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.”