CNN's Jake Tapper on his new book, his Manitoban cousins and his tweets about Canada's slow vaccine rollout
In an interview with Q’s Tom Power, Tapper talks art, politics and his Canadian connection
In his day job as the chief Washington correspondent for CNN, Jake Tapper can't change the world — he can only report on it. But as a novelist, Tapper can escape politics for a moment to hang out with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack in the 1960s.
The CNN anchor just released the sequel to his bestselling thriller, The Hellfire Club. His stylish new novel, The Devil May Dance, takes his characters to Hollywood to investigate Sinatra and his entourage at the behest of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Tapper joined Q host Tom Power to discuss the book, his Canadian connection and what life is like in the newsroom these days.
Here is some of their conversation.
How are you?
Good! How are you doing, Tom? Let me say hi to all my cousins in the Manitoba area.
Where in Manitoba is your crowd?
Winnipeg and surrounding. My mom and her parents were from that area, so I have a whole bunch of cousins and such.
Last time you were on, we talked about [The Hellfire Club].... It ends up becoming this bestseller and it ends up getting optioned. Do you feel any pressure now writing this one?
Well, I always feel pressure. I'm my own worst critic and toughest driver. I wanted this book to be better than the first. I wanted to keep improving and learn the lessons from the first one.
And then this also was a world that I don't know as well — because the first book took place in Washington, D.C., during the McCarthy era in the era of President Eisenhower. I'm obviously too young to have grown up with President Eisenhower, but I know Washington.
This one takes place in Hollywood during the Rat Pack era, and I don't know Hollywood as well…. I was a fan of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the rest, but I was less familiar with who they really were.
What made you go that way? What made you skip toward the Kennedy era?
Well, I love doing the historical fiction, but also I had heard this story, a real story … that Sinatra built out his Rancho Mirage [estate] … in expectation that [John F. Kennedy] would come and stay with him as president.
He had a helipad built, a press room and all these accoutrements, and then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy's brother, was challenged internally at the justice department by somebody who said, "You know, you want to take on organized crime, you want to take on the mafia. Meanwhile, your brother, the president, is hanging out with Sinatra, who is friends with all these mobsters." And that's a real story.
So when I heard that, I'm like, oh, perfect. That's what I'll have Charlie and Margaret — the heroes from my first book — that's what I'll have them go investigate in the second.
There's something very alluring about that time…. Even now, Sinatra is red-blooded American purity, like the ultimate good American kid. At the same time, he's connected to the mafia. What is that like for you? There must be so much to mine as a writer about that parallel.
Yeah, I mean, in the book, Charlie and Margaret are basically asked to find out how mobbed up is Sinatra really? Is he really in debt to these guys? Is he really part of their crew? Or is it just kind of, you know, an affectation? Hanging out with bad guys, but not really getting involved.
You know, the truth is Sinatra ran with some of these guys. I don't think he ever had anybody killed or anything even remotely involving that. But that said, he hung out with them, and these were horrible people. These were killers. And he went to Cuba in the '40s and performed for them — this was before the Cuban Revolution. This really was part of his world.
Again, I don't think there's necessarily any evidence that he broke any laws or anything, but he definitely hung out with some very awful monsters.
I should be clear for people listening that the book is not necessarily about Frank Sinatra…. The Church of Scientology comes up, Congress comes up, and the mafia obviously comes up. This book takes place decades before #MeToo, but it does expose a lot of the abuse that women in the entertainment industry were experiencing at the time. So how did you end up writing that into the major part of this novel?
It's interesting. I'm glad you picked up on that, Tom. When I was researching the book, I found a very obscure book by a woman that had hung out with the Rat Pack and was abused by them in a way that could happen today with any number of celebrities or stars. And that got me thinking: how glamorous was it really?
While this was all going on and I was writing this, we're in this #MeToo era where women are really standing up for themselves from a lot of hideous behavior by men in Hollywood — to this day, I mean 2021, not 1961. It got me thinking: I wonder what it was like for these women?
Tippi Hedren was on our show talking about her treatment from Alfred Hitchcock [during the filming of The Birds].... In your book, you talk so well about the reality of it for her.
I read her book. In addition to the fact that Hitchcock abused her … there was a scene towards the end of The Birds, where Tippi Hedren walks into an attic that has been burst into by the birds (spoiler alert: the birds go crazy and tear up the town), and the way they filmed that was they threw all these birds at her in real life. They threw live birds at her, and she got hurt. And so I'm like, wow, that's kind of incredible. So I had to put that in the book.
It still feels like reporting in some ways.
I mean, look, I'm a reporter at heart. I love the research and finding out these things and then bringing them to people. Normally, I do it in a non-fiction way, but through fiction, I can also tell some stories.
I put [sources] at the end of the book … just so that nerds like me who are wondering what's real, what's not real — if they haven't already made it to Google to figure it out — can skim the sources at the end and say, "Oh, wow. So Tippi Hedren really had birds thrown at her. That's incredible."
I think last time you were on, we talked about how one of your hobbies is collecting posters of presidential candidates who've lost.
Yes. I know exactly what you're wondering.
Trump-Pence: Make America Great Again, 2020. My next question was, did you get one of those yet?
I did. I got two. I'm just waiting for my office to reopen so I can put them up. Maybe I'll put them right next to the, I don't know, George Wallace or maybe Hillary Clinton. I have a collection that goes back to the 19th century of losing candidates.
How did it feel when that one came in?
Well, you know, it was a difficult era to cover…. There was such demonizing by [President Trump]: demonizing journalists, demonizing immigrants, demonizing people of colour, demonizing Democrats, demonizing any Republican who didn't agree with them [and] any Republican who raised his or her voice.
So there is a degree to which even if you remove his accomplishments from it — and there are accomplishments, no question about it. We could talk about Operation Warp Speed, we could talk about the Abraham Accords etc. — but just the poisonous atmosphere. There is less of that to deal with, and that is, I think, psychologically better for everybody.
Has your newsroom changed noticeably since?
Well, it's hard to say because it's so empty — everybody's working from home.
First of all, let me just say as an anchor, I did not get into this business to cover racist tweets. I got into the business to share stories from around the world…. So I like having space and time to have a long piece from a reporter who went to Myanmar, or who went to Ethiopia, or went to Yemen. I mean, it's nice to be able to cover news and not have to worry about focusing on the poison.
One more question on your day job…. As a Canadian, we pay so much attention to what's going on in the U.S. I mean, we watched the American election like any American probably would.
As I know from my Canadian cousins, probably with a great deal of pity. [That's] what I discern from my Canadian relatives.
The great smugness of Canada is something that we've had to take into consideration.
Oh, we love you. Stop.
It is! <br><br>I agree. <br><br>And what are the facts about Canada’s vaccine acquisition and rollout? <br><br>What facts in this <a href="https://twitter.com/paulanewtonCNN?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@paulanewtonCNN</a> piece does <a href="https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@JustinTrudeau</a> dispute?<a href="https://t.co/fNDASUXeTI">https://t.co/fNDASUXeTI</a> <a href="https://t.co/srhQULlQur">https://t.co/srhQULlQur</a>—@jaketapper
We spend so much time watching American news. It was interesting to see you tweet about Canada's vaccine rollout. It wasn't something that I had seen a lot of other American reporters do. What compelled you to do that?
Well, first of all, we have a great reporter, Paula Newton, in [Ottawa]. But during the pandemic, I started paying more attention to ancestry.com. Like I told you, my mom is from Winnipeg, and I knew I had relatives in Canada. But I started exploring my family tree and I found a branch that I didn't even know existed. It's complicated.
So I found these Canadian cousins, including this great musician named Nic Dyson. We started emailing and texting, and I started talking about visiting Winnipeg and seeing them.
And I became aware that your vaccine program — usually in the United States, we look to Canada and think, "Man, they have their act together so much better than we do." … This story was different because I have these elderly cousins in their 80s who still hadn't been vaccinated and didn't know when they were going to be able to.
I asked Paula, "What's going on? How come my relatives can't get vaccinated?" It's a complicated story. But anyway, we had Paula do a story, and I made some errant comment [that] this was not the Trudeau government's finest hour or something along those lines. And boy, did I hear from people. So yes, I tweeted a little bit about it.
You heard from the Canadians, didn't you?
Well, I put to rest any myth that Canadians are always polite.
Thanks for coming on.
Oh, it's my pleasure. It's always great to be here. Thank you so much.
Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Jane van Koeverden. Q&A edited for length and clarity.