BRYANT POND, Maine — Tucker Carlson doesn’t know it, but he and I go way back. Back to when we both had little kids, and we were both young reporters, and there wasn’t yet a cable juggernaut called Fox News on the air.

Annoyingly, he still looks much the same as he did decades ago, when I was reading his articles at The Weekly Standard, and watching him spar with Bill Press on “Crossfire” and, eventually, checking in periodically to see what he was up to on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the top-rated Fox show that abruptly and shockingly ended 15 months ago.

At 55, his hairline stands proudly in place, with no sign of surrender. Carlson’s boyish and sometimes maniacal laugh, a chortle that has launched a thousand memes, hasn’t changed either.

What has changed, at least in some circles, is the perception of who Tucker Carlson is, even among conservatives who have been his fans in years past.

Since Carlson and Fox curtly “parted ways” in April 2023 and Carlson later launched an eponymous network, he has edged into even more controversial territory than he did at Fox — and there was plenty of controversy at Fox. His fiercest critics these days see him as a dangerous demagogue who shares responsibility, along with Donald Trump, for the bitter polarization that divides America today.

Carlson, one person who used to work with him, wrote, “made it fun to hate.” He wasn’t wrong.

And this is why, on a warm June afternoon, as a thunderstorm threatened, I found myself wandering the backwoods of Woodstock, Maine, in search of Tucker Carlson.

I wasn’t looking for Carlson himself, although a glimpse of him swatting off mosquitoes while fly-fishing in Bryant Pond would have been nice. I once shook Rush Limbaugh’s hand, but possess no autographs and I’m not in the market for any. I’m older than Carlson and, to be honest, not stalker material.

I’m just trying to reconcile the flannel-shirted Carlson of today with the bow-tied Carlson of old, and to figure out why the response to him is so different now than it was then. Has he changed, or has his audience?

Take, for example, his interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commentary during that trip on the ways life is better in Russia than in the U.S. — at a time when the United States and our allies are backing Ukraine. In one video, Carlson visits a Russian grocery store, marveling over the coin-operated shopping carts and saying the price of groceries there would “radicalize” Americans against their own government.

Carlson has also alienated some conservatives with his commentary about the war between Israel and Hamas. It was the Putin interview, however, that drew the strongest backlash, with some even using the words “traitor” and “treason.”

Although “not a fan,” J.D. Tuccille came to Carlson’s defense at Reason magazine, saying Carlson was a journalist doing journalism — which is what Carlson has always said about himself, even as critics deride him for views they see as unhinged and accuse him of spreading disinformation.

Follow some people long enough and it seems you know exactly who they are. The author Stephen King lives in Maine, too, and while he has sharply different political views from Carlson, King is not much of a mystery.

Carlson is harder to figure out. Unlike Glenn Beck and Limbaugh, who acknowledged how much entertainment figured into their success, Carlson presents himself as a truth-teller. And even his fans are sometimes left wondering which truth to believe — the leaked text in which he said he hated Donald Trump, or more recent statements, in which he says he loves the former president.

People who only know Carlson from Fox — or only from headlines screaming about something he said on Fox — don’t know that there was a time when a respectful profile about him could be published in The Washington Post, with the headline “The Opinionated Journalist.” That same article quoted Bill Kristol, then editor of The Weekly Standard, who said of Carlson: “He’s great at digging up stuff and great at getting people to confide in him and tell him things they later wish they hadn’t. He’s engaging and boyish, and people take a liking to him.”

After Carlson’s trip to Russia, Kristol tweeted: “Can we trade Tucker Carlson to Putin for Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva?”

I just want to understand.

Is Carlson the same journalist that Kristol and so many other people admired two decades ago? Or has something fundamentally changed about him? Surely, the leafy little town where Carlson has vacationed since he was a child, the place he plans to be buried, would offer some clues.

A Universalist Church, circa 1852, stands next to the cemetery where Tucker Carlson has said he wants to be buried in this photograph taken in Woodstock, Maine, June 5, 2024. | Jennifer Graham, Deseret News

Tucker Carlson’s boyhood vacation spot

Maine is known for its lobster, but it ought to be known for its trees. About 90% of the state is covered in forest, and while it’s not as mountainous as neighboring New Hampshire, it has its share of peaks and views, many of them on the tourist-laden Eastern coast.

Tucker’s neck of the woods is to the west, and while he has become angry at news outlets that came close to revealing his coordinates, his firing at Fox led to a handful of reporters descending on Oxford County and reporting on the town garage that he bought from the town of Woodstock (that was later dismantled by Fox, according to some reports). Their accounts have also made famous the library that sits next to it, and the town convenience store that has nothing out of the ordinary but your usual collection of snacks, sodas and lottery tickets.

And that — plus a Baptist church, a mineral collector who sells minerals and stones in a garage-turned-shop, and various town services — pretty much comprises the main corridor. Bryant Pond is a village within the town with a picturesque lake that’s also known as Lake Christopher. It is here that Carlson has spent summers since childhood, like his father and grandfather did before him. No one comes here to shop. They come here to fish and do other fish-adjacent things. “Woodstock is an outdoorsmans paradise,” the town says on its website, and it’s hard to argue with that.

It’s hard to argue at all here. Although summer has officially started, at least by the Memorial-Day standard, on this weekday, there’s not much traffic and even fewer people out and about. There’s no one parked at the library or at the garage where it has been reported that Carlson films his show, although it’s unclear if that’s still the case. He talks sometimes of filming episodes of his podcast in his barn, and even if I knew where that was, I’d be scared to show up. A guy on TikTok who claims to be from Woodstock once did a rambling video that showed a gated compound where he claimed Carlson lived, although that shot could have been taken anywhere and we probably should check on his safety.

At any rate, Carlson, who has four children with his wife, Susan Andrews, is fiercely protective of their privacy, understandably so. In 2020, he blasted The New York Times, saying that the newspaper was about to reveal the location of his home (the Times denied it), saying, “Well, you know why. To hurt us. To injure my wife and kids so I will shut up and stop disagreeing with them. They believe in force.”

The Associated Press reported, “Carlson, a polarizing political commentator, has reasons for concern about the issue. In 2018, a group of about 20 demonstrators came to his home in Washington, D.C. one night, pounding on and damaging his front door while his wife was home alone. She called police while hiding in a closet, he said.”

I am not, however, looking for Tucker Carlson in the backwoods of Maine because I am angry. I am here because I am interested. I come in peace.

I should have brought bug spray.

Influence outside Fox News

It took me about four hours to get to Oxford County from my starting point in Massachusetts, long enough to listen to a three-hour podcast Carlson recently did with Navy SEAL Shawn Ryan.

Like a lot of conservative media stars, Carlson largely shuns interviews with “legacy” media, finding plenty of oxygen and warmth in the ecosystem of podcasting. In addition to doing his own, he has appeared on the podcasts of big stars like Joe Rogan and Megyn Kelly, as well people like Ryan, who aren’t quite household names, but still have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.

It’s hard to tell if he needs the exposure to grow the network, or just likes to talk. In the months after his departure from Fox, analysts scoured his numbers on X, trying to determine if he had lost, or gained, viewers by taking his commentary to that platform, where he enjoys a warm relationship with Elon Musk. While Carlson’s videos on social media are seen millions of times more than the viewers he had on Fox (where he was averaging 3.391 million in his last month on the air), “the comparisons are apples and oranges,” NBC has reported. He has nearly 13 million followers on X, and his recent interview with El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, had 11 million views.

Perhaps most significantly, Carlson has shown that he is still able to influence the national conversation even outside a Fox studio. In April, Sen. Mitch McConnell blamed Carlson for what he called “the demonization of Ukraine,” saying Carlson’s interviews and commentary had convinced many Americans to reconsider financial support for Ukraine. “He convinced a lot of rank-and-file Republicans that maybe this was a mistake,” McConnell said.

Whether he can convince them to pay $9 a month for exclusive commentary on TCN, the Tucker Carlson Network, however, is unknown. Carlson has rolled out perks for subscribers, such as early access to tickets to his September tour, announced Monday, and personal responses to members’ questions. The network has private backing and perhaps could be financed even by Carlson himself, if needed. He has family money, the details of which I won’t share, lest I receive an email from Carlson saying my interest in him is “as creepy as hell” and “pathetic,” as one reporter said he received after a media inquiry. Carlson does not suffer fools or reporters well. (He did not respond to an interview request.)

I learned the genesis of this loathing on the Ryan podcast, when Carlson said that his eyes had been opened to various hypocrisies in 2016. The reaction to Trump’s candidacy was so savage and unreasonable, he said, that he realized that “every other person” in media didn’t know what they were doing. (Only he didn’t put it quite that politely.) Carlson said he had gone into journalism, like his father and great-grandfather, because he saw it as an honorable profession and a way to lead “an interesting life.” Now he sees the media as “the most corrupt institution in the U.S. by far.”

But he has been taken in by long-form podcasts. “The idea that people would sit and listen to something for hours was the opposite of what happening in my world. Who would listen to that?” he told Ryan, adding, “Of all the trends in the past 30 years, that is the last one I would have predicted, and the most hopeful.”

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And so as I meander around Lake Christopher and its surrounding towns, I can listen to Carlson explain his childhood (his mother left the family when he was 6 and never returned), his struggles with addiction (he is 22 years sober, having quit alcohol cold turkey when he heard an inner voice say “If you keep doing this, you will lose your wife and children”) and his secrets to a happy family life: “If you want to have happy kids, have a happy marriage,” he told Ryan.

Carlson met his wife at the New England boarding school he went to as a teen. The attraction was instant, they married in 1991, and they have never considered divorce, he said, in large part because they decided divorce would not be an option. When they have difficult times in their marriage, they go off to a hotel, tune out the world, and stay until they work it out. When they’re together, the family doesn’t watch TV or movies. “Our entertainment is meals,” Carlson said — meals that span for hours, with stimulating conversation about ideas and books, and sometimes a game or two. This was his family’s custom when he was a child, too, and it was just his father and brother.

This is riveting stuff, and I have plenty of time to listen because by this point, my cell service has vanished and I am lost.

But before I got lost, I did find the quiet, lakeside cemetery where Carlson has said he plans to be buried. It’s next to a gorgeous old Universalist Church, and like almost every New England cemetery, silently tells stories of heartbreak in children’s graves. The air is fragrant, wildflowers dot the grave mounds, and there is a bench next to the lake for people to sit and remember their loved ones.

What I remember, getting in the car, though, is how, after some newspapers published stories about this place some of the commenters said they would look forward to urinating on Carlson’s grave.

The sign that marks the entry to Bryant Pond village in Maine, where Tucker Carlson lives part of the year, touts its other claim to fame: the home of America's last hand-cranked phone pictured in Woodstock, Maine, June 5, 2024. | Jennifer Graham, Deseret News

A peaceable kingdom

Is Tucker Carlson really responsible for this toxicity and hate? Or is he a target for hate that already existed, hate that was just looking for a place to be directed?

Here, in Bryant Pond Village, and its neighboring idyllic towns, there’s no sign of the venom on social media. It’s just people living their lives in the company of trees — so many trees, white birch and hemlock and pines — and, for the lucky few, a view of the water.

It’s hard to say what kind of community it is, actually. There are just as many distressed homes with the occasional board replacing a window as there are well-appointed villas that look like weekend getaways for people who have multi-million-dollar primary homes elsewhere. For all the roads I drove down, I saw only one political sign — it said “Trump for Me” — although I did stop to admire a mailbox post on which sat two bald eagles carved out of wood and a large American flag.

There were none of the virtue-signaling signs so common in my blue-state neighborhood, and none of the vulgar ones elsewhere that deride our current president. It was just a snapshot of America as a small peaceable kingdom. The kind we wish we had again, but can’t seem to find, in part because too many of us are talking about urinating on each others graves, or calling other people’s work creepy and pathetic.

That said, there is something reassuring about the existence of this place, and that “America’s leading conservative journalist and media personality” — as Carlson is identified in the news release announcing his upcoming speaking tour — finds solace here, and not, say, a half-hour away at the Oxford Casino.

Carlson may dislike my kind, and possibly yours, and he curses too much for my personal preference. Many people can’t get past things he said about Jan. 6, or his going to Russia to interview Putin, or — in his latest eyebrow-raising move — his inclusion of Infowars founder Alex Jones as a “special guest” in his September tour. If you’re one of them, I certainly won’t judge you.

But for those who choose to find good in people with whom they disagree, there’s plenty to work with here, and if nothing else, I am heartened by the place he calls home, both the village and the country. You can tell a lot about a person by the land that they love.

Ain’t that America, as John Mellencamp sang. Little lake houses, for you and me.