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?