From the File Cabinet: When Slate lived at AEI

January 29, 2013

When Judge Robert Bork died last month, conservatives and liberals alike told stories of their interactions with the conservative jurist. And on that week’s popular Slate Political Gabfest podcast, Slate editor David Plotz shared his. “You know, Slate used to have its office in the American Enterprise Institute where Bork made his home in his latter years, and his office was down the hall from Slate’s,” Plotz said.

Plotz said that one might think Bork’s “scraggly beard and vicious demeanor hide a warm-hearted [man],” but that would be wrong. “The guy exuded jerk…It was just very unpleasant to be in his presence,” said Plotz. “Maybe he was lovely to his family, I don’t know.”

But Slate? At AEI?

“Don’t even ask why Slate was housed in the American Enterprise Institute — it’s a long story,” Plotz said.

But it was too intriguing not to ask.

In 1996, Slate needed space for its Washington operations (Slate was originally headquartered in Seattle as a Microsoft project under the MSN banner). A deal was brokered in 1996 by AEI fellow Herb Stein, who was writing the “It Seems to Me” column for the Web site.

Plotz and Slate colleague Jodie Allen thought it was a perfect arrangement. It was in a good location at 17th and M streets NW; they had space to grow; and access to the famed AEI cafeteria was “out of this world,” as Plotz put it.

But within a few years, the culture clash between Slate and AEI would be too much for the think tank.

“It was really three strikes before they asked us to leave,” said Plotz.

While AEI scholars donned conservatively proper attire even in the summer months, Slate staff wore shorts and sandals — even to dining room. It didn’t help that once in the dining room, former Slater Timothy Noah’s “disruptively loud laugh” drew much attention and caused theologian-diplomat Michael Novak to complain to executive vice president David Gerson. Strike two.

Strike three? Plotz firmly plants this one on Noah, too. Not once, but twice Noah named AEI fellow (and wife of then-vice president Dick Cheney) Lynne Cheney in his “Whopper [read: "Lie"] of the Week” column. In Noah’s defense, Plotz said, Cheney’s treatment was justified.

Nonetheless, AEI made it clear it was time for Slate to go, even if it wasn’t in a “you’ve got 24 hours to get your stuff out of here” kind of eviction.

No hard feelings from Slate, though.

“It just wasn’t a very good cultural fit,” said Plotz. “We were not very good tenants, and AEI treated us with nothing but great generosity.”

Is there a lesson in here for the American Prospect and the American Conservative?

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Allen McDuffee · January 29, 2013