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Essential Life Lessons From Mike Allen

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Mike Allen is one of the most famous journalists in Washington, the voice of moderate politics, “the man the White House wakes up to,” a newsletter pioneer. But a close reading of Politico’s Playbook—his widely read morning email—shows the 50-year-old Allen wants something more. He wants to go deeper than the horse race campaign coverage and the outrage of the week. Mike Allen cares about life. And he wants to give you a guide, or a warning, about how to live yours. He expresses this through the periodic Playbook feature, the PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE.

PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE: Who's the future Andy Rooney in your life?” Allen asked on October 3, 2011, after excerpting Rooney’s final "60 Minutes" monologue. A haunting existential question such as this, shouted into the void, can feel a little jarring in an email product from Politico, which has a tendency to offer political analysis that, as Jonathan Chait described in The New Republic a few years ago, “takes a vital moral question, drains it of all its moral significance, and presents it in purely electoral terms.”

To be sure, the PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE—a bolded, all-caps subheadline among others, such as “HOT IN HILLARYLAND,” “2016 PLAYERS,” or “EXCLUSIVE”—often offers the standard Politico take on a campaign story. On Sunday, for example, Allen opened his newsletter like this:

PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE - Scott Walker (doesn't) know: Whether Obama is a Christian ... Whether Obama loves his country ... Whether he agrees with Rudy ... Evolution ... Who he'd pick as Fed chairman.

But it’s when Allen tackles the big questions that the PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE achieves a kind of perfection. The feature was introduced in February 2009, with an investment banker’s explanation of how the financial crisis had frozen the global financial system. But a few months later, the FACTS started to get more philosophical. With some regularity, the FACTS gives Washingtonians a chance to take a break from the news cycle and think about their brief existence on this planet. “You have to know when to walk away from the bar. At the bar, and in life,” Allen wrote on May 3, 2012, when the Texts from Hillary site stopped posting after just a week.

Allen, known as a strange creature who embodies all the twisted norms of a morally bankrupt city, isn’t so different from the rest of us. He might not use ironic scare quotes like Hipster Runoff’s founder, Carles (“I think if you 'have an original voice' on the internet, you are supposed to continue to build scalable 'content verticals' to be able to comment on everything possible, using 'the voice' as a springboard 2 reach people and be able to sell editorial-rate ads against the content.”). He might not offer terrifying analysis of our current landscape like acclaimed internet genius John Herrman (“In such a situation the internet’s craving for sex and humiliation is effectively infinite. This throws the Content industry into a frantic generative mode, initiating a full-spectrum stress test on par with a natural disaster or a war.”). Perched on the frontlines of our media dystopia, Allen is confronted hourly by the distorting pressures of the internet and media and power and money. Yet when he attempts to rise above that fray, Allen expresses his existential angst with the uncomfortable forced folksiness of a presidential candidate eating a corndog in Iowa.

And so, for the sake of humanity, we have collected six years of Mike Allen’s PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE, stripped of the banal political stories that inspired them to give a clearer picture of how we should live.

On power and ethics

PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE: With proximity comes power.” June 16, 2009.

“It's Ethel Kennedy. Ya don't say ‘no.’” August 12, 2014.

“He's well-liked on Capitol Hill. Makes a difference.” November 22, 2013.

“If you wonder if it’s OK, it’s probably not.” January 16, 2011.

“When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.” May 13, 2013.

“Little lies become big lies in unpredictable ways.” January 17, 2013.

“Lies of omission are still lies.” January 17, 2013.

On being classy

“[B]rilliantly simple rules for living: ‘Silence...Decent clothing...No photos.’” June 9, 2011.

“It's the little things that count!” September 30, 2012.

“If you think you’re humble, you’re not!” April 1, 2011.

“At any given moment, we can make someone feel good, or feel bad. Human nature is to make them feel bad—they screwed up, or inconvenienced us. But it doesn’t cost any more to make them feel good. And the secret is: You do, too.” July 29, 2014.

On human communication in the digital age

“Don't hit on your buddy's date, don't put country music on the radio without asking, and don't send a barrage of 113 tweets that are irrelevant to most recipients.” June 30, 2011.

“Just keep sayin' it, and folks will quit asking.” September 9, 2012.

“These people don't like or trust you, either, dawg.” September 27, 2011.

“Go short; look smart.” August 28, 2012.

“If you’re gonna have a bad week, June is a good time to have it.” June 10, 2012.

“If you haven't met her, she ain't your girlfriend, dude.” January 17, 2013.

“An annoying email this a.m. reminded us that there's nothing friendly about a ‘friendly reminder.’” July 29, 2014.

“If you’re writing in clichés, you’re probably thinking in clichés.” March 24, 2013.

On destiny

“This is why we tell young people that one of the secrets of life is: ‘Ya never know!’ When you run into disappointment, and don't get what you think you want, you usually wind up much better off than if you'd stuck to whatever course you'd plotted.” February 22, 2014.

“If you don’t get your dream tonight, remember one of the Playbook Rules for Living: Ya never know. We are living proof that life takes unexpected turns, and you will—mysteriously, but surely—wind up better off.” November 6, 2012.

“It's how politics works, it's how the news biz works, and it's the story of life. (The last shall be first.) Be nice to your intern!” May 13, 2011.

“One of the Playbook Rules for Living: Momentum matters—in sports, in dating, and definitely in politics.” October 22, 2012.

“What if the girl is free, but doesn't WANT to go to prom?” May 5, 2011.

“The weekend's top takeaway is WISTFULNESS.” June 14, 2014.