November 06, 2000 12:00 PM

He may be conservatism’s bright young wit, but there’s nothing straitlaced about the way Washington commentator Tucker Carlson weaves through the capital’s afternoon traffic. In his air-bagless 1987 Volvo, he drives with his seat belt defiantly unbuckled. “I have to wear it?” he asks incredulously. “It’s insane! I’m pro seat belt in the abstract; I just can’t rise above the authority issue.” In fact, air bag and motorcycle helmet laws, or virtually any regulation that he deems a government “nannyism,” make the magazine writer and CNN political commentator pound the steering wheel in exasperation. “God, that makes me mad,” he exclaims while describing how he petitioned the Department of Transportation for permission (which he received) to remove the air bags from his other set of wheels, a 1998 Chevy Suburban. “It’s my car!”

As a man with a heightened sense of outrage and humor, Carlson, 31, has made fans in surprising places with his politically incorrect wisdom. On the staff of Washington’s conservative Weekly Standard magazine, Carlson—and his signature bow tie—also appears regularly on CNN’s Inside Politics and The Spin Room as well as ABC’s Good Morning America, and occasionally contributes his contrarian views to Talk magazine. “He’s biased, but accurate,” says James Carville, the fiercely partisan Democratic strategist whom Carlson has profiled in the Standard. “I may not agree with every conclusion he drew, but he didn’t make up facts to get his conclusions. He’s a good guy.”

He’s also bipartisan when it comes to hurling barbs. Yes, Carlson has blasted Gore for opportunism, but he just as easily ticked off Bush supporters last year with a controversial Talk article that took the Texas governor to task for mocking a death row inmate’s plea for clemency. “If a person needs to be throttled,” says Carlson, “throttle him. I would never want to be thought of as a mouthpiece for a group or an ideology.” Says his liberal Inside Politics counterpart, TIME scribe Margaret Carlson (no relation): “He doesn’t parrot the party line. Tucker is commenting straight from his gut.”

And aiming for the funny bone. “Tucker is funny,” says The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, “which immediately separates him from 95 percent of the political prognosticators.”

Carlson’s pedigree distinguishes him as well. His Republican father, former journalist Dick Carlson, now 59 and an Internet entrepreneur, was ambassador to the Seychelles, islands off the coast of Africa, during the Bush Administration. Tucker and younger brother Buckley, now 29 and a Washington policy analyst, were raised in La Jolla, Calif., by their father and stepmother, Patricia, 55, after their mother left home when Tucker was 6. Though a lackluster student, Carlson was an avid reader who had devoured War and Peace by age 10 and would become a boarding school debate team star at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, where he met and wooed the headmaster’s daughter Susie Andrews, now 31. “She was the cutest 10th grader in America,” he says. Says she: “There was a bounce in his walk. He was in his khaki pants and ribbon belt and I thought, even then, he seemed so optimistic and positive.”

Despite the preppy look, Carlson attended Grateful Dead concerts while a student at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where he majored in history. “We didn’t look like conservatives back then,” says college pal Neil Patel, now a lawyer. “People never really knew what he was going to say.”

Carlson himself had no such problem. In 1991, six months before graduating from Trinity, he asked his former headmaster for Susie’s hand in marriage. “All very 19th-century,” he says, “but a good thing to do.” Today the couple live with their children—Lillie, 5, Buckley, 3, and Hopie, 1—in the 1906 farmhouse they renovated in Alexandria, Va., a short drive from Carlson’s office at the Standard, where he has worked since 1995. “He’s so imaginative with them,” says Susie about her husband, who reads to the children constantly and, each July 4th, teaches them the meaning of the Constitution by reading the Bill of Rights and setting off a firecracker as he recites each liberty. “It’s good not to take our freedoms for granted,” says Carlson, who further instills civic pride in his kids by flying an American flag in the front yard every day of the year. “Patriotism is so uncool, but they don’t know that.”

Steve Dougherty

Macon Morehouse in Alexandria