Raised on Slate

A history of my favorite magazine, and a goodbye.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Dear Slate Plus readers,

This magazine has terrific analytics and traffic-tracking tools—nothing creepy—and it’s come to my attention that some of you signed up for this Elite First-Class Platinum High-Roller plan while listing me as your favorite Slate writer. Thank you! Life is full of disappoints, and I’m sorry for being the latest person to remind you of this.

Also, I’m sorry to be packing up at Slate. That’s no reflection on my next job. It’s a tribute to my favorite magazine, a place I dreamed of writing for, a place that then hired me to cover politics, from the living rooms of Tea Party activists to the hastily organized filing troughs of the 2012 presidential debates. Slate’s political coverage has been sharp and world-beating since the Internet was wee. I’ve been taking sepia-toned tours of the old politics archives to figure out why.

Where to start? I discovered Slate during the Clinton impeachment, when I was a teenager going to high school in England. (Dad’s job relocated him for a few years. No, I did not have to wear a tie or master wand-craft.) This was a depressing time to be an American anywhere, much less a place where everyone who heard your accent offered the same icebreaker, but Slate’s coverage of “Flytrap” was a real solace. There was no hefty moralizing. Seth Stevenson’s column defending the behavior of the president and his paramour, which called Clinton’s fidelity “a promise we never should have asked for,” put into words what a 16-year-old me couldn’t say coherently.

Yet I didn’t become a real political junkie until the 2000 election. (I was not just a voter, but an elector, in the state of Delaware for Ralph Nader. Iraq war? My fault.) The first Slate column I remember engaging with, as opposed to just reading, was Josh Marshall’s pundit-beating assessment of why Hillary Clinton should not be the 2004 Democratic candidate. “George W. Bush beat Gore by almost 2-to-1 among white males,” Marshall wrote, “and if we’re talking about voters in Ohio, western Pennsylvania, or Missouri, do you think candidate Hillary Clinton improves on that score?”

Here was clean, data-reliant logic that mocked the conceits of my-gut-tells-me punditry. For the same reason, I turned into a fan of Mickey Kaus, whose Feiler Faster Thesis has remained one of the truest conceits about politics and news. I cheerfully ripped off Kaus’ style of adding errata to the bottom of posts and challenging stupid ideas with a bracketed note from a ghostly “editor.” And if Kaus’ theory of the “undernews” made sense before 2008, the John Edwards scandal—which he was right about, when lots of true believers were wrong—should have landed it in J-school syllabi.

This was what I loved (and love) about Slate—great ideas could come in short bursts or in long takes. Chris Suellentrop’s coverage of the 2004 election discovered small moments during the parts of rallies that other reporters might have ignored while they were filing their “Bush slams Kerry” ledes. “The Bush Pledge” is a great example of Sullentropiana. In 2008, Noreen Malone schlepped around Amish country to profile voters that only she and the campaigns were paying attention to. During my time here, Will Saletan wrote at great length about Mitt Romney’s conversion on abortion, and managed to be fresh and definitive on a story you might have thought was overcovered.

And Slate is funny about an often draining and pointless pastime. I often revisit Chris Beam’s 2010 story that purposefully drained all the drama from politics by imagining how political scientists would cover it. (“Democrats have also slipped in their standing among ‘independent voters.’ That phrase, by the way, is meaningless. Voters may self-identify as ‘independent’ but in almost all cases they lean toward one party.”) Whenever John Dickerson writes about the tropes of Washington itself, he explains why its people are able to fight so bitterly about nothing. The momentum of daily journalism assumes action, but sometimes every trend is pointing at inaction. Sometimes, as Emma Roller wrote about the “knockout game,” or Jack Shafer wrote about lots of things, politics can be driven by something that’s utterly faux.

This hasn’t been a list of the “best of Slate politics.” (If that’s what you thought you clicked on, here you go.) This is what I’ve loved about Slate for 14-odd years. This is what Slate has done brilliantly, and what former Slate-sters have taken with them into other publications, like nanites being injected into new hosts.

This nanite will keep on reading.

Dave Weigel

P.S. (Members can still receive 30 percent off tickets to live Slate CultureFests in L.A. on Oct. 8, and in Boston on Oct. 20. Please join us!)