town via an appointment. I’m not giving away any MacGuffins. They’re all through the book. A thriller interview, you don’t want to give anything away.
HH: Why did you pick early Ike/late McCarthy as the era in which to set your first political thriller?
JT: Well, first of all, because even though we think of it in terms of popular culture as a time of serenity and benign America, it was an economic boom, Eisenhower was a pleasing presence. As you know, it was a time of real menace beneath that veneer.
HH: Very sinister.
JT: Very sinister, and you had all sorts of competing groups. The communists were legitimately trying to infiltrate the United States government. At the same time, you had people reacting too harshly. The McCarthyites, who without evidence, would smear and attack individuals based on no evidence. You had Eisenhower trying to negotiate this and figure out how to protect the world from, protect the United States from both. I feel like the 50s is such a rich era. It’s so wonderful, but it gets lost because it’s sandwiched between World War II and the 1960s, so people don’t really pay enough attention to it.
HH: Well, I thought you had accumulated a list of things that you were going to get into a book somehow, and managed to do it.
HH: Sir Frederick Dashwood, I’ve been to the caves, because they’re next to Hughenden…
JT: Oh, you’ve been there?
HH: …which is Disraeli’s home which I wanted to tour in England. So I knew about Dashwood. The Hellfire Club is a real deal. Explain as much as you want of what…
HH: …the predicate for the book’s premise, secret societies in D.C., is.
JT: So, yeah, the book is about, in a lot of ways, secret societies in D.C. And this ruins nothing for people. There was a real Hellfire Club.
JT: …in the 1700s in England, and it was a place where rich men would engage in very debaucherous behavior, too debaucherous for your polite audience.
HH: We do not want to talk about what they did in those caves.
JT: No, they did a lot of, yes, it was very debaucherous. It was coed, if that gives a hint to anybody.
JT: But it was also a place where they forged alliances and would do deals. And there was almost a mutually assured destruction, because everybody had secrets on everybody else. And I thought what a wonderful concept when I learned about it like more than a decade ago. I wonder if, what would happen if something like that were in D.C. And maybe there is. I don’t know of it, so I made one up.
HH: But there are lots of clubs in D.C., and so the premise is believable to begin with. And the debauchery, the boozing in the 50s is real.
JT: Well, that is real. That’s real.
HH: That is, that’s, yeah, well, I thought wow, Jake has been out in some parties that I haven’t been to. But on the one hand, you’ve got Ambassador Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, McCarthy.
HH: That’s your alliance of ill repute.
JT: That’s one alliance, yeah.
HH: Over here, you’ve got Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers.
HH: And the Democrats are kind of not around at this point, because the Republicans are running Congress. And you have this reptilian group of appropriators as well. So there’s, some things are different, some things are very much the same.
JT: Well, I mean, the book can be read in a lot of different ways, but one of the things is the swamp that President Trump railed against on the campaign trail, this is the swamp. This is the worst possible manifestation of the swamp – unaccountable government business dealings, people doing whatever they want to do regardless of how it will affect the American people. It is the personification of the swamp. And as swampy as D.C. is today, and it’s pretty swampy, it was much worse back in 1954, much worse before there was the kind of transparency we have.
HH: And restraints on Hoover, and restraints on McCarthy.
JT: Absolutely. Right, absolutely. Like I mean, think about the restraints that there are in the debates over James Comey or Christopher Wray or Bob Mueller, etc. Back then, there was just J. Edgar Hoover, and he could do whatever he wanted.
HH: Let me also pick up on something, you did it very well, you’ve covered veterans a lot, your first book, The Outpost. And the movie, The Best Years Of Your Life, caught the difficulty of the World War II generation which you bring up. Especially when veterans see other veterans getting praise for their heroism, you note that there’s this mixture of admiration and envy and resentment, and this returning veteran has a lot of veterans in Congress. I really thought about that. They were everywhere. They all had war stories.
JT: That’s right. So Charlie Marder, the main character, is a World War II veteran. And he was in France right after D-Day. And he’s trying to grapple with some of the things he saw in France. This doesn’t spoil anything. One of the first things he wants to do, this is in the second chapter, is there was a company that made gas masks that were shoddy. And as you know, there was a lot of shoddy workmanship in World War II.
HH: Yeah, true.
JT: Truman, when he was a senator, set up a commission to try to look into some of the companies that profiteered or didn’t send their best metal or whatever overseas. And Charlie’s trying to stop, Charlie’s trying to stop that rubber company from getting any government contracts. And then he kind of finds an alliance with this group of other veterans – Democrats, Republicans, some of them real people, some of them…
HH: One of them a fighter pilot from the Tuskegee Airmen. Great touch.
JT: That’s right. Yeah.
HH: Great touch.
JT: One of the, there were only, there was only in real life one African-American Congressman. I made two.
JT: I created a character named Isaiah Street, who was a Tuskegee Airman. But there were other ones there, and all the veterans are there, and they share an experience. But they also, they’re jealous of each other. One of them gets profiled in This Is Your Life, and they’re all kind of jealous of him. And you know, it’s a mixed group. But there were a ton of veterans, obviously, in the 50s, because they, because so many great men fought in the 1940s.
HH: There’s also, like I say, I knew about the Puerto Ricans shooting up Congress, but I hadn’t really thought about it until I read The Hellfire Club.
HH: And The Hellfire Club does a wonderful job of weaving it in. I’m not high on the ponies, but my wife’s going to love the book because of the Maryland ponies. But at the end, or not, in the middle, you make great use of the statues in Congress to tell the history of America. It’s kind of like a civics lesson. Have you been keeping notes on this forever? And how did you, when did you write this? You’re busy.
JT: Well, so there is this discussion between Isaiah Street, the African-American character, and Charlie Marder, the white character, because Isaiah Street is just standing in Statuary Hall looking up at people who were part of the confederacy. And they have a debate, and Charlie, who is a history professor, is trying to explain well, you know, back in the 1700s and the 1800s, it was prevalent thought. And Isaiah Street’s having none of it. And I thought that was kind of a resonant issue, too, when we discuss the confederate statues today. In terms of when I wrote it, I’ve been thinking about this for more than a decade, and I did an outline about three years ago, four years ago, and I would just, I’m just the kind of guy that I would write at least 15 minutes a day, sometimes an hour a day. If I was on a plane, if I was on a train, if I was in a waiting room at a doctor’s office, I was just always taking any time I could. And you know, you’re a very prolific guy. That adds up.
HH: This is hard. I mean, dialogue is hard. I’ve got to ask you, is President Trump, the warp of President Trump, on everything, because he attracts, he has a gravitational pull on every event right now. Did it change The Hellfire Club?
JT: It probably, his election probably changed about a page, page and a half. I probably talked a little bit about McCarthy through a 2018 lens a little bit more than I would have, had Hillary Clinton won. But it didn’t change it significantly. The things about McCarthy that I write about – lying and smearing, that has happened before President Trump. And though I think he does some of it, that will happen after President Trump.
HH: And we’ve got a minute left. Eisenhower emerges as a very important figure in this book. And are there any Eisenhowers left? Is there anyone in the Democratic Party who can do to their extreme, or the Republican Party to our extreme, I’m a Republican, that Eisenhower was able to do to McCarthy?
JT: I think, I have hope. I have hope that there is, and I think that there are Eisenhower Republicans waiting in the wings, and we’ll see. But Eisenhower, I think, kind of an underrated president. I mean, he’s usually in the top ten, so it’s tough to feel too bad for him. But really, for his time, and obviously he’s a flawed man from the lens of 2018, but really for his time, he brought serenity, and he had a moral clarity that would be welcomed today.
HH: Oh, he would. And The Hellfire Club brings it out. Jake Tapper, congratulations. I know there’s a sequel coming. It’s built up in here.
JT: I hope.
HH: I hope.
JT: I hope.
HH: And I hope it sells and sells and sells. But Alan Drury and Fletcher Neville have a successor. Congratulations, Jake Tapper.
JT: Thank you so much, Hugh. I appreciate it.
End of interview.