In the Loop, but outside it, too

Al Kamen is something of an enigma.

As the creator and author of The Washington Post’s In the Loop column, he exists under the radar, rarely venturing onto the D.C. party circuit and preferring to spend his time chained to his desk with headphones strapped to his head as he collects the weekly gossip.

He is 60, thin and short in stature, with dark hair, dark eyes and dark, round glasses. He abhors TV interviews, and he’s not fond of print interviews either. He refuses to be photographed. The last TV interview he gave was a decade ago to Brian Lamb of C-SPAN. But, after begrudgingly agreeing to give me 10 minutes, he lets our discussion in the Post cafeteria over a doppio espresso go on for 40.

“I used to go on TV when I was young,” he says. “I don’t do that anymore. I find that with this column everything I need to say I say in the paper. I’m not opining about anything anymore that’s substantive.”

Expecting him to be a grumbly, old-school journalistic grouch from his phone personality, it is surprising when he turns out to be nothing short of kind, mild-mannered and self-deprecatingly funny.

“I don’t think I am private,” he says. “I don’t want to be a celebrity. I don’t do the social scene. I am home with my wife. I don’t like going to parties with a bunch of people. Do a job, cover these folks. That’s what I do. ... Maybe I’m old fashioned.”

Kamen’s 13-year-old column sprang from his coverage of former President Bill Clinton’s election to the White House. He had been covering immigration and issues related to Clinton’s campaign. Once Clinton won, Kamen came up with the idea to cover the transition of jobs from George H.W. Bush’s White House.

The column, initially called In Transition, followed by The New Regime, was only intended to last three, four or five months. “This was a temporary thing,” he explains. “This was a hole that needed filling, and I was there to fill it.” But, Kamen adds, “It took Clinton a long time to fill the jobs.”

Ultimately, Kamen’s editor told him they’d need to come up with a more permanent name for the column, and In the Loop was born in April 1993. Slowly it shifted into the arena of gossip, confirmation hearings and “crazy stuff on the Hill.”

Still, Kamen is nostalgic about the column’s original intent. “My bread and butter is still personnel changes and movement,” he says.

And though he’s no star among Washington scenesters, he has no misgivings about his career. “I enjoy it,” he says. “By and large, it’s fun. It’s a different kind of reporting.”

The people whom Kamen writes about don’t often get angry at him, but it has happened: “They’re always concerned that they won’t get the job that they are in line for. It’s nonsense; of course they will. I’m not trying to be mean to anybody. I put a lot of names in the paper, [he pauses dramatically and smiles] in boldface.”

Kamen came to the Post in 1980, where he covered the D.C. Superior Court, the federal courts, the Supreme Court and the State Department before taking on the column. His first newspaper job was for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver in the mid-’70s. Before that, he assisted Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on The Final Days and Woodward and Scott Armstrong on The Brethren, their book on the Supreme Court.

Reminiscing about covering Clinton’s personnel choices, he says, “In the Clinton days it took on a more gossipy tone because you could never be confident that the person getting the job was going to take the walk with Clinton in front of the White House. It could change, and it did — that morning. You had to be very careful. You had to use fudge words.”

Born in Brooklyn, Kamen was 7 when his family moved to Canton, Ohio. His father sold artificial flowers to florists and owned a dish store; his mother was a housewife.

The Ivy League world was a shock for Kamen. As a Harvard undergraduate, he studied political science and English.

“Harvard was tough for me,” he says. “I was from a public school in Canton, Ohio. I didn’t have the writing abilities. Everyone else seemed to be able to write well. It took me a year or so to catch up.”

After college, Kamen joined the Peace Corps and was sent to the Dominican Republican, where he organized rice growers into cooperatives.

At the 35- to 40-minute mark in the interview, the columnist grows antsy as the daily deadline starts to crawl through his veins, and this is my cue to speed things up and let him return to the grind of his column.

“People read it because they don’t know what will be in there on any given day,” he says. “I try to keep it humorous because I think there are too many people who take themselves too seriously in this town.”

Kamen, apparently, isn’t one of them: “I don’t expect people to know who I am.”