Al Kamen feasts on the hypocrisy of Cabinet secretaries, pumped-up bureaucrats, and the self-important denizens of Capitol Hill.
The cuddly curmudgeon has authored the Washington Post’s In the Loop—about the news, foibles, and shenanigans of federal officialdom—since 1993. As the Post’s ranks have dwindled, Kamen’s column has become perhaps the paper’s last must-read. He intends to keep it that way.
In July, Kamen sent an e-mail to Emily Heil, the former author of Heard on the Hill, Roll Call’s gossipy Capitol Hill column. She was surprised.
“He’s under the radar,” she says. “He’s in print but not on the cocktail circuit or cable-news circuit. I’ve read him and admired him but never met him.”
A Brooklyn boy raised in Ohio, Kamen graduated from Harvard and joined the Post in 1980 as a local-courts reporter. When Bill Clinton won the White House, Kamen created the column In Transition to follow the new administration. That briefly became The New Regime, followed by In the Loop in mid-1993.
Kamen bought Heil coffee near the Post’s 15th Street, Northwest, headquarters. He asked her if she’d be interested in joining him to “copilot” the Loop.
Is Kamen anointing his successor?
“That’s not my understanding” says Heil, 34. “I could never dream of being Al Kamen. I’d have to be a lot smarter, a lot funnier. I’m being brought on to help expand the column.”
Heil was three years old when Kamen joined the Post in 1980. She was born in New Jersey and raised in Onancock, a small town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. When she was 16, the year Kamen started the Loop, she got her first job writing features for the Eastern Shore News at $5 an hour. Hooked, she wrote for the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia, moved to DC, and worked her way from trade publications to National Journal to the Hill—where she wrote the Under the Dome column—then to Roll Call in 2007.
What did Kamen see in her?
“Clips, experience, right attitude,” he says. “She’s a reporter. And she has a great sense of humor.”
Heil and Kamen hit it off. “We have the same enthusiasm for the beat,” she says. “He can be biting but never mean.”
The Post has often turned to Roll Call for talent. Heil is joining alums from that paper such as Chris Cillizza, Tim Curran, Paul Kane, Ben Pershing, and Rachel Van Dongen. Kamen’s last copilot, Philip Rucker, is now covering the Republican presidential-primary race.
Kamen, 65, won the National Press Club’s Gingras Humor Award for 2010. His column runs twice a week in the Post. Heil will help him write a new In the Loop blog, increase the number of columns in the paper to four times a week, and expand into social media. The Loop’s target will remain the same—as Heil puts it, “people who think they’re important and throw their weight around.”
This article appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.