From less-fancy Philly, Tapper's twisty road has run through Dartmouth College, political PR, nonprofit advocacy, cartoons and caricatures (a skilled artist, he had op-ed art accepted by The Inquirer, "a moment that was a big deal for me"), journalism for Salon in the early aughts, a decade at ABC, and now, the hosting job on CNN's 4 p.m. weekday show.
Debuting March 18, The Lead moved doyen Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room to 5 p.m. Tapper's new role is part of a turnover at CNN - at all the major cable newsers postelection, really, as they troll for fresh, young, edgy audiences. New CNN head Jeff Zucker has shaken things up.
Alex Weprin, senior editor of TVNewser, says Zucker wants "to expand CNN's news coverage to include much more on sports, entertainment, and other subjects beyond the politics-centric mold traditional on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC.
"What's fascinating with Tapper," Weprin says, "is his deep news pedigree - and yet, he goes from the political lead to the sports lead to the pop lead, and so on. That variety is part of Zucker's plan, and a little unexpected for Jake."
"The conceit of the show," says Tapper, who is married and has two children, "is, here's the front page of the Inky or the New York Times, and there's six or seven stories, and you want to read every one." The March 28 Lead had segments (called "leads") on skyrocketing Netflix stock; Barbara Walters' retirement; spring break; Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, an American imprisoned in Iran; the slow pace of gun-control efforts after the mass killings at Sandy Hook, Conn.; the craze for HBO's Game of Thrones; and a scoop on how President Obama is resisting calls to arm Syrian rebels.
"Jake is a real consumer of news," says executive producer Federico Quadrani, "a real omnivore, and we're trying to tap into that, into his curiosity. . . . We like the 'buried lead,' the story that maybe isn't getting the attention it should."
Tapper, according to his mother, has always had a taste for the buried lead: At Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion, "he gave a talk to his fellow students about nuclear arms and the danger they posed. They weren't so worried, but he was all concerned about it."
In 1998, Tapper wrote a story about his date - with Monica Lewinsky. In 1999, he wrote a Salon article about the Columbine, Colo., shootings. "His point," says Anne Tapper, "was that 12 students were killed at Columbine, and the same day 12 kids were killed somewhere in Washington, one of whom Jake mentored. He was contrasting how no one really cared about the D.C. killings, but the whole country was up in arms about Columbine."
Tapper was among the journalists in 2002-03 who questioned the "case for war" against Iraq. "I think what helped," Tapper says, "is my time in alternative media, such as Salon.com, such as the Washington City Paper. I even had a six-month stint with VH1. . . . I'd covered then-Gov. Bush and Al Gore, and I knew enough not to believe anything anyone in either campaign told me. I just had a completely different perspective, not being part of the established Washington press corps."
And now, after nearly a decade at ABC, here he is in cable news, which still, for some, is alt-media.
"I'm a 15-year overnight success," he says. He shakes his head at "not seeing the obvious - that I should have been a journalist - until I was almost 30. Heck, I was named after Jacob Scher, this famous Chicago journalist. When I was a kid, I had a neighborhood newspaper called JT's If You Please. I was at the student paper at Dartmouth, but as a cartoonist, not a writer."
In the '90s, Tapper worked for then-U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D., Pa.), worked for a gun-control group, and even did Capitol Hell, a political comic strip, for nine years for the Beltway paper Roll Call. But when he started to write full time, he started to realize his calling. ABC hired him in 2003, and Tapper became an eminent member of the Washington media cadre. His work as ABC senior White House correspondent brought praise and awards.
"His rise to celebrity status makes sense," says Daniel Weiss, a New York psychiatrist. Weiss, then living in Wallingford, met Tapper at Camp Ramah in the Poconos in 1978; they've been friends ever since. "He always had a book under his arm. He was always in the rafters of the bunkhouse, working on a cartoon. He's always had wide-ranging interests, always a strong vision of himself. It's been great" - in the best way possible - "to see Jacob stumble upward."
As for The Lead, "we want to mix the tension of live TV with taped segments we create the same day," Tapper says. "And stay flexible and nimble," Quadrani adds.
During the March 28 show, the test comes. The brand-new Washington Control A room is huge, at 1,250 square feet, with 20 seats for producers and 30 screens that can show up to 400 images at a time.
So far Tapper has been witty, fast, surefooting it from Netflix to Pope Francis to spring break. Now he interviews Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse Lewis was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. The interview is quiet, emotional. Tapper departs from the prompter to ask, unscripted: "Tell us about Jesse."
(Afterward, Tapper says: "I didn't know that was going to happen. 'Tell us about Jesse' just came out." Quadrani: "We need Jake to feel he can do that, as his judgment dictates.")
Heslin describes a boy whose "goal was to have fun and enjoy life."
At that, in Control A, producer Quadrani calls an audible: "Listen, we can't go to the next segment, we just can't." That segment is about Game of Thrones. It's pop. It's fun. Not right now. Commercial.
On the far side of the ad, Tapper has a scoop. "In the run-up to the show," he says, "I reached out to 20 or 30 print reporters I think are the smartest people around and said, 'Bring me scoops. We'll time them as they're breaking, you come on my show, we'll get them on the air, you'll tell it, you'll get total credit and coverage.' "
It bears fruit today, as Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy details the Obama administration's refusal to arm Syrian rebels. Game of Thrones does come on later. ("I actually never watched it before," Tapper says, "but my whole staff is nuts about it, so I'll go with that.") It so happens that its cocreator is David Benioff, "who was a year behind me at Dartmouth."
Tapper says that "we realize, six months down the line, a lot of things are going to look different."
But there's much to be happy about - including his mother's approval, and that of her friends, whom she calls "Jacob's old-lady groupies." "So far," she says, "they say he always has something worth thinking about."
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.