John King Is No Prisoner of the Beltway

CNN's chief national correspondent finds great political stories all across America
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John King has spent the last 20 years working in the Petri dish of Washington, a culture that can breed the well-known “inside-the-Beltway” insularity at odds with the realities facing the rest of the country.

During coverage of the presidential election, CNN's chief national correspondent became known as the man at the Magic Wall, deftly conjuring up reams of data from obscure precincts at the touch of a finger. But he also gained a reputation for breaking away from his home base and showing up in blink-and-you'll-miss-'em towns where the local diner served homespun wisdom along with the $2.99 breakfast.

“My travel is very important to me as a political reporter,” King says. “You can't sit in Washington, D.C., and understand the country. You just can't. You have to go out and touch it and feel it and see it.”

Now King is into his first few weeks as anchor of the four-hour Sunday morning program State of the Union With John King. The show mixes newsmaker interviews, analysis and filed pieces. So King is keeping his travel schedule as hectic as ever.

To help facilitate King's travels, the CNN Express—the network's studio on wheels—will become an integral part of the show, according to David Bohrman, senior VP and D.C. bureau chief. “I think [the CNN Express] is going to extend his range so that he can actually go farther than Charleston, W.Va., to cover a story when he's anchoring a show based out of Washington,” Bohrman says.

Traveling and hosting the show means King's life must operate with split-second precision. After last week's show, King raced to the second half of his 12-year old daughter's basketball game. (“My daughter had 8 points and a bazillion rebounds,” he says. “It was awesome.”) He also has a 15-year-old son. And he's newly married, to Dana Bash, CNN's senior Congressional correspondent.

“I don't think my life is all that much different from [that of] a lot of working parents,” King says. “You just have to discipline your schedule and make compromises. My kids are incredibly important. I'm not asking for a gold star because I don't spend nearly as much time with them as I should.”

During the campaign, King's penchant for shoe-leather reporting often put him in the right place at the right time. In September when Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was urging the multi-billion-dollar federal bailout, King was in Montana reporting on the shifting political tide in the traditionally Republican state. He walked into a state congressional office across the street from his hotel and found workers fielding dozens of calls from constituents angry about the bailout. The resulting piece was an early look at what would become significant public sentiment against the plan.

“He did a completely different story on the bailout that was completely unexpected,” says Sam Feist, CNN's political director. “You have to be out there to catch those moments.”

Likewise, in October King and his crew got a vague tip that a major employer in Ashland, Ohio, would be shutting down. They arrived in town to find employees of the Archway cookie bakery gathered in a fairground across the street, stunned after receiving letters that morning telling them their jobs were gone and their health-care benefits would disappear in a matter of days.

King's journalism career began at The Associated Press. He interned at the Providence bureau while attending the University of Rhode Island, and landed a full-time job with AP before he earned his degree.

After two years in Providence, King transferred to the AP bureau in Boston. When Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis decided to seek the 1988 Democratic nomination for president, King was thrilled to become one of the boys on the bus.

“I was 24 years old when I was running around the country with Dukakis and I just thought, 'Wow, this is great! They pay people to do this?' I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity.”

By 1991, King was AP's chief political correspondent, leading coverage of the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. In 1997, then-CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno convinced him try television.

King is self-deprecating about his early TV career. “I had been a guest on programs before. But I had never been a correspondent. I had never tracked pieces. I had never done a live shot. I was brand-new at it. And if you went back and dug up all the tapes, you would know that I was brand-new at it. It was rough and it was humbling and, at times, humiliating. It's like anything, when you're new at it you're going to fall down, but the important thing is to get up.”

Before his marriage to Bash, King converted to Judaism. But he grew up in a large Irish-Catholic family in Dorchester, a tough, working-class neighborhood next to South Boston, the Irish stronghold known as Southie. The third boy in a family of seven—five boys and two girls—King's father worked as a prison guard at the Charles Street Jail. (The jail closed in 1990 and a few years ago reopened as the upscale Liberty Hotel. “I always thought it would be fun to stay there,” King says.)

All of King's siblings still live in the Boston area. And if King has overcome the telltale Boston accent, the trained ear can occasionally pick up the rare dropped “r.”

“My dad was a blue-collar guy and he worked so hard,” King says. “He didn't go to college, but we all got to go because he and my mom worked so hard and gave up so much for us. And that's the basic blue-collar work ethic: work hard and be fair and be honest, and it will be OK.”

Which explains King's fealty for the common man. “We're blue-collar, and so I tell my brothers and sisters if you ever see me getting the disease of Washington make sure you kick me in the head.”

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