Jake Tapper channels the raucous ’70s in his new novel. Remember Evel Knievel?
The CNN anchor's 'All the Demons Are Here' resonates with today's politics
“Pardon me,” Jake Tapper said. “I’m eating some celery.”
The chief Washington correspondent for CNN had just wrapped up an episode of his daily news show, “The Lead With Jake Tapper,” when he got on the phone for an interview with Jewish Insider last week. He was running on “an empty stomach,” he said, and needed a pick-me-up as he pivoted to a different subject: his latest novel, out today.
“I’m trying to be polite about it,” said the typically unflappable newsman, chewing a mouthful of celery as furtively as possible. “I’m swallowing,” he announced. “OK.”
The effort to hastily compartmentalize even something as unobtrusive as an early evening plant snack was, it seemed, a small but telling illustration of the unusual discipline required of a high-profile TV anchor who has managed to publish three novels since 2018.
“I’m a 33 1/3 record played at 45, or something,” Tapper, a veteran Washington journalist, said dryly, summarizing his work ethic with what he described as an “anachronistic reference that will elude everybody under the age of 25.”
His new book, All the Demons Are Here, is the third installment in a series of history-rich political thrillers — all written, he said, in daily increments of at least 15 minutes. Set in 1977, the novel centers on Ike and Lucy Marder, the son and daughter of a Republican senator from New York whose story is told in the first two books, which revolve, respectively, around the McCarthy hearings and Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack.
The latest narrative finds Ike, an AWOL marine, as he falls in with the pit crew of Evel Knievel, the death-defying stunt performer. Lucy, meanwhile, a journalist in Washington, D.C., has joined a new tabloid run by a character evocative of Rupert Murdoch. The siblings’ paths inevitably cross against a research-infused backdrop of the decade’s most sensational moments and characters, including serial killers, neo-Nazis, the death of Elvis Presley and the infamous sex- and drug-fueled celebrity disco scene of Studio 54 in Manhattan.
If at first glance the books seem unrelated to the subjects he covers at CNN, Tapper said there are a number of parallels to be drawn with the present political environment.
“One of the things that’s fun writing about history is finding that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Tapper told JI, invoking a line that is often attributed to Mark Twain. “One of the things that has been fun about writing about the ’50s and Joe McCarthy, or the ’60s and Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and the ’70s now with Evel Knievel and the rise of tabloid journalism, is that you can hear the rhyming and you can see the commonality in experiences. That was one of the things I wanted to explore.”
Tapper said he considered writing former President Donald Trump, who was a presence at Studio 54, into the book. “But I didn’t think that in 1977 anybody would know who he was,” he said. “If I described him as he looked and seemed in 1977, I don’t know that people would have picked up on it.”
Even without such an obvious historical referent, the book’s themes were “intentionally resonant with today,” Tapper said, citing Ike’s story as an example of “Americans who are disenchanted with government.” How, for instance, “does somebody like Evel Knievel get a following?” he said of the notoriously brutish motorcyclist, who was recognized not only as an abusive drunk but also a vicious antisemite. “What kind of grievances might lead individuals to follow someone like Evel Knievel?”
Tapper, a 54-year-old Philadelphia native, grew up in the 1970s but doesn’t recall much of the history he recounts in the book. “I remember Elvis dying, I remember disco, and that’s pretty much it,” he said. “Most of the stuff I had to research and learn about. I wasn’t even a particular Evel Knievel fan.” He was, he clarified, “much more into comic books and the Philadelphia Phillies.”
His interest in Knievel, he explained, was spurred by a friend, the late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who owns a fishing lodge in Idaho not far from where the stuntman attempted his ill-fated jump across the Snake River Canyon in 1974. “For the last three years, I’ve gone there, and he is a huge Evel Knievel fan,” Tapper said. “The lodge is decorated with a bunch of Evel Knievel memorabilia.”
Among the collectibles, he said, is a framed Daily News cover placed over a urinal in one of the lodge’s bathrooms. The front page, which makes an appearance in a bathroom scene early in the book, features dueling headlines covering Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon and — to Tapper’s amusement — Knievel’s attempted canyon jump in a steam-powered rocket. “That, I found funny,” Tapper recalled. “It also piqued my interest that the American people were so enamored with him at this time.”
“I’ve heard for years that Leonardo DiCaprio or this star or that star have the rights to his story, but he’s not really heroic, and he’s not really an antihero because there’s no twist at the end of his life where he becomes this wonderful person,” he said of Knievel. “He just always was who he was. He was much better as an antagonist for me to play with in my book.”
While Knievel’s story was largely unfamiliar to Tapper before he began writing, there were some subject areas that more directly reflected his own long-standing personal interests. With Lucy, he confirmed, “I was able to infuse her with characteristics of my own and other journalists that I thought would distinguish her and make her seem more real.” For example, “how she corrects people’s misuse of the word ironic, or uses footnotes, or anything I do that annoys everybody in my life as a journalist,” he said flatly.
“It was just fun,” he told JI. “I’m like, ‘Lucy is going to be me at my most annoying,’ and hopefully, people will enjoy that.”
In a somewhat unorthodox stylistic choice, there are footnotes scattered throughout the book, one of which provides humorous insight into a Yiddish term, “dreck,” used by a character. The footnote itself includes the word “schtickle,” to explain the character’s New York vernacular.
Tapper, who is Jewish, isn’t fluent in the language himself, even if he remembers some choice phrases from his childhood. “I have all the words that I picked up as a kid and then at Akiba Hebrew Academy,” he said, referring to the Jewish day school he attended in Philadelphia. “But I don’t speak Yiddish.”
“I just know the insult words,” he added. “Do you know what shicker is? A shicker is a drinker. It’s one of the most fun languages for insults.”
In his day job at CNN, Tapper’s Jewish background has often informed his approach, whether he is invoking a Jewish expression or raising concerns over antisemitic sentiments expressed on both sides of the aisle. But he insists that he sees himself simply as a journalist, “not as a Jewish journalist” who is speaking on behalf of the community.
“I do think that, as in every election, there are people using hate to divide and conquer in attempts to win primaries or elections, and sometimes it’s pretty explicit and sometimes it’s more code words, and it’s just something that I keep an eye out for,” he said. “But it’s not just about Jews. It’s about any number of groups. I think I’m probably more outspoken about racism and sexism just because there’s more of it that I see. But I certainly don’t hold back when I see antisemitism.”
He said it has been “dispiriting” to see that antisemitism has, in recent years, become “more acceptable in the name of people thinking it’s rebellious.” Though he never imagined that antisemitism “would go away,” he said, “I did think it would become less acceptable as we kept going as a country.”
The CNN journalist is also keeping his eye on developments in Israel, which he has covered on his show. In February, for instance, he aired a newsy interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netnyahu about, among other things, his government’s effort to promote a controversial judicial overhaul that has spurred mass protests across the Jewish state.
“That’s a big story,” Tapper said. “It’s a very important story for our national and international audiences, and we’ll continue to cover it. I definitely hope to interview Netanyahu again, and I look forward to it — hopefully next time in the United States, because that’s a long flight.”
Tapper was particularly eager to highlight such reporting as CNN now emerges from a tumultuous period culminating last month in the high-profile ouster of Chris Licht, the network’s former chairman and CEO, whose approach to news had resulted in sagging staff morale and declining ratings. “It has been distressing that there’s been so much coverage of the palace intrigue and the media criticism and the like,” Tapper said. “I understand why, but it’s just been distracting, I think, for people who are working really hard to just do our jobs of journalism.”
“Right now, as I’m talking to you, I’m looking at a clip on my TV of Erin Burnett in Kiev interviewing Volodomyr Zelensky, and that’s what I want the focus to be when it comes to CNN,” he told JI last week. “I feel like we’re in a better place now where we’re focused more on just the job of journalism,” he said. “I’m very proud of the shows I do and the company I work for, so it’s always good to be getting attention for the journalism and not for controversies caused by things out of my control.”
As for his side projects, Tapper remains hard at work. He said he is already writing a fourth novel on the Marder family, set in the 1980s, while plugging away at a nonfiction book about what he described broadly as “an investigation into a terrorist.”
For now, he is focusing on both projects. “I just have to figure out which one I want to do next.”