CNN’s Jake Tapper Talks New Novel and Why the Clintons Still "Owe Monica Lewinsky an Apology"

Jake Tapper has spent the last several years immersed in the 1950s, and it has him thinking about the current state of our politics. The CNN anchor just published his first novel, The Hellfire Club (Little, Brown and Company, April 24), a 1950s-set political thriller about secret societies, McCarthyism and how Washington compromises event the best-intentioned politician. Tapper, 49, who grew up in Philadelphia and attended Dartmouth, talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the book, how studying McCarthyism has informed his view of today’s political climate, calling out the president’s lies on TV and why the Clintons still owe Monica Lewinsky an apology.

Talk about the genesis of the book.

The first inspiration was learning about the actual Hellfire Club in the 1700s in England, finding out Ben Franklin went there and how it worked, having mutually shared destructive info on each other. That was the catalyst. I’ve always been fascinated by the '50s, I parked it there and that seemed to work. The stuff that is resonant about Trump came later — people coming to Washington to try to do good and being forced to compromise bit by bit. The Trump stuff echoed a lot. History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. And you can't help but read about McCarthyism and hear echoes of today, in terms of lies and people defending it and standing up against it.

Americans seems to have a love affair with secret societies. Why?

They were part of our birth. The Sons of Liberty was a secret society. They're all over. Driving around D.C., there's a giant Masonic lodge. There’s Bohemian Grove. We know they exist and there’s little known about them. I think there’s something in the American character that’s wary of any official explanation because we’ve been lied to so often. Whether it's Watergate or the Kennedy assassination. There have been conspiracies. Iran-Contra was a conspiracy within the government. I think it's part of the American mystique.

Having just spent a lot of time immersed in the '50s and McCarthyism, has that changed how you feel about our current situation?

I think there are periods in this country when behavior is abhorrent: McCarthy, Watergate, Bill Clinton. It's just a question of how the checks and balances in the American system work and how leaders stand up to it or don't stand up to it. The president says things that aren't true and smears people, and there's a part of the country that likes it or grows used to it. Reading about McCarthy made me feel that, OK, we’ve been here before and we’ve survived it. We see the media making the same mistakes today — not calling out the lies enough and not standing up for the truth enough. [Maine Republican Senator] Margaret Smith stands up against McCarthyism [in 1950]. The Senate doesn't follow her lead until the end of 1954. Murrow doesn't really go after him until the beginning of 1954. That’s a long lag time. I feel like we’re making a lot of the same mistakes.

Lately I’ve noticed how much you’ve described the president’s words as “lies.” That’s a tough word for journalist to use. How did you come to the decision to use it?

It was months into covering candidate Trump that I realized I had been staking out a position and standing up against lies and calling them lies. It wasn't like I made a policy change. I thought, "I can take a position on facts and smears because that's decency." One of the things that's concerned me is having an 8- and a 10-year-old — what are they going to see when they Google this period? That's part of it, and combined with me reading about people back in the '50s. Senator Robert Taft — a leader of the Republican party, ran for president and lost to Eisenhower in primaries, but a very respected man — tried to straddle what McCarthy was doing. He didn't do it but also did not condemn it. Reading this history and seeing that Taft died [in 1953]. Now his legacy, a big part of it, is that he didn't stand up to McCarthy. And it made me think about how others are treating this period. Trump went on Twitter and made fun of one of his former aides for having alcohol and drug dependency issues. What kind of message does that send to all the millions of people he's trying to help through the opioid crisis?

Many networks — your network included — gave Trump lots of free and uncritical coverage early on. Was that a mistake?

When I was researching my novel, I read a great bio of McCarthy written by Jack Anderson. One of the chapters was about how the media gave rise to McCarthy. They reprinted his lies and smears as if there didn't exist such a thing as empirical fact, as if it was not our responsibility at the time to check out what he was talking about. It was like, "Wow, we learned nothing." My boss [Jeff Zucker] has already stated publicly that he thinks, in retrospect, CNN covered too many Trump rallies, start to finish, with no fact checking. We weren’t the only ones doing it. NBC and Fox were doing it. But Jeff was the only one who acknowledged it was a mistake, and I think CNN has learned from it. I think standing up for facts and decency is important, and we should've done more of it back in 2015 and 2016.

We are coming up on the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s impeachment, which is when you first started working as a journalist. You wrote about having gone on a date with Monica Lewinsky. How has your view of impeachment evolved over the years?

I think at the time, because I knew Monica Lewinsky, I had a different take on it. I knew her as a person. People forget Clinton was denying it. Taxpayer dollars were spent on people going out and lying to the American people and trying to destroy her. If that blue dress didn't exist, he’d be denying it today. If there weren't DNA evidence that proved it were true, he'd be denying it. That was a story that I felt I came at from a different place. I thought, "This woman is young and naive, she wouldn’t make this up — and the media is trying to destroy her." So, I don't think I’ve changed my view on that. I think the zeitgeist came around to my view. Now you see people acknowledging that. Look at this dynamic today: Al Franken, you can't compare what he did to Bill Clinton, [but he resigned]. My opinion about her and that scandal is the same as 1988.

Are you still in touch with Lewinsky?

I talked to her a few weeks ago.

How do you think she’s handled the notoriety over the years?

I think she’s handled it incredibly — and what she went through, the Clintons owe her an apology. They treated her poorly. She had legal bills. It is amazing to me how much, when there is a scandal like this, how much the man is able to dust himself off and move on with his life and the woman is stuck like a mosquito [in Amber]. How unfair that is.

My first memory of you as a journalist is that story about your date with Lewinsky. How did that piece come about?

I met her at a going-away party. That was the first time you heard of me but it's been a lot of years. I’d been talking to the City Paper [in Washington]. They offered me a job. On my way back from vacation the story broke. I couldn't believe it. I called David [Carr], the editor, to talk about the job and he asked what did I think about the news and I said, “I went out with her three weeks ago.” It was going to happen anyway. To me it doesn't seem to have played a role in my career, per se, but I don't know.

I just learned that you spent a semester at USC’s film school before dropping out and coming to Washington. Why did you leave and do you ever have It's a Wonderful Life thoughts about if you had stayed?

I loved film and I’m a big film buff. I found myself sitting in film studies class listening to the Clarence Thomas hearings, not paying attention to what they were saying about lighting or whatever. That made me realize that I don't belong here and I belong back East. I didn't have the love of the industry. I wasn't psyched to get a job opening letters and answering phones and working my way up in the industry. It took me years to realize I wanted to be in journalism. I do sometimes wonder if I stayed at USC and finished the program.

Between film school and journalist you worked as a congressional press secretary. What was that like?

I hated politics. Watching people compromise themselves bit by bit. Everyone should work in politics to see how horrible it is. It's not like I wanted to work in politics. I don't have a job after I dropped out of film school. I moved to Washington to be a press secretary [for Pennsylvania Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies]. I was awful at it. And really disillusioned by what it was.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.