No one has ever accused CNN commentator Jack Cafferty of being a shrinking violet. He routinely sounds off in his own tart, curmudgeon-like way on CNN's popular news show The Situation Room. Now Cafferty has written his first book, It's Getting Ugly Out There: The Frauds, Bunglers, Liars and Losers Who Are Hurting America (Wiley). Besides calling it as he sees it politically, he tells the story of growing up in a turbulent family in Reno, Nevada, in the 1950s. TIME's publishing reporter Andrea Sachs spoke with Cafferty between shows:
TIME: You're a brave man. You talk bluntly about a lot of things in your book.
Cafferty: Well, I figured that if I was going to do it, I might as well try to get some meat on the bone.
You write about the fact that both of your parents were alcoholics.
It was what it was. None off us have any votes on what house we're born into. Some of it was unpleasant; on the other hand, some of it was very enlightening. I probably had developed some street smarts and some think-on-your-feet type skills by the time that I was a teenager that some people don't come across until much later in life, if at all.
Your dad was married eight times. How do you explain that?
If he was as tough to get along with for his wives as he was for his children, then it's pretty easy to understand. He was a mercurial, volatile man who could be very charming and indulgent, and quite bright [when] sober, and could be a bitch on wheels when he'd had too much to drink.
You had a drinking problem yourself.
Absolutely. I learned to drink as a child. My father used to take me into bars and saloons around Reno when I was a kid, 11, 12, 13 years old. By the time I was mid-teens, I was having a beer in these joints or I was having a beer at home. It was a very natural outgrowth of the environment I was in. Of course, they think that a lot of this stuff is genetic. I think I probably had the genetic tolerance for the chemical, and also the genetic predisposition for the addiction to the chemical, that my parents had. So I was able to consume quantities of alcohol without it affecting [me] I didn't slur my speech, I didn't fall down. It's not until you get a little farther into the alcoholism that it begins really to exact a toll on you. It was a factor in the dissolution of my first marriage, and I was headed towards ruining the second marriage. That was really the impetus for me to quit. Carol [his second wife] is an extraordinary woman. She was worth making some changes for, and it turns out, so was I. I haven't had a drink for 20 years, I'm very proud to report. I don't even drink wine at church when I take communion.
You're known for your sarcastic style on the air, and even being a little cranky. Where would you say that tone comes from?
(Laughs.) Well, I think that our government spends a good part of their waking hours figuring out what batch of lies they're going to tell us next. I don't believe most of what I'm told by the politicians. I think virtually everything they say for public consumption is said with an agenda. I just don't think that we have a very honest relationship with our government in this country, and it makes me angry.
One new poll says that a majority of people favor impeachment for President Bush. Your reaction?
I'm not the least bit surprised. There's a case for taking a look at what the Administration may or may not have done that rises to level of high crimes and misdemeanors. Impeachment was put into the Constitution for a reason. I think it was perhaps one of the most arrogant things I've ever seen in my life for [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, on the day after Democrats won control of the House, to make this announcement as though this was Moses coming down with the tablets, that impeachment's been taken off the table. Well who the hell is she to take it off the table? It's part of the Constitution. I think there is reason to suspect that things have been done that may not be kosher, and I think the government's responsibility is to determine that. That's part of why they're there. That's what Congress does. That's the checks and balances. So whether he deserves to be impeached or not, I guess we'll never know, because they're not going to bother to look at it.
Did the cable networks overdo it covering Anna Nicole Smith's death?
Of course they overdid it. That's why I asked [CNN anchor] Wolf Blitzer on the air, Is Anna Nicole Smith still dead? Because we'd done two hours on this peroxide never-was, passing apparently from some kind of drug overdose in some seedy hotel room in Florida. It's like, who cares? Nobody cares. We've got a war going on in Iraq, we've got budget deficits, we've got yadda-yadda-yadda. It's a dilemma for commercial television, the key word being "commercial." They're in business to make money. How do you make money? By attracting an audience. How do you attract an audience? By putting stuff on the air people are interested in.
Has anything you've ever said on the air really gotten you in trouble?
Once. I called Donald Rumsfeld a war criminal the night before the midterm election. The president of the network and the executive producer of the Situation Room and two or three other management gerbils assaulted me en masse, immediately as I got off of the air, saying, "You can't say that." Apparently, what happened was our correspondent at the Pentagon started getting these phone calls from people in the Pentagon, saying, "Cafferty just called Rumsfeld a war criminal." I had to go on the air and say, "You know, I've stepped over the line." That being said, I will go to my grave as Jack Cafferty, Private Citizen, believing that these people committed war crimes.