That's a combination Tapper manages with enough skill that in an otherwise-blistering 2013 New York Times read on television news, Tapper was described as a man who "has proved that it’s possible to create an afternoon news show that is intelligent, non-ideological and not horribly boring." And this year, the conservative news and commentary site Breitbart described Tapper as part of a "half-dozen mainstream media reporters whom conservatives and liberals alike trust."
That reputation is perhaps more than a little unlikely, given where Tapper comes from.
Tapper was born in New York and raised in the Philadelphia area by what he has told reporters were a pair of hippy parents. That last part might be debatable; Tapper's mom was a psychiatric nurse, his father a pediatrician and professor. But this much is not: In the early 1990s, before Tapper graduated from his father's Ivy League alma mater, Dartmouth College, Tapper grew his hair long enough to regularly employ a ponytail.
By 1992, Tapper was part of the campaign that helped put family friend and now-former representative Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.) in office. Today, Margolies (she stopped using Mezvinsky after a 2007 divorce) might be best known as Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law and a failed 2014 congressional candidate. But in the 1990s, Margolies was a kind of women's-empowerment icon. She was a longtime broadcast journalist who became the first single American woman to adopt a foreign child.
After Margolies lost a 1994 reelection bid, Tapper joined a D.C. public relations outfit for a few years, then put in a short stint at the gun-control organization that would later become the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
By the late 1990s, Tapper had begun freelancing for various publications. Then-Washington City Paper editor David Carr infected Tapper with a lasting passion for journalism, Tapper told reporters this year after Carr's sudden death. Carr also persuaded Tapper to take a very big step — a significant pay cut — and join the alternative weekly's team. (Carr would go on to become a revered New York Times media critic.)
One of Tapper's own City Paper-era claims to fame: His date with Monica Lewinsky a few weeks before news of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair took up permanent residence in the nation's headlines. Tapper had just enough insight into Lewinsky to offer one of the earliest semi-empathetic and multi-dimensional portraits of Lewinsky.
Tapper moved to Salon.com and then over to ABC News in 2003. During part of this time, Tapper was also the artistic head and hand behind the comic strip "Capitol Hell." Tapper's politically themed cartoons have also appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times.
(Tapper is known for his cartoons. In high school, one of them got the future presidential primary debate moderator into a bit of trouble. When folded just the right way, the series of balloons Tapper had drawn became a part of the male anatomy that today define a prank presidential campaign's name. In the late 1980s, Tapper's joke was outlandish enough to merit 75 hours of school-mandated community service.)
Like a lot of reporters, the adult Tapper has a reputation for maintaining a ready reserve of aggression.
In 2009, now-retired ABC newsman Charles Gibson described Tapper as "a little brash at times" but consistently hungry, hardworking and hard to ignore. That's not a bad set of adjectives for a reporter, but they're not always traits that endear Tapper to those facing his questions. That same description probably goes a long way toward explaining how Tapper managed to become ABC News's chief White House correspondent less than a decade after he jumped from Democratic political press aide.
Tapper's career hasn't been all uphill, of course. In both 2010 and 2012, ABC decided against naming Tapper host of that network's Sunday morning politics show, "This Week." (Tapper served as an interim host in 2010.) The tone of a Tapper exchange with Robert Gibbs, Obama's first-term press secretary, as well as the content of a blog post he wrote for ABC News, attracted what Tapper has since described as the wrong kind of attention. Video of the mildly testy exchange with Gibbs lives on You Tube. And Tapper's blog, Political Punch, went on hiatus while Tapper "adjusted" to ABC's editorial style, The Washington Post reported.
In 2013, Tapper joined CNN. This year, he took over "State of The Union." It's unclear what, if any, role Tapper's sharp edges played in CNN's decision this year to give Tapper a tryout in the Piers Morgan (formerly Larry King Live) slot and then go in a totally different direction, or to make Tapper a debate moderator.
His conservative fans likely weren't so pleased when Tapper interviewed the Navy SEAL on whom the feature film "Lone Survivor " is based. Critics said Tapper suggested that the military man's comrades died for nothing when he asked about the potential senselessness of lives lost in America's involvement in Afghanistan. And Tapper, true to form, quickly clapped back on Twitter.
Tapper's "The Lead " also faced some criticism for airing a 2014 report in the final stretch of an election that centered around allegations of sexual harassment lobbed against a then-Republican congressional candidate by a male campaign aide. That aide later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges related to the allegations. Tapper subsequently defended the show's reporting in an on-air "update."
But Tapper clearly gets much of what he does right in the eyes of viewers and other journalists.
Mediaite, an industry-centered Web site, currently lists Tapper as No. 3 on it's TV Reporter "Power Grid," an algorithm of airtime, social media followers, audience size and — most tellingly — more than one type of "buzz." In 2013, the National Headliner Awards recognized Boston Marathon bombing coverage on "The Lead," and the show's look at Oklahoma communities battered by deadly tornadoes. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, the White House Correspondents' Association honored Tapper's deadline broadcast reporting work.
Tapper was also part of ABC News teams that won an Emmy for coverage of President Obama's 2009 inauguration and the Edward R. Murrow Award for breaking news coverage of Osama bin Laden's 2011 death. And, he's managed to write three books, the most recent of which made an appearance on the New York Times bestseller list.
Tapper likely prepared for portions of tonight's debate in his office at CNN. As Politico magazine reported, that's a space filled with campaign signs connected to losing campaigns, a Florida voting booth and an infamous butterfly ballot. It's a space designed for a mind preoccupied with politics, megawatt blunders and other moments of ignominy.