Late Night: The Last Temptation of Mike Allen
There’s a major profile in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine of veteran Washington, D.C. reporter Mike Allen of Politico:
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, [White House communications director Dan] 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.
Now, I could weigh in on all the alternately snark-worthy and/or unsettling anecdotes in the NYT’s mammoth profile of Allen, but Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post has already done so in rather devastating fashion (noting that even leaving aside the celebration of Politico’s self-conscious and self-promoting shallowness, portions of the Times piece are “like reading a David Lynch screenplay.”)
Instead, I’m interested in the (perhaps even longer) untold story of how Allen arrived at this point in life. After all, it was only six and a half years ago that Allen became a well-known journalist the old-fashioned way — co-writing a story for the Washington Post that was immediately hailed as “one of the most memorable pieces of White House journalism produced in the Bush era” and was substantially responsible for the conviction of a high-ranking government official on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
Unless you’re a hardcore junkie regarding trivia of the Valerie Plame Wilson CIA leak case, however, you probably have a dim idea, at best, of what I’m talking about. Perhaps these words will refresh your memory:
… a senior administration official said two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and revealed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife. That was shortly after Wilson revealed in July that the CIA had sent him to Niger last year to look into the uranium claim and that he had found no evidence to back up the charge….
“Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge,” the senior official said of the alleged leak.
Granted, Mike Allen’s moment of celebrity for breaking this story faded in part because the proverbial other shoe never fell — the identity of the “senior administration official” was never revealed publicly, much less those of the leakers or the journalists involved.
But I suspect it’s not a coincidence that immediately after reading this article in September 2003, ex-Bushite press secretary Ari Fleischer sought high-priced legal help and refused to talk to FBI investigators without a promise of immunity. Or that Fleischer would eventually admit speaking to the Post‘s Walter Pincus on July 12, 2003, as part of a series of phone calls to (at least six?) Washington journalists he made with White House communications director Dan Bartlett from Air Force One during a flight back from Africa.
Pincus himself testified in Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s perjury trial that Fleischer had leaked to him about Plame in that conversation. As it happens, on July 12, 2003, Pincus was working on an article for the Post untangling some of the lies the Bush administration had told about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, a piece on which he shared a byline with… Mike Allen. (Not surprisingly, Pincus was also an unnamed source in the Post‘s scandal-breaking story quoted above.)
I suppose that if you asked Allen about this now, he’d get a faraway look in his eyes and say, “Ah, but that was a long time ago.” If he remembered at all, that is, in the blur of his near-sleepless life collecting tidbits of gossip and false leads for Politico.
That the latter is what has made Mike Allen a truly powerful reporter in Washington says more about our politics than I care to imagine.