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Before he goes to sleep, between 11 and midnight, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, typically checks in by e-mail with the same reporter: Mike Allen of Politico, who is also the first reporter Pfeiffer corresponds with after he wakes up at 4:20. A hyperactive former Eagle Scout, Allen will have been up for hours, if he ever went to bed. Whether or not he did is one of the many little mysteries that surround him. The abiding certainty about Allen is that sometime between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m., seven days a week, he hits “send” on a mass e-mail newsletter that some of America’s most influential people will read before they say a word to their spouses.
Allen’s e-mail tipsheet, Playbook, has become the principal early-morning document for an elite set of political and news-media thrivers and strivers. Playbook is an insider’s hodgepodge of predawn news, talking-point previews, scooplets, birthday greetings to people you’ve never heard of, random sightings (“spotted”) around town and inside jokes. It is, in essence, Allen’s morning distillation of the Nation’s Business in the form of a summer-camp newsletter.
Like many in Washington, Pfeiffer describes Allen with some variation on “the most powerful” or “important” journalist in the capital. The two men exchange e-mail messages about six or eight times a day. Allen also communes a lot with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; Robert Gibbs, the press secretary; David Axelrod, President Obama’s senior adviser; and about two dozen other White House officials. But Pfeiffer is likely Allen’s main point of contact, the one who most often helps him arrive at a “West Wing Mindmeld,” as Playbook calls it, which is essentially a pro-Obama take on that day’s news. (Allen gets a similar fill from Republicans, which he also disseminates in Playbook.)
Pfeiffer tells Allen the message that the Obama administration is trying to “drive” that morning — “drive” being the action verb of choice around the male-dominated culture of Politico, a three-year-old publication, of which the oft-stated goal is to become as central to political addicts as ESPN is to sports junkies. “Drive” is a stand-in for the stodgier verb “influence.” If, say, David S. Broder and R. W. Apple Jr. were said to “influence the political discourse” through The Washington Post and The New York Times in the last decades of the 20th century, Politico wants to “drive the conversation” in the new-media landscape of the 21st. It wants to “win” every news cycle by being first with a morsel of information, whether or not the morsel proves relevant, or even correct, in the long run — and whether the long run proves to be measured in days, hours or minutes.
In Politico parlance, “influence” is less a verb than the root of a noun. Politico’s top editors describe “influentials” (or “compulsives”) as their target audience: elected officials, political operatives, journalists and other political-media functionaries. Since early 2007, Allen’s “data points,” as he calls the items in Playbook, have become the cheat sheet of record for a time-starved city in which the power-and-information hierarchy has been upended. It is also a daily totem for those who deride Washington as a clubby little town where Usual Suspects talk to the same Usual Suspects in a feedback loop of gamesmanship, trivia, conventional wisdom and personality cults.
Allen refers to his readership as “the Playbook community.” He appeared wounded one morning in March when I suggested to him that his esoteric chronicle may reinforce a conceit that Washington is a closed conclave. No, no, he protested. Playbook is open, intimate. No one even edits it before it goes out, he said, which adds to his “human connection” to “the community.” Political insiderdom — or the illusion thereof — has moved from Georgetown salons or cordoned-off security zones to a mass e-mail list administrated by a never-married 45-year-old grind known as Mikey.
“He is part mascot and part sleepless narrator of our town,” Tracy Sefl, a Democratic media consultant and a close aide to Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, told me by e-mail. “He is an omnipresent participant-observer, abundantly kind, generous and just unpredictable enough to make him an object of curiosity to even the most self-interested. Everything about him is literary.”
Allen darts through the political world much the way he writes Playbook: in abbreviated steps, more like chops. You can spot him from far away, his shiny head darting up and often straight down into his BlackBerry. He says he gets 2,000 e-mail messages a day, tries to answer all that are addressed to him personally, some while walking. He is always bumping into things.
In 1993, Allen was covering a trial in Richmond, Va., for The New York Times (as a stringer) and The Richmond Times-Dispatch (which employed him). He found a pay phone, darted into the street and got whacked by a car. Allen composed himself, filed stories for both papers and then found his way to the hospital with a broken elbow. This is one of the many “Mikey Stories” that Washingtonians share with awe and some concern. A corollary are “Mikey Sightings,” a bipartisan e-mail chain among prominent people who track Allen’s stutter-stepping whereabouts — his showing up out of nowhere, around corners, at odd hours, sometimes a few time zones away.
He bursts in and out of parties, at once manic and serene, chronically toting gifts, cards and flower arrangements that seem to consume much of an annual income that is believed to exceed $250,000. Allen — who is childless and owns no cars or real estate — perpetually picks up meal and beverage tabs for his friend-sources (the dominant hybrid around Mikey). He kisses women’s hands and thanks you so much for coming, even though the party is never at his home, which not even his closest friends have seen. It is as if Mikey is the host of one big party, and by showing up anywhere in Washington, you have served the Playbook community and are deserving of the impresario’s thanks (or “Hat Tip” in Playbookese).
Allen also has a tendency to suddenly vanish. But then he will pop up on a TV screen a few minutes later. Or you then learn via e-mail that he is racing through O’Hare or via Playbook that he took an excursion to the circus (with “Owen and Grace Gallo, ages 3 and 4, who especially liked: doggies on a slide”) or Maine (“where an eagle might grab one of your fish while you’re focused on the grill”).
Or that it’s Mark Paustenbach’s birthday, whoever he is.
Allen was the first reporter hired by Politico’s founding editors, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, when they left The Washington Post to start the Web site and newspaper in 2006. He is considered a Politico “founding father,” in the words of Harris, who, like VandeHei, tends to place great weight and mission onto the organization. Another construct (originating outside Politico) is that Harris and VandeHei are God and Jesus — it’s unclear who is who — and that Allen is the Holy Ghost. When I mentioned this to Allen recently, he was adamant that it is meant to be facetious and that no one at Politico really believes that. Allen, an observant Christian, said the line could be misconstrued. But “Holy Ghost” does seem a particularly apt description of Allen’s ubiquity and inscrutability. “I get that what I do is a little elusive, ambiguous,” Allen told me. “I try to be a force for good. And I try to be everywhere.”
I met Allen on a hot April night at the basement bar of the Hay-Adams hotel, across from the White House. I headed downstairs, and there he was, startling me in a back stairwell, reading his BlackBerry an inch from his wire-rim glasses. As we entered the bar, Allen greeted two Democratic operatives at a corner table and noted that his friend-source Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant, was at that moment on CNN.
Allen’s public bearing combines the rumpledness of an old-school print reporter with the sheen of a new-school “cross-platform brand” who has become accustomed to performing on camera. Every time Allen starts to speak — in person or on air — his eyes bulge for a split second, as if he has just seen a light go on. His mannerisms resemble an almost childlike mimicry of a politician — the incessant thanking, deference, greetings, teeth-clenched smiles and ability to project belief in the purity of his own voice and motivations. He speaks in quick and certain cadences, on message, in sound bites, karate-chopping the table for emphasis. (His work is “joyful, exciting,” he says. It is a “privilege” to work at Politico with young reporters. “I love this company. I love what I’m doing.” And all that.) Over several discussions, Allen repeated full paragraphs almost to the word.
“The people in this community, they all want to read the same 10 stories,” he said, table-chopping in the Hay-Adams. “And to find all of those, you have to read 1,000 stories. And we do that for you.”
As a practical matter, here is how Allen’s 10 stories influence the influentials. Cable bookers, reporters and editors read Playbook obsessively, and it’s easy to pinpoint exactly how an item can spark copycat coverage that can drive a story. Items become segment pieces on “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC program, where there are 10 Politico Playbook segments each week, more than half of them featuring Allen. This incites other cable hits, many featuring Politico reporters, who collectively appear on television about 125 times a week. There are subsequent links to Politico stories on The Drudge Report, The Huffington Post and other Web aggregators that newspaper assigning editors and network news producers check regularly. “Washington narratives and impressions are no longer shaped by the grand pronouncements of big news organizations,” said Allen, a former reporter for three of them — The Washington Post, The New York Times and Time magazine. “The smartest people in politics give us the kindling, and we light the fire.”
By “we,” Allen is referring to either Playbook or Politico. But many influentials draw a distinction. They will work to get a little twig into Mikey’s kindling and read him faithfully. Politico, however, is more fraught.
Nowhere is Washington’s ambivalence over Politico more evident than in the White House. The Obama and Politico enterprises have had parallel ascendancies to an extent: they fashioned themselves as tech-savvy upstarts bent on changing the established order — of politics (Obama) and of how it is covered (Politico). They started around the same time, early 2007, and their clashing agendas were apparent early. On the day that Politico published its first print edition, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, walked into the campaign’s offices and slammed a copy of the new publication on Dan Pfeiffer’s keyboard. “This,” Plouffe declared, “is going to be a problem.”
Politico today remains a White House shorthand for everything the administration claims to dislike about Washington — Beltway myopia, politics as daily sport. Yet most of the president’s top aides are as steeped in this culture as anyone else — and work hard to manipulate it. “What’s notable about this administration is how ostentatiously its people proclaim to be uninterested in things they are plainly interested in,” Harris, Politico’s editor in chief, told me in an e-mail message.
That Politico has been so vilified inside the White House is itself a sign of its entry into “the bloodstream” (another Politico phrase). It is, White House officials say, an indictment of the “Washington mentality” that the city is sustaining Politico and letting it “drive the conversation” to the extent it does. In early March, Axelrod was sitting in his West Wing office, complaining to me about the “palace-intrigue pathology” of Washington and why he missed Chicago. “I prefer living in a place where people don’t discuss the Politico over dinner,” he said.
But morning is another matter, a solitary, on-the-go cram session in which Playbook has become the political–media equivalent of those food pills that futurists envision will replace meals. “Playbook is an entity unto itself, far more influential than anything in the rest of the Politico,” Pfeiffer says.
If, for example, Axelrod can’t read the papers before rushing off to the White House, he will scroll through Playbook during his six-block ride to work and probably be safe in his 7:30 meeting. At this pivotal hour, Allen is the oddball king of a changing political and media order — the frenetic epitome of a moment in which Washington can feel both exhilarating and very, very small.
I should disclose a few things: I have known Mike Allen for more than a decade. We worked together at The Washington Post, where I spent nine years and where I came to know VandeHei and Harris. We all have the same friends and run into each other a lot, and I have told them how much I admire what they have achieved at Politico. I like them all.
In other words, I write this from within the tangled web of “the community.” I read Playbook every morning on my BlackBerry, usually while my copies of The New York Times and The Washington Post are in plastic bags. When Allen links to my stories, I see a happy uptick in readership. I have also been a source: after I “spotted” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at an organic Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood last year — picking up kung pao chicken with brown rice (“for Tim”) — I dutifully e-mailed Allen with the breaking news.
Playbook is a descendant of political synopses like National Journal’s Hotline, ABC News’s Note, and NBC News’s First Read, all of which still enjoy junkie followings. But nothing of the ilk has embedded itself in the culture of Washington like Playbook — to a point where if somebody in Pfeiffer’s department is celebrating a birthday, he is sure to send word to Allen so that everybody in the White House will know.
Allen sends out Playbook using Microsoft Outlook to a private mailing list of 3,000. A few minutes later, an automatic blast goes out to another 25,000 readers who signed up to receive it. An additional 3,000 or so enter Playbook from Politico.com, which adds up to a rough universe of 30,000 interested drivers, passengers and eavesdroppers to the conversation.
Playbook started three years ago as a chatty “what’s happening” memo that Allen sent to his Politico bosses. Eventually he started sending it to presidential-campaign officials — the first outside recipient was Howard Wolfson of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Soon Allen would send it to non-Politico journalists, White House officials and, before long, anyone who asked. While most Playbook subscribers live around Washington, significant numbers work on Wall Street, in state capitals and at news and entertainment companies on both coasts. Major retailers (Starbucks) and obscure lobbies (Catfish Farmers of America) pay $15,000 a week to advertise in Playbook, a figure that is expected to rise.
Readers describe their allegiance with a conspicuous degree of oversharing. “I definitely read it in bed,” Katie Couric told me. “Doesn’t everybody read it in bed?” Margaret Carlson, a columnist for Bloomberg News and the Washington editor at large for The Week magazine, said in a video tribute to Allen for his 45th birthday party last June. (For the record, the Republican lobbyist and party hostess Juleanna Glover said in the video that she reads Playbook “in my boudoir and while I’m blow-drying my hair.”)
“I’d like to thank the Lord for the many blessings he brings me,” Allen said at the party. “VandeHei thinks that’s a reference to him.”
“You don’t have to do anything else, just read Mike Allen,” Bob Woodward declared in February on “Morning Joe” in one of those statements that jab squarely into the ribs of traditional newspaper purveyors. Allen harbors a deep fondness and knowledge of the newspaper industry he might be helping to kill. Peter Watkins, a former press aide for President George W. Bush, recalls that when he told Allen he was from Davis County, Utah, Allen’s instant reply was, “Oh, you must have read The Davis County Clipper.”
Part of the appeal and the absurdity of Playbook is that it imposes a small-town, small-paper sensibility onto a big, complicated city — Lake Wobegon with power. It is expressed in a dialect of “Sirens,” “Shots” and “Chasers” that might as well be Mongolian to 99.9 percent of the electorate. To skim Playbook is to experience Washington in the midst of an attention-deficited conversation that can bounce from the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the health care bill to news of a “state visit” from Feldman’s parents (Jud and Sunny) to an all-caps directive that we all “ask Hari about his new puppy.” And members of the Playbook community — which includes a former president, two former vice presidents, C.E.O.’s and network anchors — are assumed to know exactly who all these people are.
Allen is a master aggregator, which leads some to dismiss Playbook as a cut-and-paste exercise. But that ignores Allen’s ability to break news (even if by only 15 minutes), to cull from e-mail only he is receiving, to get early copies of books and magazines and to pick out the prime nugget from the bottom of a pool report. He has a knack for selecting the “data points” that an info-saturated clan cares most about and did not know when it went to bed. Playbook’s politics are “aggressively neutral,” and Allen says his are, too — he refuses to vote.
Just as many sources talk to Woodward because they assume everyone is, the White House will leak early talking points to Allen because they know that, for instance, Dick Cheney seems to have made Allen the go-to outlet for many of his criticisms of the current administration. Like Woodward, Allen can be tagged with the somewhat loaded moniker of “access journalist.” Clearly the political and news establishments love him. The feeling is mutual and somewhat transactional. They use him and vice versa (“love” and “use” being mutually nonexclusive in Washington). He seems to know everyone and works at it.
Pfeiffer met Allen a decade ago. Over the years, Allen has sent Pfeiffer e-mail messages about things that he knew interested him (Georgetown basketball), just as Allen has served as a one-man Google-alert service for hundreds of friend-sources around town: news about the Redskins (to the Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell), about cuff links (to the Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who collects them). I heard of a low-level economist who has met Allen only once or twice and yet receives from him forwarded wire stories about Asian currency.
Before there was e-mail, Allen would do this by fax; before there were fax machines, he would drop off newspaper clips (or entire out-of-town papers) to his friends’ doorsteps. “He operates at such a faster speed than any of us and carries on many more relationships than any of us and so many more simultaneous conversations than any of us,” Morrell says.
“The most successful journalists have their own unique brand and circle of friends,” VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor, told me by e-mail. “This is the Facebook-ization of politics and D.C. The more friends or acquaintances you have, the more time you spend interacting with them via e-mail and I.M., the more information you get, move and market.” VandeHei’s conceit seems to equate Allen’s circle of friends to a commodity — exactly the kind of mutual back-scratching undercurrent that gives “friendship” in Washington its quotation marks. It also reflects Politico’s penchant for placing itself at the vanguard of new media when in fact its business has been heavily sustained by ads in its print edition, distributed free in Washington. “Playbook is D.C.’s Facebook,” VandeHei concluded. “And Mike’s the most popular friend.”
Allen spent his childhood in Seal Beach, Calif., in Orange County, the oldest of four — two boys, two girls. He told me he had an apolitical upbringing but wanted to attend college near Washington. He enrolled at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., which he said seemed close to D.C. on a map. When he got there, Allen told me, he learned that the college was at least a five-hour Greyhound ride from the capital. He has told this story before, just the kind of recurring lore — a fun tale, a bit dubious — that surrounds Allen and that he surely cultivates. Until recently, the dominant spectacle of his cubicle at Politico’s Arlington, Va., offices was a giant birthday card signed by many members of the Playbook community. It featured a color cartoon of Allen as the mythological Sphinx and loomed over the real version as he typed, and typed.
People routinely wonder whether Allen actually lives somewhere besides the briefing rooms, newsrooms, campaign hotels or going-away dinners for Senator So-and-So’s press secretary that seem to be his perpetual regimen. And they wonder, “Does Mikey ever sleep?”
The query tires him. He claims he tries to sleep six hours a night, which seems unrealistic for someone who says he tries to wake at 2 or 3 a.m. to start Playbook after evenings that can include multiple stops (and trails of midnight-stamped e-mail). He supervises four predawn Playbook offshoots — Pulse (devoted to health care), Morning Money (financial news), Morning Score (midterm Congressional races) and Huddle (Congress) — often writes multiple stories a week for Politico, speaks all over the country and makes relentless TV and radio appearances. I asked Allen if he slept during the day, and he said no.
Allen has been spotted dozing in public — campaign planes, parties — clutching his BlackBerry with two hands against his chest like a teddy bear. He has also been seen asleep over his laptop, only to snap awake into a full and desperate type, as if momentary slumber were just a blip in the 24/7 political story Mikey is writing. “I once called him with a client,” Barnett told me in an e-mail message. “He was sound asleep. I am convinced he did the interview fully asleep. Nevertheless, he got every quote right.”
Allen delights in being the cheerfully frantic public man. He refers to himself interchangeably with Playbook. “Playbook made our CBS hit this a.m. by slipping a Benjamin to a plow driver,” Allen wrote to his readers on a snowy February morning. “Thank you, Ray.”
No shortage of friends will testify to Mikey’s thoughtful gestures, some in the extreme. They involve showing up at a friend’s son’s baseball game (in South Carolina) or driving from Richmond to New York to visit a fraternity brother and heading back the same night (dropping off the morning New York tabloids to friends in Richmond). When Watkins lost his grandfather, Allen appeared at the funeral in Kaysville, Utah, and filed a “pool report” for Watkins’s friends and family.
He attends a nondenominational Protestant church and a Bible-study group. During the George W. Bush presidency, which Allen covered for The Post, he drew closer to some people in the administration through worship. “He is one of the most thoughtful people I have ever met,” Josh Deckard, a former White House press aide, says. “Philippians 2:3 said, ‘In humility, consider others better than yourselves,’ and I think Mike exemplifies that better than anyone.”
Yet even Allen’s supposed confidants say that there is a part of Mikey they will never know or even ask about. He is obsessively private. He has given different dates to different friends for the date of his birthday. I asked three of Allen’s close friends if they knew what his father did. One said “teacher,” another said “football coach” and the third said “newspaper columnist.” A 2000 profile of Allen in The Columbia Journalism Review described his late father as an “investor.”
It is almost impossible to find anyone who has seen his home (a rented apartment, short walk to the office). “Never seen the apartment,” volunteered Robert L. Allbritton, Politico’s publisher, midinterview. “No man’s land.” When sharing a cab, Allen is said to insist that the other party be dropped off first. One friend describes driving Allen home and having him get out at a corner; in the rearview mirror, the friend saw him hail a cab and set off in another direction. I’ve heard more than one instance of people who sent holiday cards to Allen’s presumed address only to have them returned unopened. One former copy editor at Politico, Campbell Roth, happened to buy a Washington condominium a few years ago that Allen had just vacated. She told me the neighbors called the former tenant “brilliant but weird” and were “genuinely scared about some fire-code violation” based on the mountains of stuff inside.
Allen is known as a legendary hoarder and pack rat. At The Post, enormous piles of yellowing papers, clothes, bags and detritus leaned ominously above his cubicle. While reporters are rarely neat freaks (I remember hearing rumors about Nixon-era sandwiches that are still being excavated from David Broder’s office), Allen’s work areas have been egregious. It got so bad at Time, where Allen was given his own office, that it became difficult to even open the door. His chair was raised at a crooked angle, as if it were not touching the floor, and the debris rose so high in some places that it blocked a portion of light coming through a picture window. Colleagues took pictures, as if the place were an archaeological site. It was disturbing to those who cared about Allen, especially after a photo of the office in a seemingly uninhabitable state made the rounds of the press corps and George W. Bush’s White House.
Friends and employers have taken on a kind of in-loco-parentis approach to some of Allen’s needs — making sure he fills out forms to get his press credentials renewed and encouraging him to slow down. Allbritton says he will sometimes ask Harris and VandeHei: “Are you checking up on Mikey? Is he O.K.?” Allen’s bosses at The Post helped him to recover some of the thousands of dollars in unclaimed expenses that he accrued during the 2004 presidential campaign. Close friends have intervened with him on occasion, worried that he is working nonstop and looking dreadful and that his life appears in disarray. Allen thanks them and tells them not to worry.
I asked Allen about his hoarding and clutter issues, and he wanted no part of the discussion. He assured me that the Internet had cured him. “Everything is online now,” he explained, smiling, never mind that he was terrorizing building-maintenance types long after the Internet was here.
Allen has achieved a merger of life and work, family and Playbook. He is deeply committed to his mother, younger brother, two younger sisters and eight nieces and nephews scattered on both coasts. They make Playbook cameos. He describes Harris and VandeHei as his two closest friends. Both are fiercely protective of Mikey and are students of him. “I’ve always felt he just, like, operates at levels that I couldn’t even begin to fathom with my simple Wisconsin mind,” says VandeHei, an Oshkosh native.
A former editor at The Post told me that Allen today seems to have taken refuge in his status as a public “brand.” He deploys Playbook as a protective alter ego. It reminded me of something a senator said to me once — that a lot of politicians are shy, private people and that they enter the business because it allows them to remain shy and private behind a public persona. In a recent phone call, I asked Allen what his hobbies were. He paused, went off the record and then came back with an unrevealing sound bite. “I’m a well-rounded person,” he said, “who is interested in the community, interested in family, interested in sports, interested in the arts, interested in restaurants.” I asked him what sports teams he roots for. “I’m not gonna do that,” Allen said. “Playbook is ecumenical.” He allowed that “an astute reader of Playbook will notice frequent references to the Packers, Red Sox and Florida Gators.”
At one point, I asked Allen if he would ever consider taking Playbook elsewhere. Surely he could sell the franchise for a sum that could easily exceed seven figures. (If Politico sells $15,000 in ads a week for Playbook, then Allen’s newsletter alone brings an estimated $780,000 a year.) He was aghast at the question.
Politico’s offices are housed in the same place as Washington’s ABC affiliate, owned by Politico’s corporate parent, Allbritton Communications. They feel more like a television studio than a newsroom. Politico reporters dart to and from their “hits” at the newsroom’s TV camera. Kim Kingsley, the Politico executive vice president (and a former Post colleague of mine) is a tireless promoter of Politico stories, its reporters and its brand.
The publication has clearly exceeded the expectations of its founders and its naysayers. Copies of favorable press articles are framed on VandeHei’s office wall, along with keepsakes from Politico’s mainstream incursion (a photo of himself moderating a presidential debate on CNN). VandeHei was elected last year to the Pulitzer Prize board.
Harris and VandeHei discussed the idea of starting an all-politics Web site while at The Washington Post. Harris, who is 46, had distinguished himself as a top-notch White House reporter during the Clinton years, while VandeHei, who previously worked at The Wall Street Journal and Roll Call, was an aggressive and ambitious beat reporter. Allbritton, the 41-year-old scion to a Washington banking and media empire, approached VandeHei in 2006 about running a new Capitol Hill publication. VandeHei told Allbritton about his and Harris’s idea, which Allbritton agreed to back. VandeHei’s wife, Autumn, coined the name Politico.
Harris and VandeHei were bold in trying to lure journalistic “brands.” Their “messaging” brimmed with sports analogies and swagger. VandeHei told The New York Observer before the site’s debut that he had e-mail messages from reporters “begging for jobs” and that Politico would “show we’re better than The New York Times and The Washington Post.”
Their first target was Allen, an emerging presence on the Web at Time. Throughout his career, he has been known as an unfailingly fair, fast and prolific reporter with an insatiable need to be in the newspaper. “The worst thing you could say to Mike Allen was, ‘We don’t have space for that story,’ ” says Maralee Schwartz, the longtime political editor at The Post. “It was like telling a child he couldn’t have his candy.” Allen also struggled to write the front-page analytical stories that were the traditional preserve of newspaper “stars.” Harris, who wrote many of these during his 21 years at The Post, says that the whirling production demands of today’s news environment have caught up to Allen’s sleepless, spaceless peculiarities.
Before I covered politics, I wrote about Silicon Valley. Hearing Harris talk, I was reminded of the engineers at the height of the Web explosion in the 1990s — socially eccentric geniuses who suddenly became the wealthy kings of the culture. Technology had caught up to their wiring. They often worked through several nights straight and never seemed to notice or mind. They were mostly male and single. The real prodigies appeared to achieve total synergy with the machines, just as Allen seems the perfect mental and metabolic match for today’s news cycle.
Politico’s start-up culture tolerates idiosyncrasies better than more established businesses do, Allbritton told me. “It’s like you understand a little more,” he said. “We all have the wacky uncle.”
VandeHei, who is 39, reminds me more of a venture capitalist these days. His mind appears to be constantly somersaulting with business models and management philosophies. A boyish-faced Packers fanatic, he is the more emotional and excitable half of the duo known as VandeHarris. He wears a chip on his shoulder plainly about established news organizations, and you sense that he takes the White House’s apparent disregard for Politico personally.
“The Obama theory seems to be that The New York Times, big-name opinion writers and big shots on network news still largely shape how people think about policy, politics and news,” VandeHei wrote to me in an e-mail message. “It’s why White House officials spend so much time on the phone with your reporters (N.Y.T.) — and yet has had little effect on how the public sees the president.”
By any measure, Politico employs several top-rank journalists, including the political writer Ben Smith, the Congressional reporter David Rogers and the political reporter Jonathan Martin. Allen has broken some of Politico’s biggest stories. He reported that The Post was planning to hold paid salons for lobbyists at the home of its publisher, Katharine Weymouth, setting off a firestorm. During the 2008 campaign, he asked John McCain how many homes he owned (eight properties, and it proved a major embarrassment to McCain when he could not immediately answer).
Politico’s comprehensive aims can make it goofy and unapologetically trivial at times. A recent item by a Congressional blogger for the site consisted of the following: “Lights are out throughout much of the Longworth House Office Building, a denizen tells me. UPDATE: They are back on.”
The site’s reporters are mostly young, eager to impress and driven hard. Predawn why-don’t-we-have-this? e-mail messages from editors are common. Working for Politico is “like tackle football,” VandeHei reminds people, which might explain why most of Politico’s best-known bylines are male. The main players have Little League nicknames (Vandy, JMart), use the same terminology and, strangely, share the same speech affect. I noticed that at least five of them (Allbritton, Harris, VandeHei, Allen and Martin), when trying to make a point, tended to elongate their vowels in a half-mouthed Midwesternish twang — think Bob Dylan working a wad of chewing tobacco.
In early March, a Web site called Xtranormal featured a spoof about life at the “Politicave,” starring computerized automatons of VandeHei and Allen (dressed in a superhero costume). After the VandeHei cartoon addressed Allen as “Mike,” Allen replied: “Jim, for the last time, I am not Mike Allen. I am News Cycle Man, here to win the morning!” Allen went on to inform VandeHei about “that unpaid intern who is still crying about when you told her she would never make it in this business if she insists on taking bathroom breaks every day.” The spot gave voice to a belief that Politico’s cultlike mission demands a freakish devotion that only an action-hero workaholic could achieve. “A page-view sweatshop” is how one Politico writer described the place to me.
Several current and former Politico employees were eager to relay their resentment of the place to me, though with a few exceptions, none for attribution. “It’s not so much the sweatshoppery itself that I minded,” said Ryan Grim, a former Politico reporter who is now at The Huffington Post. “It was the arbitrary nature of how it was applied.” Kingsley, the Politico executive vice president, e-mailed me an unsolicited defense: “In my experience, the people who whine about working at Politico shouldn’t be at Politico,” she wrote. “They likely lack the metabolism and professional drive it takes to thrive here. For those of us who love a fast pace and a tough challenge, this place is a calling, not a job.”
Harris readily acknowledges that Politico is “not for everybody,” and VandeHei said they have begun focusing their recruiting on New York, because “the city produces reporters who are fearless, fast and ruthlessly competitive.”
While journalism breeds a higher-than-average population of bellyachers, turnover was especially high at Politico in late March and early April — five reporters and one editor announced they were leaving, including the White House reporter Nia-Malika Henderson (to The Washington Post), who had been the only African-American on a staff of about 50 reporters. “The natural order of things” is how Harris describes the departures. He said Politico is trying to “mature from start-up mode” in a number of areas, including diversity.
Politico’s gold standard is a reporter’s “metabolism,” measured by speed, proficiency and the ephemeral currency of “buzz.” But Politico’s buzz can also derive from provocative headlines placed atop thinly sourced stories. In February, for instance, Politico published a story about apparent tension between President Obama and Nancy Pelosi. The story — bylined by Allen and Patrick O’Connor — made its assertions based largely on a single anonymous source and was refuted or seriously played down by two on-the-record sources. Nonetheless, Politico played it big on its Web site, under the headline “Family Feud,” and multiple stories ensued on cable and online.
More recently, Allen asked in his April 10 Playbook: “Good Saturday morning: For brunch convo: Why isn’t Secretary Clinton on the media short lists for the Court?” By Monday, the convo had moved from the brunch table to “Morning Joe” (where the host, Joe Scarborough, advocated for her) and “Today” (where the Republican senator Orrin Hatch mentioned her, too). Later that day, Politico’s Ben Smith quoted a State Department spokesman who “threw some coolish water on the Clinton-for-Scotus buzz in an e-mail.” By then, the cable and blog chatter was fully blown. The White House issued a highly unusual statement that Secretary Clinton would not be nominated. Politico then sent out a “breaking news alert,” and Smith reported that the White House had “hurriedly punctured the trial balloon.” End of convo.
For what it’s worth, Philippe Reines, a Clinton adviser, says that he told another Politico reporter the previous Friday that the chances of his boss’s being nominated were “less than none” and added, “Something being a sexy media story shouldn’t be confused with truth.”
Political operatives I speak to tend to deploy the word “use” a lot in connection with Politico; as in, they “use” the publication to traffic certain stories they know they could not or would not get published elsewhere. I was also struck by how freely VandeHei threw out the word “market” in connection with how newsmakers and sources interacted with Politico. “If you want to move data or shape opinion,” VandeHei wrote to me by e-mail, “you market it through Mikey and Playbook, because those tens of thousands that matter most all read it and most feed it. Or you market it through someone else at Politico, which will make damn sure its audience of insiders and compulsives read it and blog about it; and that it gets linked around and talked about on TV programs.”
By and large, the most common rap against Politico concerns its modeled-on-ESPN sensibility. While Harris and VandeHei say — rightly — that Politico has devoted lots of space and effort to, say, the health care debate, many of its prominent stories on the subject followed a reductive, who’s-up-who’s-down formula. (“No Clear Winner in Seven-Hour Gabfest,” read the headline over the main article about President Obama’s health care meeting.) Harris and VandeHei have clearly succeeded in driving the conversation, although the more complicated question is exactly where they are driving it.
“I’ve been in Washington about 30 years,” Mark Salter, a former chief of staff and top campaign aide to John McCain, says. “And here’s the surprising reality: On any given day, not much happens. It’s just the way it is.” Not so in the world of Politico, he says, where meetings in which senators act like themselves (maybe sarcastic or short) become “tension filled” affairs. “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel,” Salter says. “It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news. It’s the self-promotion.”
Salter asked that if I quoted him, I also mention that he likes and respects many Politico reporters, beginning with Mike Allen.
On a recent Friday night, a couple hundred influentials gathered for a Mardi Gras-themed birthday party for Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of “Meet the Press.” Held at the Washington home of the lobbyist Jack Quinn, the party was a classic Suck-Up City affair in which everyone seemed to be congratulating one another on some recent story, book deal, show or haircut (and, by the way, your boss is doing a swell job, and maybe we could do an interview).
McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, arrived after the former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie left. Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren had David Axelrod pinned into a corner near a tower of cupcakes. In the basement, a very white, bipartisan Soul Train was getting down to hip-hop. David Gregory, the “Meet the Press” host, and Newsweek’s Jon Meacham gave speeches about Fischer. Over by the jambalaya, Alan Greenspan picked up some Mardi Gras beads and placed them around the neck of his wife, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who bristled and quickly removed them. Allen was there too, of course, but he vanished after a while — sending an e-mail message later, thanking me for coming.
In late March, we met for breakfast at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. He brought with him two recent copies of The San Jose Mercury News, because he knew I used to work there, and he had just been in the Bay Area. He became animated when discussing a long-ago reporting job in Fredericksburg, Va. His favorite story there was headlined, “Hot Dog: A Meal or a Snack?” The county board of supervisors was debating whether hot-dog sales should include a meal tax. “Every single thing that I’ve written since then,” Allen said, “whether it’s about a mayor or a governor or senator or president, it all boils down to, ‘Hot Dog: A Meal or a Snack?’ All great questions come from small questions.”
Like a lot of reporters, Allen would much rather ask the questions than answer them. He led off with one: “What’s the most surprising thing you learned about me?”
It was what I learned about his father, I told him. Gary Allen was an icon of the far right in the 1960s and 1970s. He was affiliated with the John Birch Society and railed against the “big lies” that led to the United States’ involvement in World Wars I and II. He denounced the evils of the Trilateral Commission and “Red Teachers.” Rock’n’roll was a “Pavlovian Communist mind-control plot.” He wrote speeches for George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama and presidential candidate. “Gary Allen is one of the most popular writers that John Birchites read and believe with a zeal that is nervous-making,” wrote Nicholas von Hoffman in a 1972 Washington Post column. He wrote mail-order books and pamphlets distributed through a John Birch mailing list.
None of Mike Allen’s friends seemed to know any of this about his father, or they were diverting me with other monikers (like “football coach,” which he indeed was; Gary Allen coached a Pop Warner team that included Mike, who played center, badly). In an earlier phone interview, Allen said his mother was a first-grade teacher and his dad was a “writer” and “speaker.” After I mentioned his father at breakfast, Allen flashed a sudden, teeth-clenched smile that stayed frozen as I spoke. He had described his upbringing to me as nonpolitical. And maybe it was. People who knew Gary Allen, who died of complications from diabetes in 1986, described him as quiet and introspective. “He was more outspoken in his writing,” says Dan Lungren, a Republican member of Congress, who represented Orange County back then and knew the family. Lungren, who now represents a district that includes parts of Sacramento, said that the Allens hosted a meet-and-greet at their home for one of his early campaigns.
I asked Mike Allen what it was like being his father’s son. “We have a very close family,” he said slowly. “I’m very close to all my siblings, and I’m very grateful to my parents for all the emphasis they put on education and family and sports and Scouts.” He called his father “a great dad.” How did he make his living? “I don’t know the details of it,” Allen said. He did some teaching, but Allen said he was not sure where or what age groups, whether elementary school or high school or something else. He had an office at home. “To me, he was my dad. So that’s what I knew.” He says he never read anything his father wrote.
After some fidgety minutes, I asked Allen how he became an Eagle Scout. His eyes softened and stopped blinking as much as they had been, and his voice took on the cadence of solemn recital. He uttered the Boy Scout Law: “A scout is trustworthy,” Allen proclaimed, “loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”
I asked Allen if I could talk to his siblings. He said he would consider it and maybe set up a conference call but never did. I did not press. It felt intrusive. Nor did I want to overreach for a Rosebud. “Life isn’t binary,” Allen said a few times at breakfast, in the context of whether a hot dog is a meal or a snack and later in the context of what his father was like. But I could not help being struck by the contrast between father and son.
Gary Allen’s writings conveyed great distrust of the established order. He saw conspiracies in both parties, despised Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for their internationalism and the “establishment media” for enabling the “communist conspiracy.” Mike Allen traverses politics with a boyish and almost star-struck quality toward the assumed order. He is diligent in addressing leaders by proper titles, ranks, “Madam Speakers” and “Mr. Presidents” (a scout is reverent). Friends said he seemed particularly enthralled to be covering the White House during the Bush years and was spotted at all hours around the briefing room and press area.
Allen views Playbook as a respite from the chaos and invective of the daily news cycle. And at the end of our discussion about his father, he made a point of ending on a sweet and orderly data point. After Gary Allen died, at 50, many of his former Pop Warner players filled the church in tribute. Allen said he recalled no talk of his father’s political work at the memorial, but he will never forget one detail: a giant blue and gold floral arrangement in the shape of a football was placed onstage, a gift from the kids on Gary Allen’s team, the Phantoms.
One of the few times I can recall Allen stepping out of his friendly scoutmaster persona in Playbook was when he dismissed a Sunday column by the public editor in The New York Times as “a bit of a snore.” The column was about how reporters should not use The Times to, among other things, plug their friends. “O.K., then!” Allen wrote to conclude the item.
Allen clearly plugs his friends in Playbook — quoting from press releases announcing their new jobs (“Taylor Griffin Joins Hamilton Place Strategies as Partner”), referring to pal Katie Couric as a “media icon,” reporting that the model car built by Ethan Gibbs, the 6-year-old son of Robert Gibbs, finished second in the Cub Scouts’ Pinewood Derby. Isn’t part of the function of Playbook to plug Mike Allen’s friends? “I wouldn’t agree with that,” Allen told me. “Playbook is to serve its audience and community, and we serve them by giving them information they need and want. If it were the way you describe it, people wouldn’t read it.” Recognition of a friend’s milestone can also be a data point. People in this tiny world care if two of their own (say, the Democratic operatives Phil Singer and Kim Molstre) have a baby (“Introducing Max George Singer,” Playbook, March 18).
Allen’s focus is customer service. He wants to “spread joy” as the Holy Ghost of the Almighty News Cycle. “I am fortunate,” he keeps saying. (Hat Tip: God.)
In early March, I was meeting with Harris in his office when Allen walked in. He welcomed me, thanked me for coming and returned to his desk to finish a story or six. I visited his cubicle, but Allen was gone. His work area was notable for its lack of clutter — there were a few small stacks of magazines and newspapers and a tray of mint Girl Scout cookies on the top of his terminal. To the left of his desktop was a picture of Allen standing upright and asking President Obama a question at a White House news conference.
In the days leading up to a photo shoot for this article, Allen’s work area became spotless, surfaces shining, befitting News Cycle Man. The poster of the cartoon sphinx had been removed. I kept asking Kingsley, “Who cleaned up Mikey’s room?” but neither she nor Allen would say. All great questions come from small questions. And some just hang there, until they vanish.