“The Lead” Interview
with Kam Williams
Headline: Jake on Tap!
Jake has been a widely-respected reporter in the nation’s capital for more than 14 years, and his most recent book, “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” debuted in the Top Ten on The New York Times’ best-seller list. Prior to CNN, he was employed by ABC News, where he had served as senior White House correspondent since the 2008 presidential election.
In that role, Jake contributed regularly to Good Morning America, Nightline and World News Tonight, in addition to serving as substitute host of This Week. He also had a blog, Political Punch, on ABCNews.com. In terms of accolades, he has earned the coveted Merriman Smith Award for presidential coverage from the White House Correspondents’ Association an unprecedented three consecutive times. And he played a key role in ABC’s Emmy Award-winning coverage of the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, and its Murrow-Award-winning coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden.
Over the course of almost a decade at ABC News, he covered a wide range of stories, visiting remote corners of Afghanistan, covering the war in Iraq from Baghdad, and spending time in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, he served as the lead political reporter for the coverage of the presidential election.
Jake began his journalism career at the Washington City Paper before being published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The Weekly Standard, among others. He has drawn caricatures and illustrations for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and his comic strip, “Capitol Hell,” appeared in Roll Call from 1994 to 2003.
Jake is the author of a trio of books, including “The Outpost,” “Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency,” and “Body Slam: The Jesse Ventura Story.” A
Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude graduate of Dartmouth College, Jake currently lives in Washington, DC with his wife Jennifer, their young son and daughter, and a dog and two cats.
Kam Williams: Hi Jake, thanks for the interview.
Jake Tapper: Sure, my pleasure, Kam.
KW: How did you end up in journalism, as the son of a pediatrician and a psychiatric nurse?
JT: Well, I don’t have their gifts for science and math, so going into medicine was never going to be a path for me. But we were a family of news junkies, and I was born in ’69, so awareness of my parents’ progressive politics was always very much in the forefront of our dinner table discussions, whether about Watergate, Vietnam, the Black Panthers, or Philadelphia’s Mayor, Frank Rizzo. So, from a very early age, my brother and I watched the news every night and were very aware of the political issues of the day. And ultimately, after a few false starts that included going to film school after I finished college, and serving as press secretary for a family friend running for Congress, I finally figured out what I wanted to do. Telling stories about what’s going on, and reporting the news became a very natural fit. Actually, it’s kind of surprising that it took so long to figure it out.
KW: Did you write for The Dartmouth Review while you were there? It might be the most famous college student paper in the country. But I would guess that you didn’t, since it only promotes conservative points-of-view.
JT: No, I didn’t write for the Review, but I did do a daily comic strip for the regular school newspaper, The Dartmouth, where I would comment on the events of the day in comic form. My strip would make fun of everyone: The Dartmouth Review, and liberal campus protestors, frat boys and sorority girls, the football team, and administrators and professors.
KW: You also did a cartoon strip called “Capitol Hell,” after you moved to D.C.
JT: Yeah, that was a weekly comic strip published by Roll Call.
KW: Did you write and draw the strip?
JT: Yes, I was hoping to be a cartoonist, but I succeeded in journalism first, so I just stuck with it.
KW: How do you decide what stories you’re going to cover?
JT: That’s a great question. We devote a great deal of time debating what we think is the most important issue of the day with the goal of providing as much breaking new information as possible while also providing a mix and a balance of stories, so that we’re covering business and international affairs, as well as politics and international news, and some sports and pop culture, if there’s something we think rises to the level.
KW: And how do you decide whether a story’s important enough to cover it on location?
JT: That’s one of those things where, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said famously about obscenity: “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.” One of the great journalistic thrills of this job has been to be able to anchor shows from Boston, Oklahoma, Paris or wherever a story is breaking and seems big enough. Sometimes, it’s really just a need to get there to talk to people who are already there on the scene.
KW: Have you ever had a fear for your own safety while covering a story in a hot spot like Ferguson or Paris where there was a palpable possibility of danger in the air?
JT: I wasn’t scared about my safety in Paris, but I will say that while I’ve reported from there, and from Israel, the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the place that seemed the most likely that I might be injured or worse in some sort of accident was Ferguson. That was both in the protests in August, and then much more starkly in October when there was the announcement that there would not be an indictment against Officer Wilson, which was followed by much more violent protests. That was the most hairy situation.
KW: What was the energy like in Ferguson?
JT: I think that a lot of people parachuting in, like me, were coming into a situation that had been tense for decades. It seemed to me that the idea that this was all about one incident was incorrect. People were upset about their own personal experiences, as much, if not more so, as they were about what had happened to Michael Brown.
KW: Why do you think President Obama decided not to attend the unity rally in Paris following the terrorist attacks there?
JT: I was never able to get a straight answer as to what happened, and why they made the glaring decision not to send even a high-ranking official from the administration. Why the White House didn’t remains a mystery to me. It’s likely that they thought of it was a European affair which didn’t necessitate the participation of the U.S. or, frankly, any leader from the Western Hemisphere. To me, when you’re in the last two years of an administration, and you don’t always have the best people giving the best advice at any given moment. But I honestly don’t know what happened. I’m still kind of confused by it. The White House basically said something to the effect of, “We should’ve sent somebody but we’re never going to tell you why we didn’t.”
KW: Did you really go on a date with Monica Lewinsky in 1998?
JT: Yes, about a month before she became a household name. We met at a party, and went on a very innocent date. I didn’t really think anything of it at the time. Then I went on a vacation with my dad, picked up a newspaper on our way back, and was stunned by what I was reading. And I wrote a story about for the Washington City Paper which is where I landed next. That was my first full-time job in journalism.
KW: Have you remained in touch with her or tried to interview her?
JT: We exchange email on occasion. I think she knows that I’m here, if she wanted to do an interview, but I haven’t really been pressing for it.
KW: What do you think of her recent resurfacing?
JT: The truth is, I feel sorry for her. We all do stupid things when we’re 20 or 21. It would be horrible to have for a poor decision you made at that age to haunt you for the rest of your life. But it does happen. She’s a smart and good person who made a bad mistake with somebody who should’ve known a lot better. And it makes me sad as a friend of hers that it still haunts her.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
JT: No, not really, because I think of myself as an interviewer, not as the subject, as I’d guess you think of yourself, too.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
JT: I started Wally Lamb’s third book, “The Hour I First Believed,” but I haven’t finished that yet.
The last book I finished was “American Sniper” by Chris Kyle, which I read before interviewing his widow, Taya, and Bradley Cooper.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
JT: That’s a question I’ve never been asked. I remember my parents dropping me off at my friend Eric Dudley’s house on their way to the hospital for my mom to have my brother. So, I was 4. And I also remember my brother being brought home. He and I are very close to this day.
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
JT: I was brought up in a Conservative Jewish household. I went to a Hebrew school and to a Jewish sleep away camp. But I wouldn’t describe my childhood as particularly spiritual. My parents divorced when I was 7, which was almost trendy at the time. All my friends’ parents were getting divorced. I identified as a Jew, but much more so as a kid growing up in Philadelphia in the Seventies. It was an era of change.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
JT: I see someone a lot older than I expect to see. I feel like I’m about 27, so I’m surprised to see the gray and the bags under my eyes. But, I still have my hair, so I can’t complain. Let’s just say I did okay, follicly-speaking, with the genes I was handed. People don’t necessarily think I’m 46.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
JT: You really have to stand out to be remembered in this field. I don’t think very many journalists do get remembered. In terms of this profession, I would like to be remembered as a journalist who told the truth, who confronted people in power making questionable decisions, and who tried to do some good. But the truth of the matter is I only expect to be remembered by my kids, and I hope they think of me as a good dad.
KW: Lastly, what’s in your wallet?
JT: My wallet’s a lot more exciting than its contents. I have a great wallet that everybody remarks about because it looks like one of those Aerogram letters. I got it at a toy store, and every year my wife buys me a new one because I’m one of those guys whose wallet looks like a corned beef sandwich after awhile. I’d be carrying around things like club cards for bookstores that don’t exist anymore. But right now, mine is pretty bareboned. It’s got credit cards, driver’s license, health insurance information, car information and a $50 traveler’s check that I never got around to cashing.
KW: thanks again for the time and keep up the great work, Jake. I think you have good energy and you exude a certain calmness and confidence that makes for a pleasant experience watching you.
JT: That’s really nice of you to say, Kam. Thanks.
To see Jake Tapper’s coverage of the unity rally in Paris, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FJME4bD6jQ