Gene Weingarten

Washington, D.C.

 I am old and cranky. I write "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. With my son Dan and David Clarke, I write the daily newspaper comic strip Barney & Clyde, about a friendship between a billionaire and a bum. I am working on a book about the events of Sunday, December 28, 1986, a date chosen at random by picking numbers out of a hat. Yes, it's an insane idea, and yes, I can use all the tips I can get.

Best of Gene

Chatological Humor chat

On one Tuesday each month, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. He will chat about anything.

Although this chat is sometimes updated between live shows, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many people keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.

12.28.86: One day

I chose the date at random, by drawing numbers out of a hat. I'm going to spend the next two years researching that date, and only that date, in America, and then present it in a wide-angle, panoramic fashion. I'd like your help. Many events leave a trail in the media or the public record, and I'm already following up on many of those. I know, for example, that hardboiled mystery writer John D. MacDonald died on that day, and the Jets beat the Chiefs. "Walk Like an Egyptian" topped the pop charts. And so forth. The public record is voluminous. But fame tends to be transient and shallow, casting what seems to be an arbitrary spotlight; there is also power in things that never get into the public eye -- stories of drama and consequence can be found in the lives of ordinary people. Sometimes, small things happen that will go unnoticed or unrecorded, but will prove pivotal to monumental events that follow. I want to find these things by tapping your memories, and/or testing your research skills. The book will be highly selective, but my Facebook page won't be; we hope it develops an engaging narrative of its own. If you think you have a story to tell, we'll look at it here. Or you can email me in complete privacy at oneday12.28.86@gmail.com. These could be anecdotes from your life or the lives of others you know. Nothing is too trivial, though it will be edited for quality and appropriateness. Are you a good enough storyteller to make yours interesting? Or, are you a researcher at heart? Talk to me. I'd be grateful for all sorts of promising leads. No money will change hands, I'm afraid, but I'll introduce you to all my swanky, bon vivant friends, as soon as I get some. What's in it for you? People who proved helpful will be acknowledged in the book. If you're really helpful, you and I could be working together in person. And, of course, if your own life finds its way into the book, hey, you'll be a superstar.
Honors & Awards:
  • 2008 & 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing – the only two-time winner in that category
Books by Gene Weingarten:  

I’m With Stupid

Buy it from Amazon

The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Life. And Death

Buy it from Amazon

Old Dogs: Are the Best Dogs

Buy it from Amazon

The Fiddler in the Subway

Buy it from Amazon

Me & Dog

Buy it from Amazon
Recent Articles

BELOW THE BELTWAY COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Weingarten clients only)

By GENE WEINGARTEN

(BEG ITAL)Gene Weingarten is away. This column was originally published on Sept. 8, 2013.(END ITAL)

WASHINGTON -- (BEG ITAL)To the Nobel Prize committee:(END ITAL)

I am writing to suggest that you make your first posthumous award in literature, and that it go to Ambrose Bierce, the 19th-century American satirist. I have always admired Bierce, but I do not write merely as a fan; I write to acquaint you with what may well be the greatest feat of long-range prognostication in the history of the written word.

While reading Bierce essays recently, my friend Jack Shafer discovered the following passage: "Nothing is more certain than that within a few years the word 'literally' will mean 'figuratively.' And this because journalists, with a greater desire to write forcibly than ability to do so, habitually use it in that sense." (He was talking about this sort of imbecilic formulation: "I literally died of laughter.")

Bierce wrote this prescient passage in 1871. As you may be aware, the Oxford English Dictionary -- arbiter of all things English -- has finally, inevitably, sanctioned the use of "literally" to mean its precise opposite. It is a hapless surrender to, figuratively, eons of careless misuse.

(Note my correct use of the verb "sanction," which has also been corrupted over the years to mean "to outlaw," its precise opposite; the OED has been complicit in permitting this, as well. And don't get me started on "imply" and "infer," which most dictionaries now say can be used interchangeably, which is no different from allowing "pitch" to be synonymous with "catch." This, too, was occasioned by sustained years of misuse.)

I am not a language tyrant, nor do I disrespect dictionary editors, to whom falls the distasteful duty of reading and listening to what is being widely uttered and written and adding these things to the lexicon merely on the basis of ubiquity. So, although I may cringe at "blogosphere" and "webinar" and, sigh, "whatevs," I do not protest their appearance in dictionaries. But one must draw the line somewhere, and to me, that line is crossed when antonyms are certified for use as synonyms. It is rewarding vapidity. It is celebrating vapidity. It would be like your giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to the president of the Hair Club for Men.

(I should mention that defenders of "literally" as "figuratively" note that it has been used that way once or twice by people with serious writing chops, such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. That no more makes it right or acceptable than it makes it right for you to annihilate 100,000 people with a bomb just because Harry Truman once did it.)

So, my point is that if you posthumously give Ambrose Bierce the Nobel Prize in Literature, you will be sending an important message to lexicographers worldwide.

Finally, I know that the Nobel committee tends to reward bodies of work; rest assured, Bierce successfully predicted much more than the trashing of "literally." I'll leave you with one more bit. Upon departing on horseback for Mexico in 1913, at the age of 71, to bear witness to Pancho Villa's revolution, Bierce wrote this to a niece: "Good-by -- if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart his life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico -- ah, that is euthanasia!"

It was the last anyone heard of him. The old gringo's body has never been found.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

BELOW THE BELTWAY COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, September 9, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, September 8, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Weingarten clients only)

By GENE WEINGARTEN

WASHINGTON -- When I was a young reporter in Albany, N.Y., in the 1970s I used to fight with my sources about putting their quotes on the record. They wanted that. I didn't.

This was the heyday of the anonymous source, and deploying it became a key status marker of the investigative journalist. You obviously were a swashbuckler if, like Woodward and Bernstein, you were able to persuade influential, powerful people to leak to you from the shadows. My conversations with sources sometimes went like this:

(BEG ITAL)Surely you can take that off the record.

No need to.

Should I call you a "senior administration official" or "a source close to the governor"?

You can call me Wally Rosenblatt. It is my name.

Work with me here, Wally!

All I am giving you is last month's soybean yield.(END ITAL)

The rush to hush-hush all began to change in the early 1980s, by which time newsroom leaders had tired of 21-year-old knuckleheads handing out anonymity like after-dinner mints, particularly after a few writers began to abuse this privilege by -- this is the official term in journalism -- "making [stuff] up." (If no one actually said them, quotes can be (BEG ITAL)really(END ITAL) good.)

News organizations around the country publicly vowed to control the problem, even to the point of total elimination of anonymity. But this was nonsense. It was never any more likely to happen than when Reagan and Gorbachev yammered on about their supposed goal of eventually eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. There was no way they were ever going to give up the only tools they had that ensured the superpowers would never be at the mercy of rogue, two-bit mini-nuclear states whose leaders, during formal state occasions, dressed in pajamas.

Similarly, news organizations could not outright give up the single most powerful tool they had, a tool that had been a principal lock-picker for coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. So, they came up with an alternative plan: When granting anonymity, the writers would have to be completely transparent by informing the reader, in the story, of exactly (BEG ITAL)why(END ITAL) the source required anonymity: the extremely dire circumstances that justified this rarest of exceptions to the no-anonymity policy. Subject to this sort of transparency and scrutiny, the theory went, requests for anonymity would slow to a trickle until they withered and died of their own accord.

How useful has this transparency policy been? Roughly as useful as Wonder Woman's invisible plane. Check it out:

In the past three months alone, the expressions "requested anonymity" and "on the condition of anonymity" have each appeared more than 3,000 times in American newspapers. A few recent real examples, and their published rationales:

About the impending death of Aretha Franklin: (BEG ITAL)"It's in God's hands," said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity because of the family's wish for privacy. (END ITAL) (Transparent version: This super-secret, jaw-dropping observation merits anonymity to protect the source's right to ignore a grieving family's final request.)

About Tiffany Trump's appearance as a student at law school: (BEG ITAL) "People were following her around with cameras, and it looked really uncomfortable," said a student who attended the event and like most of Trump's classmates requested anonymity to discuss a fellow student.(END ITAL) (Transparent version: Dishing on a celeb is always protected speech.)

About a woman who says she was molested by her pastor: (BEG ITAL)The counselor, who spoke with Ms. Baranowski's permission, requested anonymity because she did not want to be part of the controversy.(END ITAL) (Transparent version: She wanted anonymity because she wanted anonymity.)

And finally, this one, the best I have seen, the Moby-Dick of anonymity justifications:

For a story about nasty neighbors: (BEG ITAL)"They even threatened us with death if we said something," said one of the neighbors, who requested anonymity because the owner of the property, Vilma Nunez Peraza, left because of health problems, however, she gave her nephew legal power to ... (END ITAL)

It went on and on and on. Transparency!

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

BELOW THE BELTWAY COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Weingarten clients only)

By GENE WEINGARTEN

WASHINGTON -- I am selling my house. Perhaps you have seen photos of it on a real estate website. It's the one that looks nothing like my house.

Before selling one's home these days, it is considered de rigueur to first move out and then hire "stagers," who are people you employ to inform you -- in words or substance -- that you have all the interior design skills of a herd of lop-eared goats. They do not say this out loud (usually), but the assumption seems to be that your existing furniture is held together by the snot smeared on the underside of chairs and tables. So it must all go, replaced by other, presumably less disgraceful furniture. This rule is always followed, even if your house is furnished entirely in Louis Quatorze period pieces and early, original Renoirs.

In my case, the art on the walls had been mostly old clocks and other antiquarian things, the better (we thought) to decorate a house that was nearly a century and a half old. The stagers replaced these things with artwork designed to offend no one, stuff that was blander than turnip crudites served with a pureed-cauliflower-and-cottage-cheese dipping sauce. These paintings were technically "abstract" in that they didn't look like anything at all, except perhaps the remnants of the previous meal, smeared on canvas.

The stagers also plopped down a few sculptures. The first one you see on a tour of the house, in the living room, probably has a title like "The Elevation of Humankind." It resembles a giant bowl of french fries recovered from a soot-heavy fire. Most important, it is gray.

Actually, everything is gray. The house also got repainted according to reputed modern homebuyer tastes, which may be described as: gray. Not gray as in, say, a shark. That would be way too exciting. Gray like plumbing. Gray like generic sweatpants. Gray like those creepy cow skulls in the desert. Gray that must be spelled "gray," because "grey" is too outre.

The whole house is spotless, as though it belonged to Felix Unger, who every morning encased his body in one of those thick plastic zip-on couch covers to avoid soiling the furniture or countertops. The only sign the house might actually be inhabited by human people was one book, placed on a dresser in a bedroom, open to "Flemish painters." Also, a cookbook propped open in the kitchen, on a bookstand, next to a basket of lemons. The book is open to a recipe for "lemon bars." Because, you know. That is what people in a house like this customarily whip up for dessert. Also in the kitchen, on display, are a tub of Crisco and a bottle of Wesson oil.

Kidding, kidding! There are only three bottles on display: Tuscan seasoning oil, sesame oil and grapeseed oil.

"People like to look at a house like this and say, 'I'd like to live like this!'" says my real estate agent. "And then they buy it, and all the furniture gets moved out, and their own furniture comes in, and they live like they always have."

Anyway, I objected to none of it. I know these stagers are experts. But it did bug me just a little bit. It's not that I took it personally -- it's a nice house, I'm proud of it, and if the pros think our tastes were too funky, so be it. But it does bother me that they think so little of American homebuyers that they have concluded that bland, pretentious, modern generica is a selling point.

The house went on the market very recently. I just got off the phone with my agent. It sold in minutes.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

About
I am old and cranky. I write "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. With my son Dan and David Clarke, I write the daily newspaper comic strip Barney & Clyde, about a friendship between a billionaire and a bum. I am working on a book about the events of Sunday, December 28, 1986, a date chosen at random by picking numbers out of a hat. Yes, it's an insane idea, and yes, I can use all the tips I can get.

Best of Gene

Chatological Humor chat

On one Tuesday each month, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. He will chat about anything.

Although this chat is sometimes updated between live shows, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many people keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.

12.28.86: One day

I chose the date at random, by drawing numbers out of a hat. I'm going to spend the next two years researching that date, and only that date, in America, and then present it in a wide-angle, panoramic fashion. I'd like your help. Many events leave a trail in the media or the public record, and I'm already following up on many of those. I know, for example, that hardboiled mystery writer John D. MacDonald died on that day, and the Jets beat the Chiefs. "Walk Like an Egyptian" topped the pop charts. And so forth. The public record is voluminous. But fame tends to be transient and shallow, casting what seems to be an arbitrary spotlight; there is also power in things that never get into the public eye -- stories of drama and consequence can be found in the lives of ordinary people. Sometimes, small things happen that will go unnoticed or unrecorded, but will prove pivotal to monumental events that follow. I want to find these things by tapping your memories, and/or testing your research skills. The book will be highly selective, but my Facebook page won't be; we hope it develops an engaging narrative of its own. If you think you have a story to tell, we'll look at it here. Or you can email me in complete privacy at oneday12.28.86@gmail.com. These could be anecdotes from your life or the lives of others you know. Nothing is too trivial, though it will be edited for quality and appropriateness. Are you a good enough storyteller to make yours interesting? Or, are you a researcher at heart? Talk to me. I'd be grateful for all sorts of promising leads. No money will change hands, I'm afraid, but I'll introduce you to all my swanky, bon vivant friends, as soon as I get some. What's in it for you? People who proved helpful will be acknowledged in the book. If you're really helpful, you and I could be working together in person. And, of course, if your own life finds its way into the book, hey, you'll be a superstar.
Books
  • I’m With Stupid
  • The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Life. And Death
  • Old Dogs: Are the Best Dogs
  • The Fiddler in the Subway
  • Me & Dog
Awards
  • 2008 & 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing – the only two-time winner in that category
Reviews
"Gene Weingarten is outrageously funny. I mean that literally: He is guaranteed to outrage some readers. But the smart ones will absolutely love him." – Dave Barry
Links