Carlson has a good eye for detail, and that helps him recognize the odd characteristics in people that make for good vignettes. He catches Bill O’Reilly blowing hard (“I’ve almost been killed three times,” Carlson quotes O’Reilly, dubiously), Barney Frank in a shrewish mode (“I think you’re filled with hatred,” Frank sneers at him), and Jerry Falwell embracing his brothers in publicity hoghood, Alan Dershowitz and Geraldo Rivera (“he’s a brilliant fellow.”) He tells about the night Jim Traficant came on the show drunk, affectionately reveals that Bill Press, his former co-host on a show called “The Spin Room,” seemed to operate a restaurant plugola scheme, and offers a brief but spot-on parody of the bombastic Chris Matthews. He calls Karen Hughes a liar who would make “a fascinating chapter in an abnormal psychology textbook” because she accused him of inventing the words he quoted George W. Bush saying in a magazine profile.

This delectable candor, unfortunately, makes it all the more disappointing on those occasions when Carlson, making like Sally Rand doing her fan dance, throws a thin veil of discretion over his tales. He tells the story of a night during the adjudication of the 2000 election when he and Press hastily conducted their show from a park outside the Supreme Court. Throwing the show together on the run, they dragooned a congressman passing by to appear. “Just don’t say you found me hanging around the park,” says the congressman, whom Carlson says is widely known to be gay in the Capital but is rather more closeted at home. Carlson also talks about a “senior member of Congress” who is one of Carlson’s “favorite politicians,” who is “witty, smart, decent, and loves dogs” and who is also “completely bonkers,” as evidenced by his deeply held belief that JFK was killed in a coup d’tat by rogue CIA operatives. He talks about, but does not name, the TV show host who insists that everyone on his show appear to be shorter than he. Carlson also tells about the night he had dinner with a friend who is also an unnamed TV host. As they were leaving the restaurant, the two men stopped to introduce themselves to two women at a nearby table. During the ensuing conversation, Carlson’s friend proceeded, unbidden and unpermitted, to pick the walnuts off one woman’s desert, then ostentatiously lick his fingers.

Why keep these identities a secret? Perhaps it’s a publicity stunt; Carlson packs in just enough clues in each anecdote that some enterprising reporter for The Washington Post’s Outlook section could easily find out the identities. More likely, it’s just a matter of trying to have his cake and tell everybody about it, too. At one point Carlson argues that it’s pretty easy to be a newsman; far from having to pry secrets out of people, most just can’t shut up. “Most people can hardly wait to reveal their secrets,” he writes at one point with a certain condescension. You have to think Carlson has simply succumbed to the urge to blab, careful to hold up a branch or two to camouflage himself. Whatever the reason, one wishes we had ordered another round of martinis and stayed on the train until Boston.

One of the best things about Carlson is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He describes his entrance into television as something of an accident, and rolls his eyes at the haphazard ways some of his programs were produced. He admits that he is often, on-air, “an inappropriate laugher,” and cheerfully reports the comments of a New York magazine editor who told him the camera angles made him look “freakish,” like “an ugly man in the funhouse mirror.” (Tina?)

This lack of seriousness also seems to affect his views on politics and on his profession as well. He’s pretty conservative, but not very self-righteous about it. He thinks it’s kind of funny that red-meat righties like Tom DeLay and Bob Novak say that he’s “not a real Republican.” What he doesn’t seem to be is rabid in the way we know a good, grown-up talk show host must be. There’s plenty Carlson doesn’t like about liberals, but what he seems to dislike most is that they’ve lost their sense of humor. Neither is Carlson pious about being a journalist. He rather blithely admits that recklessness in a source is a good thing, that nuance is the enemy of good television, that newsmen love news no matter who it hurts. He says the best advice he ever got about being on television came from Larry King, and it had nothing to do with bow ties. “The trick is to care,” King told him, “but not too much. Give a shit–but not really.” Carlson has a good eye and a good ear. Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites is pleasant entertainment, but who knows, one day it might grow up to be a great comic novel about Washington.

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.