When Lou Dobbs would express indignation about yet another government outrage, his mouth would drop open, he would hunch forward, his face would turn red, and he would bellow, “What are they thinking?”
With John King, Dobbs’ replacement at 7 p.m. on CNN, you don’t know what he is thinking.
“Mostly I view my job as listening and letting everybody who has a legitimate stake in an issue have their say, and trusting in the common sense of the people out there watching to sort it all out,” King tells Newsmax.
With King, there is no smirking at liberal views, no raising of the eyebrows when conservatives speak. When contributor Eric Erickson of RedState.com leaves out a point that might buttress his conservative arguments, King gladly supplies it.
With his salt-and-pepper hair growing ever whiter, King is a silver fox in training, a Richard Gere look-alike. As he does the “Play by Play” segment on his political show, King looks and sounds like a sportscaster.
Gesturing with his pen, he makes playbook circles in the air. The informality of his clothes — an open-collar shirt and a blue blazer — adds to the jock image.
King’s personality is anything but aggressive. He’s as pleasant as background music, calm and unobtrusive in a heated discussion. When his halcyon world is breached, he reveals his tension with a lip curl or eyebrows that tent into a V. But his appealing sense of humor, low-key and wry, always saves the day.
King, 46, grew up in a working-class family in the Dorchester section of Boston. With his six siblings, he lived on the third floor of a triple-decker. In winter, wind blew through the thinly insulated walls.
“My dad was a guard at the old Charles Street jail, and he was a janitor for the city of Boston before that, and he took the job at the jail because it paid better,” says King, who keeps his late father’s badges on his desk.
King’s good grades got him into the elite Boston Latin School.
“It was drummed into us pretty good that, in the sixth grade, you are going to take this test for Boston Latin School, and you damn well better pass it because there is somebody behind you, and going to private school is expensive,” King says. While attending the University of Rhode Island, King worked two summers at Cooperfield’s bar a block and a half from Fenway Park in Boston. In his junior year, The Associated Press in Providence, R.I., hired him for a summer stint.
After graduating, he went full-time with AP, then an unflinchingly neutral news outlet.
He worked in the Boston, Mass., bureau before being transferred to Washington, D.C.
In 1997, Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s senior political correspondent, recommended that CNN hire King. Blitzer said he was “sick and tired” of King’s scooping CNN on Bill Clinton’s political appointments.
At first, King resisted.
“I had the traditional print view of TV journalists: Those are pretty people who get paid a lot of money and don’t do any work,” King says. “It turned out I was wrong.’’
As CNN’s chief national correspondent, King won respect from both sides of the aisle. Dick Cheney gave him his first television interview after leaving the vice president’s mansion. King also interviewed President Obama.
In November, Dobbs and CNN parted ways. CNN President Jon Klein said the decision grew out of weeks of discussions with Dobbs after he directed the anchor to rein in some of his controversial opinions. Despite the fact that an announcement of Obama’s birth appeared in the Aug. 31, 1961, issue of the Honolulu Advertiser, Dobbs kept raising questions about whether Obama was born in the United States.
CNN asked King to anchor John King USA. Since the show began in March, he has hosted a range of heavy hitters. King supplements interviews with inside information he and CNN reporters glean. On most nights, one of those reporters is his wife, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash.
Divorced and the father of two teenagers, King married Bash in May 2008. She is considered one of the top political reporters in the business.
“I sometimes get a little worried that people think she’s on my show because she’s my wife,” King says. “In my view, she is one of the best source and political reporters in town.”
King’s analysis and behind-the-scenes insights produce a powerful and informative show.
Initially, his ratings slid below those of Lou Dobbs, mirroring CNN’s plunge in viewership when compared with Fox News. During one typical 7 p.m. hour, King had 391,000 viewers, compared with 1.8 million for The Fox Report With Shepard Smith, 633,000 for Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, and 147,000 for the Kudlow Report on CNBC.
King points out that it takes time for a new show to catch on. “We are in a transition period in our business, and there are a lot of questions about how do you try to stay objective and middle of the road but be distinctive,” King says.
When asked whether CNN could benefit by adopting some of Fox News’ approaches, King says, “People sometimes look at me like I’m crazy, including people where I work sometimes, when I say I don’t begrudge the business model Roger Ailes [CEO of Fox News] has developed, nor do I begrudge MSNBC their business model.”
King admires the way Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly “speak with clarity.” Yet, he says, “It’s not where I fit. It’s not how I’m trained. It’s not what I want to do, and so I try to find a place where I can do reporting, story-telling journalism the way I like it.”
What excites King is learning new things. “I consider it a great gift that I get paid to learn,” says King, who visited all 50 states last year. “I am fascinated by what motivates people to get involved in politics, so I like going to school committee meetings. I like going to tea party rallies. I like watching people work phone banks or go door to door and knock on doors, whether they are Christian conservatives who oppose abortion or whether they are labor union activists who are trying to get an increase in the minimum wage.”
Before marrying Bash, King converted to Judaism, her religion. At home, King and Bash keep kosher, meaning no pork or shellfish and separate sets of dishes for meat and dairy entrées.
“It was really fun to study Judaism and just to get back into a track of faith,” King says. “Whether you believe in all of the tenets or not, just to be reminded of the great history of any great religion makes you learn, and I’m a curious person.”
For that reason, King says his job is rewarding. “We live in a very fractured time, and even the once-monolithic institutions have cracks in their unity and are fracturing off and breaking off,” he says. “They are challenging authority, and it makes it fascinating to cover.”
Give the new show at least nine months, King says. If it doesn’t work out, “I’ll just take you back to Jake Wirth. I have bartending skills, and if it dies, I will find something else to do.”
As originally published in Newsmax magazine.