Slate Fare

A Dozen Degrees of Jacob Weisberg

Some greatest hits from 22 years of journalism at Slate.

Jacob Weisberg sits in a podcast studio, smiling.
Outgoing Slate Group Chairman Jacob Weisberg Lisa Larson-Walker

This week, Slate Group Chairman Jacob Weisberg says farewell to the magazine he joined as a writer 22 years ago. As Slate writer, editor in chief, and chief executive officer, Weisberg wrote thousands of stories and recorded scores of podcasts; in many ways, as Slate’s current Editor-in-Chief Julia Turner notes, his voice has defined Slate’s voice for readers. We asked Slate staffers and alumni going back to Weisberg’s earliest years at the magazine for their recommendations for classic Jake, in text and in audio. Here are 12 of our favorites.

Soccer Mom Nonsense

Brought on as a politics writer in Slate’s early days, Weisberg immediately began puncturing the balloons of Beltway spinners and nonsense-mongers. In 1996, more than a decade before Nate Silver’s rise, Weisberg eviscerated arbitrary polling constructs in this sharp analysis.

Paying for Opera

In a 1998 column, Weisberg chewed on the question of whether an art form beloved by snobs should be paid for by those snobs or whether high culture deserves subsidy. The column’s dilemma mirrors, in interesting ways, the task of making internet journalism work, a task with which Weisberg spent his years as Slate Group chairman wrestling.

Is Tinky Winky Gay?

The supposed “outing” of Teletubby Tinky Winky by evangelist Jerry Falwell’s magazine inspired this fascinating 1999 argument about the queering of children’s characters like Bert and Ernie or Timon and Pumbaa. “If the creators of cartoons are intentionally or unintentionally giving children the idea that gay people are part of the big, happy human family, that’s a good thing, not a bad one,” Weisberg wrote. “If it weren’t for gay people, there would be no Lion King—or much else on the all-American cultural front.”

I Like Mike

In this 1999 book review, Weisberg paid tribute to Mike Royko, asking why no modern columnist could write like the Chicago legend once did. “Royko wrote his 900 words five times a week, sometimes six. Today the columnist who writes something decent twice a week is a marvel.”

In Defense of the ’90s

Shortly after 9/11, Weisberg wrote this broadside against the sudden onrush of declarations about the shallowness of the preceding decade. Weisberg pointed out that ’90s crit had begun before the era even reached its end, and often echoed the banal observations made about other decades. “That fact that these chestnuts were already roasting on an open fire before the twin towers fell,” Weisberg wrote, “suggests that the phenomenon of ’90s-bashing reflects not just our new wartime perspective but an eternal tendency to sneer at the recent past.”

The Misunderestimated Man

George W. Bush was one of Weisberg’s great subjects, and his daily chronicling of “Bushisms” helped crystallize the president’s image as a nincompoop for many readers. In this thoughtful 2004 essay, Weisberg tugged at that assumption, exploring the ways Bush’s incuriosity and allergy to thought are not congenital but instead deliberate choices. “Bush may not have been born stupid,” Weisberg wrote, “but he has achieved stupidity, and now he wears it as a badge of honor.”

The Wire on Fire

Before its fourth season, HBO’s Baltimore crime drama was beloved by those few who watched it, but had little impact on the culture at large. In this splashy, forceful 2006 argument, Weisberg made the case that the show was not just undervalued but a straight-up masterpiece: “surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America.” The essay was galvanizing for fans of the series and kicked off a wave of coverage that helped the show survive into a fifth and final season.

Deathstyles of the Rich and Famous

In this truly glorious 2006 essay, Weisberg wrote about the baroque ways that the 1 percent find to croak: “in staged violence on a film set (Brandon Lee); as a former vice president, atop your mistress (Nelson Rockefeller); or of a disease that subsequently gets named after you (Lou Gehrig).” The essay was also responsible for an all-time classic correction: “This piece originally and incorrectly stated that Christopher Reeve died from injuries sustained in a dressage event; in fact the accident occurred in the cross-country phase of a combined-training equestrian event.”

Is Newt Nuts?

In 2011, Weisberg considered Newt Gingrich and was unsparing in his armchair diagnosis. Gingrich exhibits egomania, hypomania, a Messiah complex, you name it. To read his handwritten notes from 1994, the year of Gingrich’s greatest triumph, is to read the words of someone who is “completely bonkers-bananas-barking-batshit loony tunes.”

The Great Writing vs. Talking Debate

This 2014 Slate Plus conversation with Mike Pesca and Julia Turner included some fascinating foreshadowing of Weisberg’s interest in podcasting, which culminated in Trumpcast. “When someone’s really good a talking you say they’re glib. That’s an insult in a way,” Weisberg complained. “A fluid, great writer is just a great writer.”

Trumpcast: Putin’s Meddling

In 2016, in a very early Trumpcast, Weisberg interviewed Russian chess master Garry Kasparov about the degradation of democracy in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The resulting conversation was illuminating, frightening, and revelatory for listeners. “Putin, as with every dictator, hates chess because chess is a strategic game which is 100 percent transparent,” Kasparov told Weisberg. “Putin feels much more comfortable playing a game that I would rather call geopolitical poker.”

Grifters and Grafters

No one has better anatomized the idiotic cast of characters in Trumpworld than Weisberg did in this 2018 essay, separating the administration and its satellites into two categories. Grifters, like Trump, Ivanka, Kellyanne Conway, and Steve Bannon, “take pleasure in gulling the trusting and eluding justice”; grafters—like Jared, Steve Mnuchin, and poor plodding Don Jr. and Eric—are “run-of-the-mill abusers of the public trust.”