A Compulsion To Know

CJR's 2000 profile of Mike Allen

On the occasion of Mark Leibovich’s New York Times Magazine profile of Politico’s Mike Allen, CJR is happy to offer you this take on Allen as originally published in our July/August 2000 issue. Like Leibovich’s effort, it shows an inexhaustible information vacuum at work. Unlike the Times Magazine’s piece, it shows Allen on the cusp of the internet age of politics, not yet at the center of it.

According to the legend that has grown up around Mike Allen, he was once hit by a car (or a bus) while dashing to (or from) a courthouse in Richmond, suffered a broken arm (or leg, or no major injuries at all), and continued on to either a pay phone to dictate his story, or back to the newsroom to write it himself, before seeking medical attention (or not).

There are at least a half dozen versions of this story about the peripatetic Washington Post political reporter, each one tailing off into the mist of fuzzy memory and third-hand information. “Mike knows everything about everyone else, but you never know anything about him,” says Andy Taylor, metro editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where Allen worked for nine years. Allen—as with most things personal—won’t help separate fact from fiction. “It’s not something I focus on,” is all he’ll say about the incident. “It wasn’t a highlight of my career.”

True enough. Allen’s career isn’t wanting for highlights. He is the consummate political reporter, described by his colleagues as “a force of nature.” And indeed, the wonderment that accompanies a hailstorm in July applies. At 35, Allen is on his second turn at the Post, with a couple of years at The New York Times sandwiched in between. He may be the only reporter to have his byline in both papers on the same day, November 4, 1999. Already, he has had his credentials yanked by Bill Bradley’s campaign and forced John McCain to publicly explain the professed infallibility of his gaydar. He spent the winter chronicling the implosion of Bradley’s presidential bid, now he’s off to the conventions. In the fall he will be back traveling with either Bush or Gore. He has covered some of the more colorful characters of the last decade—Ollie North, Chuck Robb, Rudy Giuliani, Douglas Wilder, John and Lorena Bobbitt—and done it with the kind of detail deluge and unerring sense of the absurd that have made a Mike Allen story instantly recognizable. In a piece on Bradley last November in the Post, for example, Allen writes:

Since he announced his quest 11 months ago, Bradley has been campaigning against campaigning. His half-glasses slide down his nose, he jabs his hands into his suit pockets and when he pulls them out, the flaps stay hidden. He sucks Vitamin C drops and continually swishes his tongue under his lips and cheeks, as if cleaning his teeth. He is rumpled and bland—and proud of both.

“We have a lot of people who are great at the big picture analysis. Mike brings a topicality, an edge,” says John Harris, a longtime friend and now fellow political reporter at the Post. “He hears everything and knows what everyone is chattering about in the political circles. He really is representative of a new breed of reporter that is totally saturated in news and information in real time.”

There is an urgency about Allen. Even his eyelids won’t sit still. “The trademark Allen approach is to bat his eyes, almost to distraction, creating kind of a hypnotic metronome effect, until he gets people to say what he wants,” says Bill McKelway, who worked with Allen at the Times-Dispatch. When he walks, his body is pitched slightly forward at the waist. He sleeps less than the average human being. And when hanging out, he alternates beer with iced tea or soda to maintain his edge. Driving six hours to chill with friends for a night, and somehow getting back to work the next day, is no big deal for Allen. “NPR,” he shrugs. “Books on tape.”

This urgency seems comfortably at odds with the mellow remnants of Allen’s southern California roots—the thinning blond hair, the soft voice, the “dudes” that dot his speech. It gets channeled merrily into his reporting. He’s a vacuum. A “Hoover of information,” as one friend puts it. In Allen’s stories, McCain doesn’t just buy some cheese at a store in rural New Hampshire. He buys extra-sharp cheddar at Calef’s Country Store. Allen explains: “Dude, what a different experience it is to drink a beer than to drink an Iron City, or a Tsing Tao.”

The energy may be biological, but the love of politics and journalism is a little easier to trace. The conflict and drama of politics nipped Allen when he was covering student government elections for his high school paper. A failed bid for student body president convinced Allen that he was “more suited to this side of the ballot.” So it seems somehow an obvious fate that Allen wound up covering national politics at the most politically wired paper in the most politically juiced town. “I get very excited about chipping away at the mystery of how the American people choose their president,” he says. And his work has not gone unnoticed. “He definitely made his mark during the campaign,” says Maralee Schwartz, the Post’s political editor.

Allen brings a kind of controlled frenzy to the Post’s national staff, an info-age trumpet blast to the strong and steady beat coming for years from the likes of David Broder, Dan Balz, and David Maraniss. “We needed someone very quick and aggressive, and willing to throw himself into the day-to-day campaign stuff,” says Bill Hamilton, the Post’s enterprise editor. “Mike has a very understated way about him, but he is very aggressive.”

He is so saturated with information that the runoff has become a kind of one-man news service for friends and acquaintances (I seem to have been added to the mailing list). He faxes and e-mails articles from all over and at all hours. “I get them at 3 a.m., 5 a.m.,” says Bob Kemper, a political reporter at the Chicago Tribune who knows Allen from their days covering the Virginia general assembly. “He’s the best-informed human being I’ve ever met.”

Allen seems to have a compulsion to know. Over dinner at a Potomac-side restaurant one night last spring in D.C., Allen gently badgered our waiter, Harley—whom he had already charmed by suggesting that he change the name of his Harley Davidson to “Junior”—until he learned why the Secret Service was there: the Bulgarian ambassador and the president of Ireland. Satisfied, Allen returned to his gulf shrimp linguine, alternately sipping from a glass of iced tea and a pint of Foggy Bottom Ale. “I’ve never told Mike a bit of information or news, or even a bit of internal gossip here at the Post, that he didn’t already know,” says Harris, a 15-year Post veteran.

The ability to function on little sleep helps make Allen’s information gathering possible. “He doesn’t sleep,” says Eric Sundquist, lifestyle editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who worked with Allen in Richmond. “He doesn’t pay much attention to where he lives. His place in Richmond was just big mounds of newspapers and a couple pieces of junky furniture. He views it as a base of operations.” Allen, of course, is no help sorting all this out. “It’s an urban myth,” he says. “I sleep plenty.”

Whatever plenty means in Allen’s world, it seems to be enough, because he is as alive and curious at midnight as at midday. Both times we met he arrived with a stack of items for me to read. Prince takes back his name. Helen Thomas retires. The only subject Allen seems unprepared to discuss is himself. At dinner he does his best to keep the conversation trained on me. “You’d make a much more interesting profile,” he says more than once, then grabs my notepad and starts asking me questions. When the waiters check in, he engages them. “You have a great memory,” he tells the kid who recites the daily specials, eliciting a blush. When a cell phone rings within earshot—which is often—Allen reaches for his. After several false alarms, he calls the desk to see if there are any problems with his story. There aren’t. He tells the desk editor to “have a wonderful evening.”

Not infrequently, Allen steers his urgency onto the highway. Once, when he worked for the Times, he drove from New York to Richmond on a Friday night for a going-away party for a former colleague, easily a six-hour trip. Yet somehow he was back in New York on Saturday with enough time and energy to report and write an 1,100-word story on Mayor Giuliani’s crackdown on city sex shops and strip clubs for Sunday’s paper.

Over at Show World on Eighth Avenue, videotapes of John Wayne movies share shelf space with Naughty Neighbors magazine. Outside, a sign for a “Live Las Vegas Revue” is posted near the old one for rubber goods. Yesterday, customers seemed to be ignoring the new merchandise—T-shirts, pen sets, cellular phones—and heading straight for the “buddy booths” and the 25-cent classics like “Dirty Debs.”

The incredibly detailed story—it contained scenes like that from all over the city—was the kind “that would take anyone else a week to write,” says Bill McKelway, who was at the Richmond party. “I still don’t know how he did it.”

This commitment to friends and family is also a part of the Allen legend. “He’s got such a kind way toward people,” says McKelway. “He always remembers to ask about your sick aunt.” Friends say Allen has a grandmother’s memory for birthdays and anniversaries, and seems to always know what they’ve been up to. “I did a profile on McCain,” says Kemper, “and the next time I saw Mike he says, ‘Dude, killer quote.’ And proceeds to quote something verbatim from my story that I didn’t even remember.”

Allen grew up the oldest of four children in a news-junkie family in Rossmoor, California (population 9,800), a “typically suburban” town near Seal Beach in Orange County. His father, Gary, an investor who died when Allen was in college, and his mother, Barbara, a first-grade teacher (now retired), subscribed to three papers—the Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Allen subscribed on his own to The Washington Post and The New York Times. Mention to him that most kids don’t do that, and Allen quickly notes: “I never got them both at the same time.”

His interest in politics brought him to Washington and Lee University because he wanted to be near D.C. “When you’re from California,” Allen says, “Lexington, Virginia, is near D.C.” Although he majored in journalism and politics, Allen took the LSAT and considered becoming a lawyer like nearly everyone else in his fraternity. “It was the thing to do,” he says, “like the Web is now. But journalism is what I love, and I would never have been happy doing anything else.” After school, he did a year at The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia, then moved to the Times-Dispatch where, according to McKelway, he had an immediate impact on the paper’s coverage. “His work was so much beyond the day-to-day reporting of news in terms of what he saw and wrote,” says McKelway. “He just doesn’t miss things.”

In Richmond, Allen found time (of course) to string for The New York Times. Richard Berke, the Times’s national political correspondent, calls him the best stringer he has ever had. “He was tireless,” Berke says. Allen’s aggressive approach caused the occasional awkward moment. He once did a story for the Times—after the Times-Dispatch passed on it—about Gov. Wilder’s refusal to attend a major fundraiser known as the Confederate Ball. The story, which had national appeal because Wilder was Virginia’s first African-American governor, went out on the wire and wound up on the front page of The Virginian-Pilot, a rival of the Times-Dispatch, with Allen’s byline. “That caused a bit of a ruckus in the newsroom,” says Wes Allison, the medical writer at the St. Petersburg Times who worked with Allen in Richmond. Allen says he felt terrible because his editors at the Times-Dispatch were so accommodating of his stringing work. “It was a completely unintended and distressing outcome,” he says.

Allen’s work caught the eye of Washington Post editors, and he was hired in 1996 to cover Virginia for the metro desk. A year later, he left for the Times, figuring he would never work anywhere else again. “I threw away my clips,” he says. He covered city council for a while, and emerged from the notorious New York press scrums with a bit of reportorial wisdom: “In the scrum, you start asking your question and just don’t stop,” he says. “Everyone else will wimp out and you’ll be the one left talking.” Eventually he moved to Hartford, where he served as a one-man bureau for a while, a time he still recalls wistfully. “When the legislative session ended there this year it was so sad, I really wanted to be there,” says Allen. But his desire to do national politics persisted. Allen says he never dreamed of covering national politics, but his friends say otherwise. “He would call to discuss things he could propose to get in on their (Times’s) election coverage,” says Hampden H. Smith III, head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee. Last year, when the Post dangled a job on the national staff, Allen couldn’t resist.

Allen is disarmingly positive in a business full of cynics, but his stories are the work of a shrewd reporter. “The approach I take with politicians is kind of tough love,” he says. “I want to get to know them enough to appreciate them, but it’s no service to the reader if I cut them any breaks.” Immediately after rejoining the Post, Allen was traveling with Bradley. To prepare, he went to the Library of Congress and read all the old profiles on the scholarly hoops hero. It gave Allen a real sense of who the candidate was for millions of older Americans. “There is this complete fascination with Bradley beyond politics,” he says. “Our parents watched him on TV. He was a celebrity in a way you or I couldn’t know. I saw this tremendous gap between people’s perception of him and what was really there as a candidate. They assumed there was going to be this magic connection, and it just wasn’t there.”

Allen’s stories on Bradley got at that gap as well as anyone’s. A February 13 piece on Bradley’s missed opportunities began with a scene from the candidate’s visit to an inner-city Los Angeles middle school to push gun control:

A famous scholar-athlete, barrio kids, guns—the ingredients were there for a memorable scene, with irresistible pictures for the evening news.

“You’re reading Ulysses?” he asked. “He went on a long journey.” Bradley twice said he was proud of the pupils and their school. “Just keep going,” he advised. “Just keep going up, up—okay?”

And then without bending over or sitting down or engaging with any of the 23 pupils or their teacher, he was gone. But, what about guns?

“Mike was the first reporter to capture the Bradley personality and the political defects of that personality,” says John Harris. The Bradley folks complained a bit. Then, they complained a lot. They booted Allen from the campaign for, in their view, violating the understanding that what happens on the campaign plane is off the record. The offending story was one Allen wrote for the Post’s Web site about Bradley feigning a heart attack (when his health was a campaign issue) and mimicking Al Gore for reporters on the plane. But Allen wasn’t on the plane. He got the story from reporters who were. “How can something be off the record when you weren’t there?” asks Allen. “It was a tense time for them. I understand if they wanted to blow off a little steam. We’ve all moved on.”

Moving on—to the next story, the next whatever—is Allen’s preferred state of being. It is difficult to know where work stops and the rest of his life begins. “I don’t know that the place ‘outside of work’ exists for Mike,” says Bob Kemper. Mercifully, the Post expanded the use of its Web site last fall with an afternoon online edition. It provides the ideal outlet for Allen’s abundant stray voltage, liberating him from those pesky print deadlines, which, even for the big stuff, can only stretch to 1:30 a.m. Maralee Schwartz says Allen writes for the Web every day, and even writes stories for the Web that don’t go into the paper. When he found himself on the West Coast with the Bradley campaign, Allen would crank something out for the Web site before the bus left around 7:30 a.m., because, he says, there wouldn’t be any events before the noon eastern deadline. In May, when New York Mayor Giuliani withdrew from his Senate race, Allen says he did his “personal best”: five stories in six hours, four versions for the Web, and a thirty-five-inch story for the paper. You get the sense Allen would bring the same joyful doggedness to a Prince George’s County sanitation board story. “Any job I’ve had, I could do it forever and have a great time,” he says.

The thing is, you believe him. Giving a tour of the Post newsroom late one night, Allen’s reverence for the place is obvious. He rouses cartoonist Herb Block, who is still working at 10:30 p.m., for a brief introduction. We go to Broder’s office, which is a disaster, stacks of books and papers everywhere, a chair turned upside down in the middle of it all. We peer into Bob Woodward’s darkened office. “When I worked here the first time, I didn’t know where it was, and everyone who came to visit wanted to see it,” he says. At Allen’s own desk we pass without stopping. I note that the nameplate atop his computer reads: Mike Alen. Why doesn’t he ask them to fix it? “Hey, anyone can have Allen spelled with two Ls,” he says.

He lives within walking distance of the Post, and tells you this like it was some great coup. “When I was in the Alexandria bureau I lived right across the street,” he says. It is midnight on a Tuesday. The streets around the Post are empty. Allen, just blocks from home, hails me a cab and waves goodbye. As the cab pulls away I turn to see him, fortified with iced tea, heading back inside.

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.