She is sorry, if you want to know.
Sorry she plagiarized in the first place. Sorry she got nailed. And sorry she ended up in the same sentence as infamous fiction writer Stephen Glass. Ruth Shalit is mad as hell about that.
And you should know that the former New Republic writer is happy to have kissed off Washington and found a job as an account planner at a British-inflected ad agency in New York.
It’s hard to remember that at a time when being a hot young writer in Washington was a big deal, Shalit was the biggest deal of all. As a featured writer in the opinion journal the New Republic beginning in 1993, she was a gorgeous stylist, with a gift for rendering the distant cousins of literary detail and policy nuance, often separated by nothing more than a comma. By the time she was 24, contracts, assignments, and bouquets were arriving steadily from some of the most reliable brand names in the business: the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and the New York Observer, among others. Her first real job out of college made her famous and well-compensated in a business not known for either.
Somewhere amidst all the buzz and sizzle, Shalit made the quintessentially ’90s journey from media employee to media celebrity. One particularly perfervid profile of Shalit mentioned her in the same breath as Hemingway and E. B. White and suggested that we will all anxiously await her memoirs one day. That may still be true, but those memoirs will now include an operatic chapter about her early rise and fall in the city of Washington, D.C.
Her narrative became more complicated in 1994, when she used then-Legal Times writer Daniel Klaidman’s prose in a New Republic story about the young Turks in the Clinton administration. Less than a year later, she was discovered lifting the National Journal’s Paul Starobin’s language about presidential candidate Steve Forbes. There were two other instances from the same period of linguistic kleptomania. Now, five years later, the 28-year-old Shalit is out of the business. But she’s not done talking: The silkiest opinion writer of her generation has one more contentious issue to weigh in on—herself.
And it doesn’t really matter who is doing the asking. Washington City Paper is one of the many outlets that savaged her on the merits. In 1995, the paper ran a skeptical profile of Shalit, then still a rising star despite the bullets she’d already taken over her reporting and her coziness with political conservatives. And she popped up occasionally as That Darn Ruth, a one-woman journalistic disaster area, in the media column I write. But Shalit is a tremendously self-involved person who is not particularly self-aware. At my urging, a request for a quick quote about her new gig mushroomed into a full-blown exit interview because there was a mutuality of needs: a journalist who wants to sell papers and a journalist who can’t stay out of them, never mind what for. We made an appointment to talk later that week.
In Shalit’s version of things, she left Washington because she finally decided to walk away from all of the hectoring windbags who would lay her low. She exited the New Republic at the end of January, but her departure actually came after months of quiet pushing from Editor Charles Lane. Either way, Shalit is no longer a Washington journalist because she could not change the single most interesting thing about herself:
“People fall prey to a reductionist fallacy that the worst truth about you is the most consequential truth. [The plagiarism] was a truth about me and is a truth about me. But there are a lot of other interesting truths as well.”
That’s the voice of the massively intellectual daughter of a Wisconsin college professor, a kid who was reading her future heroes in the New Yorker by the time she was 10 years old.
And then there’s the voice of the 10-year-old:
“It’s like when you are a little kid and you want to be popular and you want to get in the popular crowd. And when it doesn’t go right, and they are just not having you. They’re just throwing paper airplanes at you and kicking you. At some point, you have to admit defeat and go home and say, ‘Guess what, Mom? I have to switch schools. I’m just not cutting it at this school, they won’t have me, and I want to clear the decks and start over.’ That’s what I feel like I am doing,” she says in one of several phone interviews from New York.
Both those personae reside in the same 5-foot-4 body—a combination that’s nifty in an intern and not so in someone with a megaphone provided by some of the most credible publications in the country. In retrospect, Shalit’s short years in the journalistic sun make you realize that much of the American publishing establishment is flying by the seat of its Dockers. (Former New Republic Editors Michael Kelly and Andrew Sullivan declined comment, as did current Editor Charles Lane.)
Shalit readily admits the reason that her run ended badly is the same reason it got off to such a rollicking start: She is/was a child playing over her head. Washington was completely charmed by her kinder-genius, complete with frilly socks. And until she got in trouble—and, in some instances, after it—New York editors relentlessly pursued a piece of La Shalit, a bubbly prodigy renowned for cultural literacy and political conservatism. But her attempt to hide in plain sight until the plagiarism became an asterisk didn’t work. Nobody—not even her endlessly forgiving sponsors at the New Republic—wants to play anymore.
Unlike former Washington Post writer Janet Cooke—whose 1981 Pulitzer was revoked when it turned out she had invented the story and its subject—Shalit won’t wind up selling clothes at a Liz Claiborne boutique; she’ll design the commercials for it instead. In fact, in the context of the Gotham ad world, the noise from the tin can dragging behind her will be quickly overwhelmed by the buzz she can create on her lunch hour. If they hold a reunion anytime soon of former journalistic child stars, she will look great and seem even better. But her business in Washington is not finished. Shalit wants people to remember that all of the attention that preceded—and maybe foretold—her downfall was about her talent and not her defects of character. She needs people to understand that she was famous before she was infamous:
“People wrote pieces about Ruth Shalit ‘failing upward’ and implying the attention was beneficial to me, which is absurd. Well, guess what? I had the attention before any of this happened. My work was very well-received.”
She excelled because she possessed a devastating eye for the cravenness of Clinton-era Washington, but she became what she assailed.
“But their slickness also has something a little disconcerting about it. The Stephanopoulites do not have burning consciences. They are not crusaders for social reform. They are baby-faced enforcers, directed to sand the sharp edges off their undisciplined elders,” she wrote in the New Republic back in 1994.
As the covered and the coverers reached a new level of intimacy, stars like Shalit began serving as subjects, rather than authors, of extensive profiles for the likes of George magazine. And, like those politicians who are handed gobs of power and adulation for no particular reason, Shalit became unaccountable. Her editorial enablers chose not to notice that their cherished phenom had not mastered the basics of her profession.
Jason Vest, another talented young journalist, who now works at the Village Voice, says that while he doesn’t know Shalit personally, he questions whether they were ever actually in the same business.
“Journalism is supposed to be about thoughtful inquiry in pursuit of truth. From what I read and saw about Shalit, that didn’t seem to be where her interests lay. She saw journalism as a route to celebrity and an opportunity to be intimate with power. Being a celebrity is not being a reporter. I mean, dancing with Newt Gingrich is a long way from speaking truth to power, if you ask me,” Vest says.
All journalists—at least the ones I know—would like to be famous, read by millions, with contracts that other writers covet. (I’m not so sure about the dancing-with-Newt part.) And many journalists in Washington will do what it takes to get there—including stealing the work of a colleague. The story you’re reading is full of efforts belonging to others—thousands of words and countless hours in reporting about Shalit that I downloaded and deployed to my own ends. Journalism is de facto appropriation. But it is a fundamental rule of the craft that when you steal stuff, you have to make it your own—through either creativity or industry. Steal people’s intellectual property? Happens every day in Washington. Steal their words—word-for-word? Oopsie.
Starobin, of the National Journal, was one of the people Shalit lifted from. Because of its excellence and its obscurity, the National Journal’s stories and ideas frequently show up under some of the better bylines in town. But the appropriators usually at least shuffle the text.
“I have seen all kinds of rip-offs—the conceptual rip-off, where the words are changed, but the idea is the same—but with what happened with Ruth, it was hard not to see it at some level as pathology,” says Starobin, who holds no grudge by this time. “Her character has been fodder for all kinds of analysis, and some people chalked this off to a pattern of laziness, but I thought it was something more interesting than that. I just never figured out exactly what that was.”
Neither has Shalit. She now admits the sin, but pardons herself for youthful improvidence.
“I was 23 years old, I was writing New Republic pieces, I was writing cover stories for the New York Times Magazine, I was filing columns for GQ, and at the same time, I was bopping around and being a 23-year-old and buying miniskirts with my GQ money. And yes, I loved it, but guess what? One false move and it all came tumbling down.”
She thinks about this for a minute and then says, “Well, make that two false moves.”
Plagiarism is not a fatal disease in journalism, regardless of how much huffing and puffing you hear from the Brahmins of the craft. Fellow journalistic It Girl Elizabeth Wurtzel lived to write again for a variety of titles after getting fired for plagiarism from the Dallas Morning News. The New York Times’ Fox Butterfield suffered only a one-week suspension after getting caught with the Boston Globe’s text under his byline. And NPR’s Nina Totenberg’s voice still resonates over official Washington, even though she plagiarized in the ’70s while doing a piece for the National Observer.
Shalit was a misdemeanor plagiarist, shoplifting prosaic passages that didn’t merit coveting; it was her recidivism that set her apart. Her career never regained traction because when her body of work was cracked open, it fell apart, yielding additional borrowed nuggets. There were too many instances of coincidental use of trademark language for her technical excuses to fully account for. And when she was in the middle of defending herself in 1995, she opened up a new front by delivering a massive whack at the Washington Post’s affirmative action policies that came up bad.
What she wrote was important and devastating—the Post is occasionally paralyzed by race—but wrong in serious ways. She cast Post writer Kevin Merida as some kind of poster boy for affirmative action when in fact he had risen in the business for reasons far more legitimate than her own. And her assertion that Post editors were disappointed when they found out foreign writer Douglas Farah wasn’t Latino fell apart in the dust-up that followed.
She remained in the gun sights after that, with normally measured Post Editor Len Downie calling her work “big-lie propaganda,” a right-wing-inflected bit of polemic that set out to demonize efforts to diversify the newsroom. And because she had incorrectly reported that city contractor Roy Littlejohn had “served time” for corruption when nothing of the sort had happened, this time, there was more than angry letters. The New Republic was promptly served with a suit, and she was put on leave. (The magazine apologized, and the suit was settled with no damages paid.)
Shalit was allowed to come back from leave for reasons that are a mystery even to the people who decided to keep her. Her version of donning sackcloth meant crawling under the wing of the New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, and taking occasional turns as a culture babe in the back of the book. She did good work—much of it about the wrongly accused, it should be pointed out—and it seemed to be her own. But people who work at the magazine say she was still a nightmare to fact-check and remained confused about the gravity of what she did for a living.
Oddly enough, the mistakes that eventually left her too hemmed in to do her reporting came off another New Republic Beanie Baby: Stephen Glass. Many of Glass’ pieces at the New Republic were made up, conjured from the space between his ears. Shalit’s situation became untenable last year when she ended up paired with Glass in story after story suggesting that the New Republic was a hotbed of adolescently malevolent con artists with notepads. The taxonomy of journalistic evil has since become very important to Shalit:
“The headlines were all ‘Kiddie Sociopaths Run Amok at New Republic,’ and there was no distinction made between what happened with me and Steve Glass.
“Steve Glass was boring, a boring fabulist, the Milli Vanilli of journalism. There were all these sorts of pieces written about how he was this brilliant, misunderstood genius who was hemmed in by the literature of fact. I think that’s wrong, that the appeal of his pieces was that they were supposedly full of all this great reporting. If you go back and read these pieces knowing that it was all made up, they don’t seem fun anymore,” she says.
“When people started writing pieces about Steve Glass, it all sort of got thinned out….It was ‘Steve Glass, fabulist’ and ‘Ruth Shalit, plagiarist.’ The rest of who I was and what I had done got dumped. And that was a drag, because if you stand back, there are good pieces with solid reporting, and that are true, by the way. To equate that body of work to the work of another writer whose entire oeuvre turned out to be this tissue of lies, that seems to be a large leap,” she says.
In spite of her own circumstances, she has no accommodation in her heart for the likes of Glass, who is reportedly studying law at Georgetown.
“I don’t think anybody at the New Republic has any sympathy for him. People there want to break his kneecaps. There are people there who are the nicest people I know who, if they saw him on the street, would take a swing at him.”
When it was revealed that one of the better sentence writers to come along in a while had a tendency to steal the sentences of others, Shalit didn’t help herself much. She suggested that it all came down to a butterfingered approach to cut-and-paste technology—that she had accidentally inserted passages from her notes that were actually the finished work of other writers. There are many who suggest that the problem was more split-personality than split-screen. But if she is a sociopath—a word both friends and enemies drop into anonymous chitchat—she is a very tough and well-adjusted one.
“I spent a lot of time trying to stand back and get some perspective on this. When the first few stories were written, there was a lot of armchair psychology about why I did what I did….I mean, George magazine even interviewed my poor father. And everybody was asking, ‘What is wrong with her, and why is she so screwed up?’ And I think a lot of that was pretty specious. I think the basic architecture of my personality was very strong and always has been. The story of what happened to me was basically the story of a young reporter who had ideas, energy, and talent, but who jumped on the Condé Nast gravy train, took on too many assignments, and had a hard fall. And that’s about the size of it.”
Washington, the New Republic specifically, was more than happy to accommodate her ambition, which is a mighty thing, even to this day.
“When I look back on it, I was probably ready to come in and be a New Republic intern and do the work of an intern. But things happened for me very quickly. After six months, I was getting calls from Time and Newsweek. I was sitting down with [Newsweek Editor]Maynard Parker eating cashews in the lobby of the Willard [Hotel]. I was so giddy, and I loved it. I don’t want to sound too whiny and lame, because I totally set myself up for this.”
In her version, she was a young reporter who did a bunch of stories that manifested the sin of sloppiness. At this point, that’s good enough for one of her victims, Klaidman, who now works at Newsweek. “It’s been years since the incident, and who am I to say that she hasn’t learned her lesson? Frankly, I wish her well.”
Someone who works at the Post—and therefore couldn’t be caught dead saying a kind word about Shalit—says she will be missed, barnacles and all. “She took on brave projects at the behest of her cowardly editors and had a sense of humor and delight about what she was doing. There is none of that left now at the New Republic.” Still, she says, “I can’t trust her on a personal level. I walked into a party and heard her just chatting away about her editor’s deepest personal secrets.”
Jacob Weisberg, a columnist for Slate, left the New Republic in 1994 after a brief period as Shalit’s colleague. He thinks she got screwed.
“I’m sorry she isn’t going to get a second chance. I think the Steve Glass thing just sort of snowballed onto her when, in fact, they had nothing to do with each other….It’s like comparing a parking ticket to a war crime,” he says, adding, “The punishment didn’t fit the crime. I think there was a lot of piling on.”
Shalit agrees, suggesting that the hounds would not give up because they were after her for sport:
“I had made enemies, and there were people out there with a motive to unbalance me, and it was very hard for me to keep my footing, but I tried. I tried to make good choices that reflected a sense of responsibility and maturity and poise. I tried to grow up, and I’m glad I kept at it for a couple of years and built up a new body of work by which people could judge me. And I would like to go back to it. [But] I got tired of making no money, staying up all night writing these pieces, and continuing to serve as a punching bag. It was like, Enough already. I knew that if I stayed in that environment that I would be irreparably altered.”
In a place where second acts are routine, Shalit owns the form. She’ll be back.xxxxxxxxxxxxx
She certainly had a snug purchase on permission at the New Republic, judging by the way she held on in a Washington she deems unforgiving. She made it through myriad plagiarism charges, a blistering counterattack from the Post, a libel suit—and, it should be mentioned, three editors. That the New Republic would be so publicly in the unaccountability business is low farce. A shop that practically invented comeuppance, it specializes in tough-minded hit pieces that lay bare the shortcutting and self-dealing of countless intended targets. (“I wrote a lot of tart, skeptical pieces that probably did not increase world happiness in the aggregate,” Shalit observes.) But the magazine never diagnosed the same sort of malignancy in Shalit.
“Ruth—and Steve Glass—embodies the opportunity the New Republic can give a young journalist,” says a former colleague. “It’s unmatched….[But] once you achieve this sort of star wattage, there is an expectation that builds around you. It’s the kind of visibility that can be so out of proportion to what is deserved, or what you can handle, that this constant pressure builds up.”
Another colleague says Shalit enrolls those around her in her dramas without their ever making a conscious evaluation of what they’re buying in to:
“Ruth has this weird charisma. People—really smart people—are interested in her and drawn to her. Many of them would end up punished for that interest, because she could be so high-maintenance and end up not being worth the amount of attention that you gave her in the first place, but it came to her quite naturally,” says a former colleague.
Inside the brainy biosphere of the New Republic, Shalit was marveled at and feared from her first days as Fred Barnes’ intern—the Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton was coming off a White House internship at the time. She stepped into the light to stay with a mortally counterintuitive take on then-rising Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun. (When her capacity to lay the mighty low is mentioned, she suggests Ray Bradbury’s “small assassin” as an apt metaphor.)
Shalit swung from journalistic rabbi to rabbi, mostly men, who sponsored her through her epic rise and the worst of what followed. Eventually, even the support of stalwarts such as New Republic publisher Marty Peretz, Wieseltier, and former boyfriend and New Republic writer Jeffrey Rosen waned, rubbed out by Shalit’s chronic Calamity Jane act. It fell to Lane, the current editor, to finally tell Shalit that she needed to get a new job. But it took a long, long time.
Shalit thinks her blend of gender, youth, and pixie affectation informed her rise and also contributed to her demise:
“I think there is something more pruriently interesting in profiling a fallen woman, especially a young woman. There would have been less sadistic scrutiny if I had been a man or if I looked like Sarah McClendon. But then again, it probably cuts both ways. My rise was probably quickened by the fact that I was a young woman who wore short skirts and lipstick. So, on balance, the gender thing is probably a wash.”
As it happens, just about the time Shalit is dropping off the radar screen of New York editors, another lippy kinder-conservative has popped up. Younger sister Wendy Shalit—class of ’97, Williams College—is getting her turn inside the microwave of youthful success with the publication of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Its chaste tenets make you wonder whether the two grew up in the same house. (There is a dedication to her mother and father and “anyone who has ever been embarrassed about anything.”)
“I feel only unbridled happiness and excitement for her,” Ruth Shalit says. “I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, ‘Every time a friend succeeds, a little something inside me dies.’ So maybe, if she were a friend, I’d be wildly jealous. But she’s my sister, so it’s different.”
The fluttering around the sister—”Miss Shalit, who is 23, hopes to bring about nothing less than a sexual counterrevolution,” wrote the New York Observer—brings to mind another 23-year-old meteor-with-a-ponytail.
“I never sat her down and said, ‘Oh, by the way, Wendy, you have an older sister who just happens to be a cautionary tale of journalism,’ but I like to think that she learned from my negative example. I made greedy decisions—I had never had any money, and then suddenly I was making over $100,000 with contracts, and I let it go to my head. I took on more assignments than I could responsibly deliver. Wendy didn’t do that. She has had opportunities to commit to big contracts, and instead she hasn’t. When she wants some mad money, she takes on a baby-sitting job.” Modesty is as modesty does.
Wendy’s sister Ruth has never projected modesty of any sort. She’s still convinced that she is one of the best to come along in a while. She calls one of her assailed stories—the profile of the young Stephanopoulites—”a tour de force of original reporting.”
Even people who used to say horrible things about Shalit at anonymous remove loved seeing her at parties, a cerebral confection of a person—you never knew what might pop out of those oddly colored lips.
The fact that she would continue to show up wherever she was invited gives a clear view of an inner core that seems to include some sort of titanium alloy. (She scoffs when it is suggested that she threatened suicide during the worst of her trials, in 1996, even though several colleagues say she brought it up when it looked as if she might be fired.)
Lisa DePaulo, who wrote a searing psychological deconstruction of Shalit for George in 1996, is struck by the resilience Shalit brought to her abasement.
“I have always respected the fact that even in the throes of the worst criticism, much of it deserved, she still got up every day, went to work, did her job, and went out socially. It took a lot of strength and guts,” DePaulo says.
But her lengthy curtain call also says something about the city she made her way through: In a place where people come back from the dead to haunt their tormenters in nothing flat, nobody was willing to write Shalit off. Ambition and talent, and a fatal flaw to go with them, are run-of-the-mill here. Like Los Angelenos, people in D.C. are constantly looking over their shoulder before they frag someone. It’s a fear-based work culture where who is ahead is the only score that seems to matter, and that could change at any minute.
“Ruth is not worth being an enemy of anymore. She is dead as far as Washington journalism goes,” says one longtime acquaintance. (Yeah. Sure.)
Shalit saw those people who are now busy discarding her like an old paper plate as her friends. They acted that way because that’s how it’s done here, and because she made them. She had the ability to co-opt people through neurotic neediness and a tsunami-like conviction that she was going to get through no matter what. But instead of seeing herself as someone who was granted endless chances, Shalit maintains that she was convicted and re-convicted as an outsider. At the risk of starting a death match of celebrity plagiarizers, she points to the Boston Globe’s Mike Barnicle as a media insider whom other insiders rallied around.
James Warren, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, dubbed Shalit the “journalistic Unabomber” and took a hobbyist’s interest in busting her out as a plagiarist, tearing the arms and legs off of the Reporter of the Moment in his Sunday column several times in 1995. He says the fact that she lingered so long is proof that she, and the business she perpetrated her crimes in, didn’t learn much.
“Even as someone who believes in redemption, I think she stands as a warning sign to the perils and toxic mix of rapacious ambition, inexperience, and dishonesty. She got caught several times, fabricated the goofiest of explanations, but exhibited not a tad of contrition. She surely leaves town with some people wondering whether she will strike again,” Warren says.
“It’s possible, since advertising is inherently a business of smoke and mirrors, she will feel quite at home, but I think she would be better off turning to religion than to the hawking of detergent and underwear,” he says.
Shalit’s religion happens to be whatever she is working on—in this case, propaganda designed to manipulate human behavior to commercial ends. All jokes aside, she will likely excel. She has already acquired the vocabulary a few weeks into her job.
“I prefer to look at it as a fresh opportunity for creative exploration and hopefully a way for me to contribute meaningfully to cultural life. I have always loved ads. I am a wonk, but I’m also a person who likes shopping, ads, and bad television,” she says.
“I think that anyone who has an intense curiosity about human beings, to be…running these focus groups of people talking about their favorite breakfast foods and chocolate drinks, and what people like to do in their bubble baths, there is something very moving and interesting about that.”
Shalit says little more than chutzpah landed her a job at Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It’s the smart New York agency that does mannered takes on American products, including those weird MovieFone ads featuring deviled eggs.
“Look, I am not Monica Lewinsky. I had to hustle for this job. I cold-called [agency head] Nick Cohen and told him I was a journalist thinking about making the switch to advertising, and I went up there and I met with him, and he happened to say yes to me. That’s how I got this job. Nothing was handed to me. I don’t have a Vernon Jordan,” she says.
Her pitch to Cohen was vintage Shalit—a sexy mix of high and low culture spun to the point of shiny brilliance:
“I just walked into his office and started talking to him about how breakfast cereals appropriate other foods, how you have Oreo O’s, and Cookie-Crisp, and Reese’s Puffs, and this new spate of breakfast cereals that are actually based on traditional breakfast forms like Cinnamon Toast Crunch. How we have taken traditional breakfast icons and transferred them to more convenient forms. I just talked off the top of my head.”
She will work as an account planner, someone who is “synthesizing a vast amount of information from the client, the research, and also from scanning the culture. It’s looking at the same information everyone else is looking at and seeing the information in new ways.”
Still, it’s not doing cover pieces for the New York Times Magazine.
“If you were to inject me with truth serum and ask, Is this what I want to be doing for the rest of my life, the answer would be I don’t know. But right now, I am finding it terribly exciting,” she says.
Shalit thinks she has found a job and a city that will be more accommodating to idiosyncrasies than the conformist’s paradise she left behind.
“I live in a walk-up in Gramercy Park, and I’m wearing platform shoes and dyeing my hair again, and just sort of getting into it. Here, I am the most conservative person in my office. People at work make fun of me because I don’t have my lip pierced,” she says.
She likes the invisibility, not merely the kind that comes from living in a busy place full of exotic-looking people, but the version that derives from residing and working someplace besides Washington. She is tired of being Ruth Shalit, at least the one who has a comma and the word “plagiarist” behind her name.
“I think it’s just a completely different culture. A completely different world. Outside of Washington, people don’t know me like that….I don’t have that kind of radioactivity somewhere else. And that’s one of the problems of being in Washington. When I was trying to do reporting, there was all this sort of static around me,” she says.
And she manages some self-parody when she’s asked about her retreat from wonkdom.
“There is a part of me that is actually very interested in what Lamar Alexander is going to say in his speech to the New Hampshire Chamber of Commerce. It’s a sickness, I know,” she says.
She still admires the New Republic and sounds genuinely remorseful for the trouble she caused the magazine. She won’t go into the merits of the various regimes that published her work, cracking wise instead about the contest the New Republic has sponsored in connection with its redesign.
“All I can say is that I really hope that I win the sweepstakes. I hear that if you win, you get to sit in on two editorial meetings, and that you get to go to the White House Correspondents Dinner. I really hope fortune will smile upon me.”
She says she is happy to be out of the mix, but her exit strategy seems to have some options that would bring her back to where she started.
“I am not hustling anymore. I am not out there pitching stories. This really is a change. But there is a part of me that is always going to be a journalist. I think I wrote a lot of pieces that were good and fair and true. And I am sure, at some point, I will write again.”
Like next week. Although she fails to mention it to me, Shalit will be writing an every-other-week column about the ad industry for Salon. Editor David Talbot says he’s happy to publish Shalit’s work, historical warts and all. “I did it with eyes open about Ruth’s checkered past. My sister Margaret Talbot [since departed from the New Republic] was one of her editors there. We talked on the phone, and Ruth was very honest about her past mistakes and seems to genuinely regret them,” he says. “She was quite prepared to leave journalism behind as a penance for what she had done and because she had decided that the profession would never forgive her. I was of a somewhat different mind. I think she has a wonderful talent, and this assignment is something she will do great things with. It keeps her foot in the door and gives us somebody with journalistic insight writing about the industry.”
She’ll be back, at least partway, but she will be writing about the flakes in the cereal bowl instead of the flakes on C-SPAN.
“[F]our years in the shark tank [of Washington] was a long time, by anyone’s estimation. But I already miss those little relish trays at the Palm.”
The phone rings at my home. It’s Ruth Shalit. We have a spirited discussion about journalistic ethics. Mine.
It is one of many calls, full of lots of haltingly rendered but incredibly canny attempts at manipulation. Working with Shalit—even for a few days, even within the well-defined parameters of subject and reporter—is exhausting. She is not trustworthy, she trusts no one, and she is maniacal in pursuit of objectives. After several interviews, she learns that her picture may end up on the cover of the paper. She is horrified, reminding me, correctly, that this was not part of the deal and that she would have never cooperated had she only known. There is more indignant talk about my personal and professional ethics.
And yet, just about the time she starts jumping up and down on my last nerve with a voice redolent of need, entitlement, and wounded little girl, Shalit does a brainy fan dance that leaves me feeling stupid and ungallant for questioning her narrative about a bright kid who made a few mistakes born of opportunity: Asked for a rearview look at D.C., she delivers a rip-roaring parody, form tripping after function as the plagiarizer plunders every cliché in the book.
“Well, this is how I like to put it: To coin a phrase, ‘Washington is a town that likes to destroy people for sport.’ [laughter] ‘A Town Without Pity?’ [more laughter] No, wait, let me think. ‘I’ve looked at life from both sides now?'[giggles] ‘I’ve been down so long that it looks like up to me?’ Really, I don’t want to make any prophetic pronouncements about D.C. vs. New York. I am just trying to have a life here.”
She is scripted, maybe right down to the stammering about my alleged betrayal. “Ditzy like a fox” is how she describes it. I have been jerked around by a fading ingénue with no juice and few allies. No matter. Shalit will take Manhattan, for a time, anyway. She could land on the surface of the moon with nothing more than a Swiss army knife and have a decent coulibiac of bass ready by 7 o’clock.
I remember my colleague John Cloud coming back from a session with Shalit when he was doing our story back in 1995 and being completely flustered. She had wept prodigiously and then promptly told him her tears were “off the record.” I find myself getting similarly cornered because I want the story. When we talk, it’s Rodan battling Godzilla, two versions of journalistic cons who should probably both go flying off the cliff. She is a lot more crazy-making than crazy, if you ask me.
But it’s not a great use of her gifts. Precocity offers no second act, and her ambition to own the eyes and hearts of another generation of readers will take more than a bat of the eyes and the deployment of shimmering anecdotes. There are sound, very banal reasons that journalists used to have to work their way in from the hustings before being given broad audiences and permission to destroy people with what they say. That’s partly why some of today’s Next Young Things are turning into Ruth Shalit instead of Mike Kinsley. The time spent out on remote beats and in far-off places has a winnowing effect. Those who can’t serve the twin—and not easily reconciled—masters of truth and buzz are dumped along the way. No matter how precocious they are.