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.”