Evan Thomas and Mike Allen Team Up on “Playbook 2012: The Right Fights Back”

The next incarnation of an e-book that was once the pride of Newsweek.

By: Harry Jaffe

Mike Allen and Evan Thomas. Photograph by Erik Uecke.

They make an odd couple.

Evan Thomas is erudite, collected, the author of some of the best popular history. (The Man to See, his biography of Edward Bennett Williams, comes to mind.)

Mike Allen is jumpy, walks as if his feet don’t touch the ground, reports and writes from predawn to midnight, and has access to every politician in town. He’s the man pols want to see.

Yet Thomas and Allen have collaborated on one of the season’s first political e-books: Playbook 2012: The Right Fights Back.

The idea for the collaboration came from Jon Meacham. The last editor at Newsweek before the Washington Post Company sold it in 2010, Meacham now acquires and edits books for Random House. Thomas, a former editor at Newsweek, teaches at Princeton on top of his writing. Allen is Politico’s top political scribe. Thomas says Meacham phoned last summer and asked, “Want to do the old Newsweek project in real time with Mike Allen?”

Every four years starting in 1984, Newsweek used to dispatch its political team to chronicle each presidential candidate’s journey during the campaign, with the understanding that nothing would be printed before Election Day. Two days after the election, Newsweek would then publish a 50,000-word “instant book” in magazine form. This year Newsweek, in dire financial straits, has abandoned its trademark project.

Meacham—whom some former Newsweek staffers still blame for the magazine’s nosedive—turned to his pal Thomas, who once transformed files from all those campaign reporters into golden prose, as he did with scores of cover stories. “I did get faster over time,” says Thomas, whose years working for newsmagazines started in 1977.

Late last summer, Allen began interviewing candidates and insiders. In his manic way, he tried to take the place of a dozen reporters. He shipped hourlong transcripts to Thomas, who turned them into narrative while finishing his forthcoming biography of Dwight Eisenhower.

“I had brief conversations with Mike,” Thomas says. “He came to my house three or four Saturday mornings. He was easy to deal with.”

Says Allen: “We chatted before big interviews and sat at his dining-room table and talked through what I had learned.”

The loser in the transaction is Newsweek. In its current form, joined with Tina Brown’s Web site, the Daily Beast, the magazine continues to cede reporting ground as it loses millions of dollars. It remains to be seen whether Playbook 2012 will make money. Random will pay Thomas a fee rather than an advance. The book sells for $2.99. More such e-books will follow from Politico throughout the campaign.

One thing remained the same for Thomas, both at Newsweek and on this project: “Long after the deadline,” he says, “Mike was still filing and I was still writing.”

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.