Book Excerpt: 'The Fabulist'

The Weekly occupies the eighth floor of a midsized commercial office building in Foggy Bottom, a neighborhood not far from the Lincoln Memorial. The structure's entryway is decked out in green-tinted glass and rose-colored marble, hand buffed to a perfect gleam every morning by a man named Jimmy, who also supervises the staff of nine that vacuums the hallways daily, polishes the hardware weekly, and washes the windows every third Monday when it's not raining. In all, 800 New Hampshire Avenue N.W. makes a perfect impression on one's mother.

Years ago, the magazine lived on Capitol Hill, in a weather-beaten storefront — the kind of building in which I had fantasized a magazine like the Weekly would be housed — with a clanking press in the basement, the flavor of printing chemicals in the air, and newsprint grime on every desk, door handle, and light switch. But the year before I was hired, the magazine's owner sold the storefront and moved us here.

The business staff invited advertisers to the shiny new space to watch the writers at work, but invariably they were disappointed. The magazine no longer looked anything like All the President's Men, with reporters crouched at desks flush against one another, grumbling about the day's news. Now the writers worked in their own offices at computers, alone. The editor no longer could yell, not even for show, "Stop the presses" — if he ever had, which I doubt — because the printing had been outsourced to a large corporation with a plant near the Chesapeake Bay. Every Monday afternoon, they delivered by courier the magazine's first press run, shrink-wrapped in plastic. As with a pack of Wrigley's gum, you had to pull one of those little red strings to open it up.

I loved arriving here every day. Working for my college newspaper, I had been a gadfly, detested by the campus authorities — the provost and the dean had come to hate me — but here, a gadfly was just what I was supposed to be. We were a nest of them. If an article didn't irritate someone, it had failed; if it didn't reveal embarrassing, even agitating information about its subject, it wasn't much of a story.

The Weekly had basically invented what became the dominant magazine journalism voice of the 1990s: the Ironic-Contrarian. Weekly pieces were attack pieces — but not angry, predictable polemics such as you might find in The Nation or National Review. They were sophisticated, low-key takedowns, all the more devastating because they used the source's own words to hang him: It was assisted suicide, not murder. The journalist's voice was cool, calm, even cold — at most, he or she might add the one-word sentence "Indeed," as if rolling up the noose for future use.

The key to a Weekly story was the capper: the most devastating remark by the source, in which he or she has been forced by the reporter's questions to take a position to a ridiculous extreme, a point where it is more laughable than logical. For instance, an Iowa congressman who was a leading defender of farm subsidies was pressed to say that if it was getting too expensive to pay farmers not to grow crops, then we should pay them a little less not to work at all.

Finally, the title of a Weekly piece had to be a tour de force. Whereas other magazines' titles were serviceable or vaguely clever, ours were little works of art: brief yet containing multiple meanings, pop culture references, and, again, veiled attacks that did not seem to come from the writer himself.

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