Over the past 25 years, Slate has probed the psychological and cultural depths of any number of characters: real, fictional, beloved, damned, fascinating. We’ve asked pesky questions. We’ve sung high praise. We’ve pondered the role of the famous, like Toni Morrison and Bong Joon-ho, and of the lesser-known but no less important, like a couple of people who meant a lot to some of us in high school. They all left their mark on us, in ways both big and small. Here are 25 memorable portraits from the first quarter-century of Slate.
The Real Story of Linda Taylor, America’s Original Welfare Queen
“For Ronald Reagan, Taylor was a tool to convince voters that the government was in crisis. For Reagan’s detractors, she personified the candidate’s penchant for willful exaggeration. For Illinois politicians and prosecutors, the war against Linda Taylor and her ilk was a chance to vent some populist outrage and maybe launch a career. A murder in Chicago is mundane. A sumptuously attired woman stealing from John Q. Taxpayer is a menace, the kind of criminal who victimizes absolutely everyone.”
By Josh Levin, Dec. 19, 2013
Bong Joon-ho Is Weaponizing the Blockbuster
“Bong’s gift lies not just in his ability to construct Trojan horse films, movies that present themselves as commercial popcorn flicks while sneakily condemning capitalism itself, but in his skill for cutting deep enough to reveal strange new layers of vulnerability and exploitation.”
By Inkoo Kang, Oct. 24, 2019
To the Teacher Who Changed My Life
“In high school a lot of people are trying to fix you and improve you and elevate you. Neal Tonken listened and affirmed that things were confusing. Because he loved passionately, spoke loudly (and occasionally out of turn), and found life overwhelming in both beauty and frustration, he understood what you were saying. What I was saying.”
By John Dickerson, Jan. 29, 2015
On Toni Morrison and Black Difficulty
“Morrison is difficult. She’s difficult to read. She’s difficult to teach. She’s difficult to interview. Notwithstanding the voluminous train of profiles, reviews, and scholarly analysis that she drags behind her, she’s difficult to write about. But more to the point, she is our only truly canonical black, female writer—and her work is complex.”
By Namwali Serpell, March 26, 2019
The Forgotten Abortion-Rights Activist Who Forever Changed the Abortion Debate With a Single Idea
“Rejecting the finicky gatekeeping protocols, the committees and evaluations and red tape, [Pat] Maginnis proposed that the only question anyone should ask prior to approving an abortion was a simple one: whether the woman wanted it.”
By Lili Loofbourow, Dec. 4, 2018
Linda Tripp Exposed Bill Clinton’s Affair With Monica Lewinsky. What Was She Thinking?
“On a shelf in the corner of the room I noticed a row of books about the Clinton scandal—the Jeff Toobin one, the Michael Isikoff one—and almost all of them were brimming with little Post-it notes. Tripp told me that each note corresponded to a factual error. Taken together, they were a testament to how misunderstood Tripp felt and how wrong she thinks we all were about her.”
By Leon Neyfakh, Sept. 18, 2018
What Gave Us Donald Trump Is What Gave Us Dylann Roof
“Trump did not cause Roof. But their temporal proximity reveals thematic connections between the two. Trump, the self-proclaimed billionaire, who blames immigrants and Muslims for America’s problems. Roof, the struggling young man, who blames black Americans (and others) for his stagnation. And if Trump embodies a white reaction to perceived decline in a changing world, then Roof represents that backlash in its most extreme and virulent form.”
By Jamelle Bouie, Dec. 15, 2016
In High School, I Fell for an Actress 25 Years My Senior. She Changed My Life.
“I understand now that I was searching for some clue as to the kind of person I might be when I was finally a person. And I dreamed that someone would reach out a hand and touch me and say, ‘This is who you are.’ I would never have articulated it this way, but I hoped working on this play would help me make sense to myself. I hoped Shirley Valentine would help me figure it all out. And she did.”
By Dan Kois, April 16, 2020
What Happened When One of the World’s Most Beloved Programmers Vanished
“The popular Ruby message boards, listservs, and blogs descended into a state of panic. Had he been hacked? Who had heard from him? Was he in physical danger? And there was one especially pressing question, the irony of which hardly went unnoticed by passionate Rubyists: Why?”
By Annie Lowrey, March 15, 2012
The Self-Made Man: The Story of America’s Most Pliable, Pernicious, Irrepressible Myth
“The yawning gap between the dearly held ideal of the self-made man and the difficulty of actually improving your station in America, particularly if you’re poor, made me wonder about the utility of the rags-to-riches story. Is it a healthy myth that inspires us to aim high? Or is it more like a mass delusion keeping us from confronting the fact that poor Americans tend to remain poor Americans, regardless of how hard they work?”
By John Swansburg, Sept. 29, 2014
The Other Women in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Law School Class
“Did they band together amid the sea of men, supporting one another in the face of occasionally hostile professors, and later, hostile workplaces? Did they marry the loves of their lives, as Justice Ginsburg did, and find fulfilling work in the law? Did they spend their careers cheering on their petite classmate from afar, as she shattered glass ceilings and built a constitutional system that protected gender equality?”
By Dahlia Lithwick and Molly Olmstead, July 21, 2020
Read Olaudah Equiano’s Autobiography: The First Widely-Read Narrative of a Freed Slave
“I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master, and completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced; and my joy was still heightened by the blessings and prayers of the sable race, particularly the aged, to whom my heart had ever been attached with reverence.”
By Olaudah Equiano, June 3, 2015
Blake Bailey’s Students Worshipped Him. They Trusted Him. When They Grew Up, He Preyed On Them.
“Bailey would become deeply involved in his students’ personal lives. He’d flatter their intellects, or their looks, and win their devotion, only to abuse that loyalty as they became young women. Nearly everyone we spoke to said Mr. Bailey was one of the best teachers they’d ever had. They also described a man obsessed with getting deep inside his subjects’ psyches. That habit has paid off for Bailey as a biographer. It’s also been his tool of choice as a predator.”
By Josh Levin, Susan Matthews, and Molly Olmstead, April 29, 2021
How the White Political Establishment Made Charlamagne tha God the “Voice of Black America”
“Getting cast as the political spokesman for all Black people requires exactly two qualifications: be Black and have an audience that is primarily Black. Whether or not your audience views you as a serious political thinker is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether your opinions are actually widely held in the community you claim to represent. For the politicians looking for campaign pit stops and the media outlets looking for sound bites, the only thing that really matters is a young Black audience.”
By Rachelle Hampton, Nov. 30, 2020
The Marine Who Found Two WTC Survivors
“Karnes hadn’t been near the World Trade Center. He wasn’t even in New York when the planes hit the towers. He was in Wilton, Conn., working in his job as a senior accountant with Deloitte Touche. When the second plane hit, Karnes told his colleagues, ‘We’re at war.’ He had spent 23 years in the Marine Corps infantry and felt it was his duty to help. Karnes told his boss he might not see him for a while.”
By Rebecca Liss, Sept. 10, 2002
The 25 Most Important Characters of the Past 25 Years
“What makes a great character? We tend to think of the figures whose outlines are carefully filled in over hundreds of pages of a novel or dozens of hours of a prestige series, until we understand them in all their psychological complexity. But there are many ways for a character to be important.”
By Slate Staff, Aug. 11, 2019
Why Isn’t This Artist Famous?
“Ilona Granet was a New York art-scene fixture who won the praise of the art world when she put up anti-harassment street signs in lower Manhattan in the mid- 1980s. Her career seemed like a sure thing, but three decades on, and so much more art later, it still hasn’t materialized, even as her contemporaries are now hanging in museums.”
By Willa Paskin, June 16, 2021
Isaac Chotiner: Well let’s talk about sources. A lot of the reporting that got us into the last stupid war was based on bad and often anonymous sources. Is there a problem with journalists having a limited number of sources, just generally speaking? Is this a problem? With unnamed sources—
Seymour Hersh: Are you kidding me? Unnamed sources? You are smarter than that. This is too boring.
Chotiner: Let me finish my question and then you can yell at me.
Hersh: I am done yelling.
By Isaac Chotiner, May 13, 2015
I’ve Always Suspected “Cat Person” Was Based on My Life. Now I Know It Was.
“I realized for the first time that my suspicions had been true—I could finally say for sure that ‘Cat Person’ was about me. As the night wore on, my chest tightened. Within hours, the strange thrill I’d felt was replaced by disgust, then anger. I imagined [Kristen] Roupenian scrolling through my social media accounts, gathering details about me. I felt invaded.”
By Alexis Nowicki, July 8, 2021
Why Isn’t Delonte West in the NBA?
“Getting help was a great move for West, and his decision to speak openly about his inner turmoil took a lot of courage. But anyone who goes public with his psychological struggles—especially in the sports world, where open and honest discussions of mental health issues are still rare—has to worry that people will judge him, laugh at him, and treat him differently. All three of those things happened to Delonte West.”
By David Haglund, June 4, 2014
How Joe Rogan’s Hugely Popular Podcast Became an Essential Platform for “Freethinkers” Who Hate the Left
“From its unambitious beginnings as a venue for Joe Rogan to shoot the shit with his comedian buddies, The Joe Rogan Experience has become one of the internet’s foremost vectors for anti-wokeness. With its mellow, welcoming vibe, its pretense of common sense, and its general reluctance to push back on any of its guests’ ideas save for only the battiest, the podcast has become the factory where red pills get sugarcoated.”
By Justin Peters, March 21, 2019
Bill O’Reilly Among the Snobs
“Why fake a humble background? Partly for business reasons: Joe Sixpack versus the elitists is a good posture for any talk show host, especially one on Fox. Partly out of vanity: It makes the climb to your current perch more impressive. Partly for political reasons: Under our system, even conservatives need some plausible theory to qualify for victim status, from which all blessings flow. But mainly out of sheer snobbery.”
By Michael Kinsley, March 2, 2001
You Will Likely Never See at Least One of Your Dear Friends After Your Wedding
“You don’t know who the last-timers are—in fact, you can’t know—but they will be there on the dance floor and in photos. And suddenly, one day—two, five, 20 years on—you will think to yourself: I haven’t seen her since our wedding. And then: How did that happen?”
By David Plotz, June 12, 2013
The B-Side That Deepened Biggie and Tupac’s Rift
“ ‘Who Shot Ya?’ was an instant classic, and it showed the rap world that Biggie wasn’t just a good-natured player. It also thrust Biggie and his crew into the middle of a conflict they wanted no part of. ‘Who Shot Ya?’ came out a few months after Tupac Shakur was shot five times by unknown gunmen in the lobby of Quad Studios in Manhattan, where his friend Biggie Smalls was recording.”
By Joel Anderson, Nov. 13, 2019
Dan Savage Revolutionized Sex. Then the Revolution Came for Him.
“This staggering oeuvre, full of best practices and universal frameworks and detailed instructions, made Savage Love a beloved institution. It has also vexed Savage at times over the past decade, as the world he’s schooling changed with the #MeToo movement and the cultural evolution of the gay and trans communities. In recent years, it sometimes seemed like Savage was on the defensive as much as he was setting the rules.”
By L.V. Anderson, Sept. 23, 2021