I FEEL LIGHT, delicate. I am in Tucker Carlson's arms, as he leads me around the dance floor. He is holding my hands and teaching me to quick step. "Normally I would have trouble touching an L.A. Times columnist," he says. "But this show has broken down all my normal defenses."
Carlson is practicing his moves at the 3rd Street Dance studio for tonight's season debut of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." The conservative MSNBC host is directing me to put one thigh over the other while staying on the balls of my feet and holding my hand aloft in front of a wall mirror. In this intimate moment, I whisper a sweet nothing: "Why are you throwing your career down the toilet?"
"The one thing I'm not worried about is being taken seriously," he says. Which surprises me because he's wearing Capezios and throwing up his hands to the David Bowie/Mick Jagger version of "Dancing in the Street."
Carlson believes that as long as he isn't a phony, and continues to believe the things he says on his show, then being in a dance contest won't damage the gravitas he's earned from years of wearing a bowtie and screaming at whoever disagrees with him.
So he jumped at "Dancing With the Stars," even though he'd never seen the show and has never danced except for some light spinning at Grateful Dead shows. He's a sucker for adventure, whether it's going to Lebanon during the war or asking the nation to vote for his cha-chas over Jerry Springer's.
In fact, we could have gotten Carlson to do far more embarrassing stuff. He had agreed to go on "Fear Factor," but his bosses, who OKd "Dancing With the Stars," didn't think "Fear Factor" would be appropriate. This is the same kind of bureaucratic crap Edward R. Murrow had to deal with.
"I'm not bragging, but I would have won 'Fear Factor,' " Carlson says. "I don't expect to be a great dancer, but that show fits my personality." Carlson, it seems, says no to very little: bug eating, dancing -- even signing contracts with MSNBC.
As if his limited dancing skills, which make him a 21-1 underdog on most betting websites, weren't handicap enough, Carlson's footwork is being preemptively attacked by the Republican Party. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay sent out a passionate e-mail urging people to vote for country singer (and GOP supporter) Sara Evans, to "send a message to Hollywood and the media that smut has no place on television." DeLay declined to state who Tommy Lee should pick on "Rock Star." Wounded, Carlson got Al Sharpton to write an endorsement letter, along with James Carville. John McCain has pledged his support. Which is key, because that dude just loves to use text-messaging.
In addition to the get-out-the-vote activities, Carlson has been working hard on his costuming. "I'm wearing a pair of brown grape-smuggling trousers and an orange silk shirt," he explains. His partner, professional dancer Elena Grinenko, in some sort of bikini thing, will seductively dance around a sitting Carlson and undo his bowtie. This will cause Carlson to get up and sashay to the other side of the room. The performance comes across as a lap dance that suddenly ups and turns super gay. It made me want to fly and live forever.
But it didn't make me distrust Carlson as a wonk. This generation doesn't dismiss people just because their homemade sex videos ended up on MySpace, or because they made a couple of disastrous career choices. Anderson Cooper was the host of "The Mole." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used to get laughs by standing next to Danny DeVito.
In an information-glutted world, where it's impossible to hide your embarrassments, likability is more valuable than dignity. And being noticed is the most important of all. That's why people are not only willing to dance with a hot Russian woman just to get on network television, but to dance with Tucker Carlson just to have a column.