By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009
One year after joining ABC News, Jake Tapper kept pushing his bosses -- "annoyingly, irritatingly, incessantly," he says -- to let him cover the unfolding 2004 presidential campaign.
"I might not have been ready," he admits now. "I hadn't paid my dues."
Patience is not Tapper's strong suit. "He's one of the hungriest reporters I've run across," anchor Charlie Gibson says. "He bombards us with e-mail, and it's all about stuff he's reporting. . . . He can be a little brash at times."
That brashness has now catapulted the 39-year-old correspondent to the coveted White House beat, the biggest stage yet for a man who bounced around politics, public relations and the Web before setting his sights on television. Tapper, who has already clashed publicly with press secretary Robert Gibbs, has been outspoken in his view that many in the media have been too soft on Barack Obama.
"Certain networks, newspapers and magazines leaned on the scales a little bit," he says over a vanilla latte at Starbucks. Obama's attractive qualities, he says, have prompted some editors and producers "to root for him."
Tapper is part of a new network contingent -- including Chip Reid at CBS and Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie at NBC -- that is helping set the tone for coverage of the Obama White House. Tapper, who started out covering the Republican candidates, says he wanted to be assigned to the Obama campaign, as he was last June, "because I thought he was probably going to win." He was the second-most-visible network correspondent last year, logging 313 minutes on air, trailing only Andrea Mitchell's 355 minutes at NBC.
His sharp tongue, and sharp elbows, have made Tapper a presence in the pressroom. While he rubs certain colleagues the wrong way, most respect his hard-charging style.
"He's not one of the wussy, blow-dried TV reporters," says conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, a longtime friend. "He's definitely savvy and aggressive, in a good way. He's tough enough to handle network politics."
Tapper devotes considerable attention to his ABC blog, Political Punch, where he broke the story of Tom Daschle's tax problems. He also complained to journalists who picked up the story without crediting him.
Last year, Tapper blogged that he had once run into Obama and the candidate "reeked of cigarettes." The campaign denied that he had resumed smoking, but when Obama admitted on MSNBC that he "fell off the wagon a couple of times," Tapper wrote that the issue was "minuscule. . . . Except that I don't like feeling that I wasn't being dealt with honestly."
The once-cheeky blog, which he briefly suspended while adjusting to what an ABC spokeswoman called a "rigorous editorial process," now seems rather tame. "I have had my struggles achieving the right tone," Tapper says. "It's not always easy for a mainstream organization to accept what a blog is."
A dust-up at a briefing with Gibbs last month became a Web sensation. Tapper asked whether reporters could get disclosure forms and ethics waivers for administration nominees. Given Obama's rhetoric, he said, "I'm sure it's something he'd want to do."
"Knowing of your crystal clarity on his opinion, I'll certainly check," Gibbs said with a smile.
"He doesn't believe in transparency?" Tapper shot back, dead serious. When Gibbs asked whether he had another, more pertinent question, Tapper said: "I think that's fairly pertinent. You don't?" Gibbs said he obviously did.
In retrospect, Tapper says, his "tone" made him the story, rather than the administration's promises of transparency. "I learned a lesson from it," he says.
Gibbs writes off the exchange as "a little miscommunication" and says they have "moved on. . . . Obviously, Jake is a very smart reporter and does his job very well. I understand that involves tough questions."
Politicians enjoy poking him back. When Tapper recently bumped into Hillary Clinton and asked which of her titles over the years was her favorite, she said, "I prefer any of them to what we call you when you're not around."
Gibson, among others, likens Tapper to Sam Donaldson, and the onetime White House correspondent praises his work. Once, when he called Tapper twice to check on when a White House photo would become available -- the second time, Donaldson admits, with irritation in his voice -- Tapper replied, "I told you we're working on it, and we are!"
"There's none of this 'Oh, how's the wife and children?' He's very intense," Donaldson says. "He's not a glad-hander, a backslapper."
Tapper doesn't shout questions, but he can be direct. During the Democratic primaries, Tapper asked Obama about what he called "an attempt by conservatives and Republicans to paint you as unpatriotic." He rattled off examples: "That you didn't put your hand over your heart during the national anthem, that you no longer wear an American flag on your lapel pin, that you met with some former members of the Weather Underground, and now they are questioning your wife's comments when she said she hasn't been proud of the U.S. until just recently."
Some liberals were not pleased. "I get a lot of heat from the left, which is bizarre," Tapper says, given that many conservatives regard him as a "left-wing stooge" for having previously worked for Salon. "I get a lot of heat from the right, too, but the vitriol is from the left."
A Philadelphia native who describes himself as the son of " '60s hippies" -- a pediatrician and a psychiatric nurse -- Tapper graduated from Akiba Hebrew Academy before heading to Dartmouth. He was a garden-variety liberal in college, sporting an earring and a ponytail. Tapper also became a cartoonist for the student paper, drawing such characters as a woman who rips out a man's heart while breaking up with him.
After a semester at the University of Southern California's film school, he became the spokesman for a family friend, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, during her successful 1992 campaign for a House seat. Tapper worked for the Democratic congresswoman on the Hill, but "didn't like being in politics, and I wasn't particularly good at it."
He spent three years as a publicist for the firm Powell Tate, flacking for such clients as Hooters. Tapper also freelanced for The Washington Post, holding forth on such topics as "Stairmaster butt" and how caller ID "has single-handedly changed the rules of romance."
In 1998, while working for the group Handgun Control, Tapper was pondering an offer from Washington City Paper when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. This was of more than passing interest to Tapper, who weeks earlier had gone on a date with the suddenly notorious White House intern. He turned that brief encounter into a cover story -- and a job -- at City Paper.
"I feel bad for poor Monica and feel unclean adding my feeble barnacle to her ship of fame. . . . That said, let the whoring begin," he wrote.
"To be brutally honest, I got with her because I figured that behind her initial aggressiveness lurked an easy, perhaps winning, bit of no-frills hookup," he wrote, but he dropped her off after their dinner with "a very innocent goodbye."
Tapper regards his year at City Paper as an invaluable boot camp where he spent part of his time "screwing up and getting yelled at."
A year later, Tapper joined Salon, the liberal Web magazine, as a Washington correspondent. "He was incredibly productive," editor Joan Walsh says. "He wrote constantly. You would hear from him in the middle of the night if he thought a headline misrepresented his story."
There were other kinds of clashes as well. "Sometimes he wasn't as liberal as his San Francisco editors wanted him to be," Walsh says. "He wasn't ideological. Other people wanted him to go more in the direction of hitting Republicans harder."
That was true during the endless bus rides of John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. Tapper occasionally wrote critical stories -- one involved McCain referring to his Vietnamese captors as "gooks" -- but also reveled in the bantering atmosphere.
"Jake is a very good reporter, and fun to be around," says longtime McCain adviser Mark Salter. "There were plenty of times I got a little vexed with him. But you always knew he was an equal-opportunity reporter. We'd argue -- sometimes on the telephone, usually in a long chain of e-mails -- and if you made a good point he'd recognize it. You knew he never came with an agenda."
Tapper was less enamored of candidate George W. Bush, writing about "the media curiously refusing to shine a light on the things Bush doesn't seem to know or understand. . . . He's been spoiled by a press corps that has generally been intimidated or lazy or fawning." Tapper decided after that campaign to underline his neutrality by no longer voting in presidential elections.
He soon branched out, writing a book on the Florida recount and becoming a presence on cable news. He co-hosted a Saturday night show on CNN called "Take Five" and did a stint as a reporter for VH1.
When Tapper made it to ABC, Peter Jennings was among those who tutored him. "Peter was an exacting guy," Tapper recalls. "He offered tips in his inimitable style." These included sartorial criticisms, with Jennings once telling Tapper, "That's an unusually elegant tie for you."
During the same period, Tapper made the gossip columns by dating Kate Shindle, a former Miss America. The romance didn't last, and during the 2004 campaign he met his future wife, Jennifer Brown, a field coordinator for Planned Parenthood. They now have a 18-month-old daughter, Alice.
Tapper, who festoons his Facebook page with baby pictures, says his network career has had a "horrible" impact on his family life. "I wouldn't be able to be here," he says, "if it weren't for Jen and her complete understanding of this job and my drive."