TOM PUTNAM: Good evening. I'm Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of Tom McNaught, Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you for coming out on this stormy night and making your way through the wind tunnel that is our front door. Let me begin by acknowledging the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums: lead sponsor Bank of America, Raytheon, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Boston Foundation; and our media partners, the Boston Globe and WBUR.
I was reading a New Yorker article recently by Patrick Radden Keefe, who noted that when he was growing up, people in Braintree used to joke that they were OFD – Originally from Dorchester. [laughter] And the same, of course, could be said for tonight's guest speaker. So please join me at the start in giving a warm Dorchester homecoming to a local boy done good, John King. [applause]
It occurs to me that Mr. King's work is in the tradition of another one of Dorchester's illustrious native sons, Theodore H. White, who won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Making of the President 1960, chronicling the election of the man we honor in this Library. Mr. White's analysis of that race was groundbreaking for the times, much as Mr. King has helped revolutionize the way we watch and analyze presidential elections today, though it's hard to picture Teddy White mastering the Magic Wall touch screen maps that Mr. King uses so effectively on air as part of his analysis.
John King is an award-winning journalist whose career spans more than three decades, most notably on CNN, where he has served as chief national correspondent, anchor of John King USA and State of the Union with John King. He's moderated a number of presidential debates, and most recently the 2010 gubernatorial debate right here in Massachusetts. This semester, he is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Our moderator this evening is Brian McGrory, editor of the Boston Globe. In his long and varied career, Mr. McGrory has served as the paper's roving national reporter, White House correspondent, Metro section editor, columnist, and actually began his career with the Globe as a paperboy.
He's perhaps best known through his Metro column in which he enlightened readers about the quirks and characters of greater Boston while holding public officials and business leaders accountable. He recently published a memoir, Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man, about raising a pet rooster as he adjusted to suburban life with his fiancée and her children. It happens to be my wife's favorite Christmas present from me this past year.
In his last essay after being named editor of the Globe, he wrote, "This column has been the richest privilege of my professional life. My next job will be the greatest responsibility." We're fortunate that the Boston Globe is in such trustworthy and capable hands.
I should note that after extensive pre-Forum negotiations, Mr. McGrory has promised not to open tonight's discussion with questions about Newt Gingrich's open marriage, and Mr. King has agreed not to dodge any such queries by attacking the liberal Boston media. [laughter]
Tim Russert once called John King "a terrific, tenacious reporter. What he does best is deliver the news in ways that connect the biggest stories in Washington to the people and places throughout our nation with a candid conversational and interactive style."
Please join me now in welcoming John King and Brian McGrory. [applause]
BRIAN McGRORY: Thank you very much, Tom. I'm glad I wasn't around when you told your wife it was time to take her favorite Christmas gift back to the library. [laughter]
John, it's a pleasure to be here with you. I'm really honored. We haven't really spent time like this since the 1996 campaign, so this is a privilege.
JOHN KING: I didn't know about that first job. My first job was delivering the Herald, so maybe I should just leave now. [laughter]
BRIAN McGRORY: Let me start out this way: You look like you were born to be on TV.
JOHN KING: Oh, God, yeah, right. [laughter]
BRIAN McGRORY: Look at that hair, for God's sakes; I mean, it's perfect. But it wasn't always so. Tell us how you broke in to television.
JOHN KING: I'm the reluctant warrior, I think, when it comes to television. If my hair is better for television now, I owe that to Bill Clinton. He turned it the color that it is today. [laughter] I'm not alone in that regard.
It's funny you ask that question. I don't mean it the way it sounds sometimes, but I always say that my life in many ways, and my career path, has been an accident. You make your own luck and you're there for breaks and you have to work hard. That's the thing I learned here from my parents, growing up here, work hard.
But I had no interest in being in television. I had worked for the Associated Press for 12 years. I started in Rhode Island. I came to Boston. Talk about luck: We had a great guy, Chris Daley, who was running our State House bureau at the time; he was a fabulous reporter who didn't want to go to Iowa, didn't want to go to New Hampshire. Had things going on in his life and wanted to write the big pieces about the Dukakis record, but that would have been his baby. So they looked around and said, "All right, kid, how about you?" I was 23 years old. I was pretty cool.
Then later in that campaign, I was about to get bigfooted because the smart people in Washington thought, "We'll let the kid cover Dukakis because he's not going to win." Beware, smart people in Washington: I broke the Bentsen story, that Dukakis was picking Bentsen as his running mate. So then I got to go to Washington after that; I got to cover the campaign and I got to go to Washington. And a couple times in that period, especially after the '92 campaign, where I was the chief political correspondent in '92 and got a little interest from TV networks. I was a wire guy. I didn't like wearing ties; I prefer to wear jeans. I always said no.
Then after the '96 campaign, CNN came at me pretty aggressively and said, "You've spent six or eight years covering this guy, Bill Clinton. You've made a name as a reporter on him. Why don't you come do this?" And I was ready to do something different in my AP job. I was thinking about taking a leave of absence and actually coming up to the Kennedy School, or something like that, around then. And they offered me some flexibility and said, "If you don't like it, you can leave." So I decided to do it.
I had for years resisted it. And you did this, so you know what it's like. I, for years at the AP, I didn't want to cover the White House, and I said no when they asked me to cover the White House, because it's sort of a hostage crisis in that you're in those gates. You go through security every day and you're hostage to whatever the President is doing. No disrespect to the President, any President, but I love to travel. I loved covering governors' races, I loved going around the country and learning about the fractured politics that we have.
Yet, CNN said, "Come do this." Wolf Blitzer was the senior at the time and I was not so sure at the moment. There are a lot of days when I think, “Why did you do that?” Even 16 years later I think, “Dear God, what a mistake.” But it was a great blessing, because covering the White House you are forced to learn about the world and about policy. And as a kid from Dorchester who had done a pretty good job covering campaigns, I was suddenly learning about nuclear weapons in North Korea and Rwanda, and everything else. And it was the greatest learning experience of my life. I realized how lucky I am; I get paid to learn. I had to borrow every last dime to get myself through college, and now they pay me to learn. It's pretty cool.
BRIAN McGRORY: I like to say that covering the White House was the best job I've already done. But it's not as glamorous as it looks, is it, especially when you're on these campaign trips?
Even when you're on these foreign trips to what would appear to be world capitals that everybody wants to go, it's not like what it seems, is it?
JOHN KING: Often, you could be – again, no disrespect to Cleveland – but you're in Moscow and you could be in Cleveland. You're in a hotel ballroom, is what I mean. You're in a room that looks something like this, though it's probably not as nice as this. You got off a plane at five in the morning and you came to a hotel and it was dark and you didn't really see anything when you got there, and if you're lucky and you're in the pool, you might get to go when the President's in the meeting with the world leader; you might actually get to be as close as these folks are here in the front row. But most people are in the filing center watching it on television monitors or listening to it come in on speakers. And then when that's over, if you're moving on, then you pack up your bags and you get on a bus and you go to the airport and you might say, "Hey, that's the Eiffel Tower, cool."
It's literally, what's the movie, the Chevy Chase movie? Parliament, Big Ben, Big Ben, Parliament. A lot of it is like that. You're exhausted and no matter where you are in the world, you have to work US time zones. CNN, you're on the air 24 hours a day because we have an international network as well, but if you're a newspaper, you're writing for your deadline, no matter how screwed up that is for your body.
I grew up about a mile that way. My family struggled at times. So when I make light of this, I have to slap myself because I've been to 80 countries now. It was not until I was in college that I left New England. So it's a gift. While it's the greatest thing in the world, the thing I always say is travel with the Vice President. Then you get to do things. Travel with the President, nobody cares, unless he does something crazy.
I went to the Mandela inauguration with Al Gore. Nobody cared that Al Gore was at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. It was sort of about somebody else that day. So we got to wander around and meet Castro and wander through, so that stuff's fun. But the White House itself -- it's a great honor, don't get me wrong -- but a lot of it is just 20-hour days in the grind and the travel. You wake up and wonder, “What city are we in today? Where's my bag? What floor is my room on?”
BRIAN McGRORY: We in the print media, as you know, can be pretty …
JOHN KING: Look down on us in TV, yeah, I know.
BRIAN McGRORY: We can be pretty snide about television personalities, television reporters. And I'm not even going to say that's an oxymoron. [laughter]
JOHN KING: It's the columnist's way of saying without saying. It's implied.
BRIAN McGRORY: I'm not telling anything out of school. You're different. You are a reporter who breaks stories. You are a reporter who does the work. You are a reporter who actually print people follow rather than the other way around. What lessons did you carry in to TV with you from all those years with AP?
JOHN KING: Well, I hope that the basic training that I got at the AP guides me throughout my career, wherever it takes me -- where I am now and wherever it takes me -- in the sense that I was blessed that I came to it that way. I get it, because I was one of the print people saying the pretty boys and the pretty girls, there's not a lot up there; we used to do the dental floss jokes. [laughter] Yes, people do that. They're your friends and your colleagues, by the way. But one thing I did learn, after I switched, I love to write and my biggest fear when I switched to television was I wouldn't get to write longer pieces, the piece that you want to be in the Sunday paper.
I wrote for the AP so I never had any idea if anyone was going to use my stuff. Brian knows he's going to be on the front page; he decides who gets on the front page. But in the AP, you write your stories, they go off into the ether and you don't know what's going to happen. But then when you're traveling the country and the world, you pick up a newspaper and there you are, that's pretty cool. I used to love that. And that was my biggest fear.
I thought TV is so easy. Oral communication is writing. What I'm doing right now in its own way is writing. But you're just doing it off the top of your head as opposed to doing this. And I realized how hard it is; it's actually a lot harder. You've got 45 seconds to talk about this; sometimes you have a minute-thirty; sometimes they give you five minutes. The different pacing of that is actually a great challenge. And there are others.
When I was first starting in journalism, even on the print side, the thing I was blessed with -- being a 23-year-old kid on the Dukakis plane and bus -- was that you had guys like Jack Germond and David Broder. Walter Mears, who's my hero at the AP, a guy who covered the Kennedy campaign, won the Pulitzer for it in 1960, always reminded me -- because I didn't get where I got early by breaking some news -- said, "Kid, you're carving out a little niche for yourself, but remember, you'd rather be second than wrong." He was always trying to tell me – because if you break a couple of stories, then they come to you saying, "Break some more." He was trying to teach me when I was young, just to put the brakes on, don't be afraid to hit the pause button.
Sam Donaldson, in those days, was known as the bombastic guy who screamed questions at Ronald Reagan, but Sam could be a good reporter. There were some. But as the business has changed, I will accept that there are some people who do it … It's not that they're bad people; they just don't have the experience. People get pushed now, a lot of it, through fellowship and the like; you have a fellowship and then you're in this great job.
When young people come to me and say, "How do I get your job?" I say, "Go get a job for the AP or the Boston Globe, work in a newspaper, learn how to write, and then try to be on television." Most of them don't want to listen, but I think it's a better path because you get the skill set.
BRIAN McGRORY: I would agree, and you are the personification of that. We've waited long enough. Tell us about the Magic Wall.
JOHN KING: Well, the Magic Wall is another accident, which is why I say there are these accidents. In 2008, if you go back and look, the night of the Iowa caucuses, it was the debut of the Magic Wall on CNN. I didn't touch it; I was nowhere near it. There was someone else the management at the time decided should use that technology. Let's just say it didn't go so well. And nothing against the person who did it; he is a friend and is actually brilliant. I'm not going to name him in public here because it would seem like I'm criticizing him, and I'm not. He's someone who's actually brilliant, a very brilliant person, a lot smarter than I am in the IQ department, but he didn't have a lot of experience covering politics.
One of the tensions I've always had with my bosses is they want you in the studio on election night in television. It's important, I get it. It's a visual medium, they want everybody in the room. I want to be on the ground until the last possible second. And you'll remember, 2008, that was the Obama-wins-Iowa. Clinton had to win New Hampshire or else, and Obama had all that momentum coming in. I think it was actually a Globe poll at the end that showed Obama just, whoosh, storming. Everyone thought Obama was going to win New Hampshire; it was going to be over.
So I stayed until the last possible minute. They were furious at me. My flight got canceled from Boston to New York. I was toast; I wasn't going to make it for election night. I walk in and they say, "Oh, by the way, you're going to do that tonight." I had never touched it. We were on TV in an hour. That's how it works in cable. But what I learned – and I was not known then as a technology guym, I'm old school; I like my pencil and my little Radio Shack. The old days were the good days in my mind. But I just started playing with it during the breaks and I realized my finger's the mouse and you're just going, and the live data feeds into it, and once you sort of conceptualize what it's capable of, then it's just like, okay.
I'm in a New York studio -- now we do them in DC -- that was in New York. There were some other networks that night that said Obama won New Hampshire, and I had to throw my body in front of the train because then there's competitive pressure. Everybody remembers 2000, right? One network calls it, then there's competitive pressure. These are very smart people, don't get me wrong, who are in a room. But sometimes it's tough. So two or three other people have called the election, and some people had called New Hampshire for Obama, which would have been game over. It would have been game over in 2008. And I was trying to throw myself in front of the train saying, "Don't do this." And they said, "Why?" And I said, "Let me show you." And they came on television -- and I had never done this -- but I just went to Manchester and said, "Because she has people here and she has people here, and I know the people on the ground. The mayor is for her here, and look, 80% of the vote's in, but this vote's missing. Look at the margin: this is the biggest city, and look down to Nashua where the people are and there are still some votes to come and she's very well organized here. Let's just wait 15 minutes." And it changed, you just saw it go.
So as I was playing with it and I heard them saying, "We're going to call it for Obama," I just said no. It was almost a primal scream. No. But you get to report, you get to go places and take the data. I think what was powerful about it -- and I did not get this -- you're on live television, you have no idea if you're making sense, sometimes you forget what you said. But in the days after, people would say, "That really helped me visualize it." Or, "You came to my community." Or, "You took me places that I hadn't been." I realized the power of taking people and showing them. It actually works.
BRIAN McGRORY: But tell me if I'm wrong here. One of the most powerful things about you on the Magic Wall was that you had actually been to these places. You knew what was going on in Manchester. You knew who was running the show in Concord. When you have a national map up and you're showing a Congressional district, you've been there. You know who's running the show there. That's all about getting out of the studio, being out in the country.
JOHN KING: And that's the blessing of having bosses who let you do that. And so for any Globe employees here, I'm sure your editor will give you an unlimited travel budget. [laughter]
BRIAN McGRORY: We're swimming in money these days, it's great, it's great. [laughter]
JOHN KING: Part of this was my AP job. I had good bosses who let me just go out. That's why I said I love covering governors' races or the 1994 midterm when the Republicans stormed back into power. You'd travel in those days and you'd be out covering the Michigan governor's race, but you just come back thinking, “Hmm, there's something weird going on out there.” Now, did you know they were going to win 52 seats and Newt Gingrich was going to be Speaker, my buddy? No, but you could feel it. And that's the value of reporting and getting out there.
So, yes, I hope my experience helps. This last one was my seventh presidential election and one of the things I asked for -- now that I'm in television -- is just time to go. Can I have a couple days where I'm not going to be on television? Or can I just do one show because I just want to go sit, I just want to go sit in a diner, I just want to go sit in … I always tell young reporters, "You want to understand politics? Go to a school committee meeting. Get to the most local level and see what people are passionate about." Because oftentimes what happens in a presidential race or a governor's race has nothing to do, really, with the presidential candidates. People are mad about something or they're agitated about something.
But the gift -- you take the value of reporting, having been to most of these places 10 or 20 or 30 times and hopefully recently, and that's what plays out. This past election night, I didn't travel as much because I had a show that was then canceled early in the campaign season, I wasn't getting out there much. And then I got to travel late and had to be smarter about where I went, because you had a limited amount of time. And the seven or eight states that we focused on were the states that mattered.
There was a moment on election night where Karl Rove was saying Romney's going to win Ohio and those other idiots are wrong. And again, we used the Magic Wall to say … I mean, I want them to pay me money, so politics is the most complicated thing in the world, right? [laughter] It's the simplest thing in the world; it's arithmetic. It's addition and subtraction. So you just go to places and you say, “What's the count? What's left?” You just do the math and you say, “Sorry, Karl, Ohio's gone, buddy.”
BRIAN McGRORY: Speaking of Karl, tell us about the influence of Fox and MSNBC on the political dialogue and the television dialogue going on today.
JOHN KING: I once had a job at Gerard's. Anyone know where Gerard's is in Adam's Corner? I was a short order cook there. I quit; it didn't go that well. And Eire Pub's right across the street. You go in to these places and Fox News is on now in most of these places. When you pop in you see what's on the TV. So don't underestimate it.
John King, citizen, is troubled by the fact that there are entities that call themselves news networks that in prime time are just partisan, purely partisan programming. However, I have friends who work at them. I watch some of it; some of it's actually informative and entertaining.
But I hope nobody in this room thinks that that's news reporting.
I trust 99.9% … If you came in from Planet Claire and watched it and thought, “Well, that's the news,” after a couple days you'd figure it out. You will find people who say it's horrible. I do think one of the reasons we have the problems we have now in our politics is that people can just stay at choir practice for their entire life. If you're a liberal, you can just log on to the Huffington Post and watch MSNBC and just stay there. And if you're a conservative, you can go through Matt Drudge and Fox News and never leave your comfort zone. So that troubles me in the sense that it contributes to the polarization.
But two points: Number one is, you and I live or die by the First Amendment. The minute we try to take it away from somebody else, we lose our standing. And so they have every right to it, whether I agree or disagree with what they're doing. That's the gift of why we're here. They have every right to do what they're doing, and as a business model it works.
So anyone can take that as: Here's the CNN guy complaining about Fox and MSNBC because in Fox's case definitely, and in some cases MSNBC, is beating CNN in the ratings. The job of my place is to take a deep breath, stop reacting to them -- and we're starting to do this and I actually think in a year or so you'll see significant process. Our new management is moving aggressively, and I think mostly so far in a terribly positive direction. Don't try to copy them, don't worry about them. Roger Ailes has done a brilliant job of saying that the middle is boring, and that CNN is boring because it's in the middle. Well, this is a great sports town, right? Don't you want to scout the other team? In the middle, you can actually see everything; you get to see everything. You get to learn. You get to study. And God forbid we actually learn. God forbid a conservative learn from a liberal, or a liberal learn from a conservative.
So we get to air all views. We need to do a better job at being smarter and interesting. Sure, have the food fights, but first set them up with some facts and some interest, because … We were just having this conversation before we came out here. Five years ago, ten years ago, everybody thought your part of the business was going to die because of technology. No, we just need to transform. The thirst for information is greater than ever; we just have to figure out, because of technology, new ways to deliver it.
My network got sort of caught up in worrying about them, as opposed to saying, "Who are we and what do we want to do?" And if we'd establish that actually in the middle you can learn a lot, you can have respect for other people's points of views but still have a good, healthy debate, I think we'll be just fine.
I don't like some of what they do. And yes, it contributes to the polarization, the nastiness, the punching bag part of it. But you know what? They have every right to the First Amendment, and people watch it.
BRIAN McGRORY: Elaborate a little bit though. You said that in another year we might see more of the fruits of what your station director is thinking. How might we see CNN change?
JOHN KING: Our new president, Jeff Zucker, I think has done some very smart things early on. And he's been a consumer of CNN over the years. If you're not familiar with Jeff, he was the Today Show producer when the Today Show took off. Very different -- morning television's different from most of what CNN will be. Then he was the head of all of NBC News, and then he went off and famously crashed as the head of NBC Entertainment. But he's humbled by that experience. He's actually a fascinating guy to talk to in the sense that he would tell you sometimes you get promoted into places that maybe you're not that familiar with, but you say yes, right, if they offer you this great job. And he wasn't as familiar with the entertainment side. So he's happy to be back on the news side, which has been his life. I think he also feels he has something to prove, which I think is great from a new manager who comes in with a desire to prove that he knows what he's doing.
If you watch CNN -- I'm not picking on anybody -- but if you watch CNN 9:00 in the morning, 10:00 in the morning, 11:00 in the morning, 12:00, it's the same. It's a single anchor sitting in a chair, reading headlines that none of you have to turn on the TV to get, because you can get them here. Or you can get them on your laptop. So the challenge is pretty obvious. It's that people have the headlines; people are watching cable news, or people like this, who for some strange reason – maybe I robbed a bank or had a fight with your son or something – on a night like this come out and they want to hear from people who are involved in the news business.
We have to give you value-added information. You know what happened. We have to tell you why, or we have to tell who's the most interesting person, or what's next, how is it … Obama, the President, is having dinner tonight with eight or nine Republican Senators. It only took four years and a month. [laughter] I used to say, when they're talking to the portraits, that's a sign they've gone wrong. I think both the President and every member of Congress should start talking to the portraits about how to actually get things done.
Jeff wants to stake out smarter, informative, give people information. Don't worry about the other guys, don't be afraid if you run a three-minute piece to explain something. And to bring more diversity of programming, do some science and technology programming, do some health programming. But also put an emphasis on smarter politics and if you need five minutes to explain something, don't worry about it.
BRIAN McGRORY: It always amazes me how in a crisis or a massive news event people flock to CNN. That is when you are at your absolute best and that's for good reason; people go there for the real news.
JOHN KING: They do. And so you realize who are you, and you want to defend that brand. CNN, I believe, is the best brand in broadcast news. Cnn.com is the best, by far, in terms of visitation, the best brand in digital news. Now, the pressure and the competition is growing by the minute, and so you can't get lazy. And that was what happened when CNN was first. It was the only one. Like the American auto industry, like Xerox back in the '80s, we got lazy. You don't need a rocket scientist to figure out what happened. We got lazy. We kept doing things the same way we were doing then; we got repetitive and then we got reactive. When all of a sudden Fox started to take off, we got reactive and we didn't think, "It doesn't matter what they're doing."
If you look at the ratings, the people who watch what you could broadly define as information and news programming, you could put the Discovery Channel or the History Channel in there. The History Channel is actually a great lesson to people who work where I work in the sense that, for a cable audience – we're talking about a couple hundred thousand people to have a successful cable program – these documentaries, whether it's about John Adams, John Kennedy, or the history of the White House, even about the buildings, there are people who want to watch that stuff. They care about the history. It's context. It's a little color. It's a little texture.
So when that's happening, why don't we on the news side say, “Well, we can do that actually about today, too. It's not going to be as well produced; you're not going to have a year or two to work on it, but we should remember that we're in the curiosity business. People watching us are curious, too, so let's feed their curiosity, not just put -- okay, the most liberal and the most conservative stunt dummy and put them on television and have them scream at each other. Even though nine times out of ten, when you watch these people on cable television, they have nothing to do with the issue, actually. They're not involved in the key committee. Nobody in their own caucus listens to them. They're just colorful and combative and it's like playing gladiator. Here's a piece of steak, go fight over it.
We need to get away from that. You can have those debates sometimes if you set them up first with information, but then part of the challenge -- and again Jeff shares this -- is call the BS BS. When you have people like that, who are loud and vocal and getting a lot of attention but actually have zero sway or relevance in a debate, who are actually harming the search for consensus, if possible, we should call them out.
BRIAN McGRORY: Speaking of that, last I worked in Washington, Bill Clinton was President, Newt Gingrich was the Speaker of the House. We had triangulation, we had compromise on welfare reform. It was what I think was a start of the great partisan divide, but I can't even imagine what it is like down there now and how that city has changed.
JOHN KING: It's sad, actually. When I first came to Washington, it was the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1988, I moved to Washington. And in 1989, the AP made me the AP labor writer, covering labor issues, including the unemployment report but also labor unions and the debate. Senator Kennedy was then the chairman of the Labor and Education Committee and they were doing minimum wage. George H.W. Bush was President, and in those days, Kennedy was trying to raise the minimum wage and George H.W. Bush would say, "No way, that'll destroy the economy."
Kennedy would have you in the little hideaway. You'd have a drink. I don't drink Scotch. Senator Kennedy poured Scotch, you drank Scotch. And I got a call once from Marlin Fitzwater -- I was 24 years old then – and he said, "Why don't you come by the White House at 8:00 tonight." Okay, sure, the White House press secretary's calling me. I had a couple dealings with him during the Dukakis campaign when he would call sometimes to give me information, sometimes to yell at me. So we went over and they brought us over to the White House, and we went upstairs. The President wanted to have a quick meeting just to tell us, "I'm going to cut a deal with Senator Kennedy eventually, but I'm not going to give him what he wants." That's the way it was done in those days, the Tip O'Neill/Ronald Reagan story.
They don't talk to each other anymore. That's why today is actually a significant day; I'm making jokes about it, but I actually think it's significant. After spending last week running around the country saying the sequester, these budget cuts, the sky is falling, horrible things are going to happen, something got to the President and he realized -- whether he thinks he's right or wrong -- that if he wants anything on gun control, if he wants anything on immigration, if he wants to get a grand bargain, the deal's with taxes and spending and entitlements, he can't do it without Republicans.
There is a calculation among some Democrats that we can win 2014 and get the House back. Okay, the political party should worry about that, but we're going to squander two years to wait and see if that happens? Does he really want to take that gamble? I mean, if you look at the districts, the way redistricting is done in this country, 425 seats and about 20 of them are competitive every cycle, maybe 30 if you're lucky. The President's really going to waste two years on that gamble, that he gets Nancy Pelosi back in two years and just fight with the Republicans in the meantime?
So I actually think it's significant tonight that he's actually going to sit down and break bread with people, including Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson, very conservative Senators who want deep entitlement cuts, way deeper than the Democrats will ever agree to. But maybe they'll actually get to know each other a little bit and build a slight foundation of a relationship so that you can get things done. That's what's missing; there are no conversations on gun control, gay rights.
People don't have conversations anymore.
BRIAN McGRORY: But you're not implying that it's the Democrats' fault?
JOHN KING: It's everybody's fault. Look, the Lewinsky scandal started it. And it actually started before that in the sense that there were some Republicans who just believed, “How can this guy be President, Bill Clinton.” To them, he was illegitimate from day one, for personal character questions, the old failed governor of a small state. They just couldn't get it that after eight years of Ronald Reagan and four years of George H.W. Bush, this guy … They just -- forgive me -- underestimated him in the sense of his own intellectual capability. They just couldn't believe it, and they just couldn't come to terms with the fact that Bill Clinton was beating them, that he won the Presidency, and that he was beating them in most of these policy debates.
However, you had two guys, Newt and Bill Clinton, who agreed on almost nothing, but things got done. They got welfare reform done. They got a balanced budget agreement that gave the Republicans some things they wanted. Tax policy changed to a degree, in terms of pro-business. So Clinton didn't just get everything; he had to give to get and they worked together, even in that environment. Now, there's no question the impeachment and everything started and then the Iraq war. Had 9/11 not happened, we would be in such a different country. We'd be in such a different country.
BRIAN McGRORY: But the amazing part is 9/11 was supposed to bring us together. 9/11 was supposed to be a unifying event for us.
JOHN KING: It was, briefly. And then Iraq. So you had the polarization that started in the Clinton years, then sort of reignited over the Iraq war. If there's no 9/11 -- no matter what you think of George W. Bush or whether he came to office predetermined to go to war with Iraq because some people believe that it was to avenge Daddy or whatever; I don't read minds and I'm not a psychiatrist or psychologist -- but without 9/11, where's the justification for the Iraq war? Without the Iraq war, there's no Barack Obama. Because that's his niche against Hillary Clinton in the primaries. That's why he's here.
We probably would have had immigration reform and the Republican Party wouldn't be as messed up. The Republican Party has a demographic crisis right now, that if it doesn't come to grips with in the next four or five years will make it just as a national party not competitive for 20, 25 years, barring big events.
Then you have in the same case Obama. It's a conversation that's been had in this community for a long time; some people don't want to have it. Some of it's race -- some of the people who to this day think that he doesn't have a valid birth certificate and he wasn't born in this country, we need to call it what it is. Those are people who just can't come to terms -- and they don't want to say they can't handle having a black President -- so they find some other bogeyman to hide their racism behind.
There are other people who just, again, “How did he win? How is this possible?” They view him as illegitimate. Some of them think, “He was in the state legislature a couple of weeks ago and the United States Senate for a couple days and now he's President of the United States. How'd that happen?” Well, he won. He won. You might wish he had more experience, or this, that or the other thing. He won fair and square. He got on the ballot, he competed and he won. So then it gets worse again.
But part of it is I think we all focus on the presidential level. It's great,great drama. To me, the biggest dysfunction in the country right now is the House in the sense that you have 435 seats, and literally, in a lucky year there are 30, 35 competitive races. So today there are 14 House Republicans – 14 House Republicans – who go home to districts carried by Barack Obama. There are, what, 240 of them, 230-something House Republicans. Only 14 of them go home to a district where they have to worry. They don't need to listen to him. Not only do they think they don't need to listen to him, they're going home to people who are telling them to say no to him. And there are only seven Democrats who go home to districts carried by Mitt Romney because the districts are drawn in a way that takes all the competition away.
So the people's House is to the right and to the left and so there is no center. And what you have now in both parties – we're seeing it play out in the Republican Party, but those of you who remember post-Mondale, post-Dukakis, this happened in the Democratic Party. We used to say in the '80s, late '80s/early '90s, the Democrats had perfected the circular firing squad. That's what the Republicans are doing now. When you're out of power, this is what happens.
But what is the debate now? If a Republican cuts a deal with Obama -- even if they get Medicare and Social Security cuts, if they give up taxes -- what will happen? They'll get primaried in their House district. So a more conservative guy will beat you in the primary and then he wins because it's a conservative district. Same thing on the Democratic side. It's more in the House, but you have a Senator here who just won. Massachusetts's Senior Senator has, what, six weeks' experience? Isn't that amazing? I'm not criticizing her, by the way. It's just amazing; Massachusetts used to have Kennedy and Kerry, all this experience, and now you're starting from scratch. Watch the next appropriations bill, that'll be fun.
BRIAN McGRORY: But one of the many elements about this I find really frustrating is the nation is not as engaged in partisan behavior as their leaders, correct? We are not a divided nation right now, correct? The people of this country like moderation.
JOHN KING: They do. There are some very tough issues, but you watch them being handled in different ways. The point I was going to make about Elizabeth Warren is she ran TV ads saying "I will never touch Medicare." Republicans say they will never raise taxes. We should ban the word ‘never.’ You can't have a conversation about things if a big slice of each side starts with never.
Now, to the point where I just said the Republicans are not terribly competitive as a national party right now because of demographics, non-white voters principally, also younger voters. But we also have 30 Republican governors so the Republican Party's not dead. There are 30 Republican governors out there who, to various degrees, are reformers. In Clinton's day, you had
Clinton in Arkansas, you had Jim Hunt, you had Dukakis here. Before that, you had the Englers and the Tommy Thompsons. People might not like it, but you had Pete Wilson who was one of the immigration and the anti-tax movement, Jerry Brown, young, up and coming, vibrant governor of California.
BRIAN McGRORY: You had George Bush in Texas.
JOHN KING: George Bush in Texas and Jeb Bush in Florida. This has always been the case that the laboratories are the states. They've all had to deal with – to varying degrees -- the governors have to deal with their entitlement issue, which is public employee pensions. And it's really rough in some states; you've seen Wisconsin and Ohio in particular. Sometimes it's an only-Nixon-can-go-to-China thing. The Democrats seem to have a better job doing it because they're more friendly with the union, so by DNA you have an Andrew Cuomo or a Jerry Brown who have done it with less fireworks, if you will. But they've had no choice.
In Washington, you can govern by Band-Aid and gimmick. Look, the sequester's a total gimmick. It was the President's idea. He thought of it first, but the Republicans signed on to it, so they're all to blame. But it was a simple measure to get through a past crisis. The Republicans wouldn't vote for it unless it was scored by the CBO saying the deficit was going down. So it's gimmick. If you govern by Band-Aid and gimmick, you just have constant crises.
And at the state level, you're right. Is Scott Walker more conservative than his predecessor Jim Doyle, Wisconsin governor? Sure, he is. But in that kind of a setting, where you have to balance your budget every year, you tend to find the middle. Now, the middle: One of the lessons you learn when you travel, the middle in Massachusetts is different than the middle in Texas, is different than the middle in Nebraska, is different than the middle in Wyoming. And that gets lost sometimes when people watch national politics and can't figure out why Washington is such a daycare center.
Some of it is legitimate differences. Guns is the great issue. Mayor Menino, you may be here saying you're with the President on banning assault weapons. Travel the country. Culturally, it's what they believe. You might not agree with them, but you have to respect them. It's been their culture for generations. Energy issues are not so partisan; it's what's under the ground. West Virginia, they like coal. Colorado, they like wind. So part of it, traveling you learn that some of the polarization is actually a reflection of this is a big, complicated puzzle, but some of it's petty BS.
BRIAN McGRORY: And a lot of it in Washington right now seems to be manmade crises, one after another, that are almost self-fulfilling at this point.
JOHN KING: You worked in Washington the last time Washington passed a budget according to the rules. It was 16 years ago.
BRIAN McGRORY: Was it really that long ago?
JOHN KING: It was 16 years ago. It's crazy. So that was when the House passes a budget, the Senate passes a budget. They go to conference committee. Conference committees, remember Schoolhouse Rock!? Civics books? Those things they teach us? We used to say the whole George Washington cherry tree was a little wrong in the history books. Rip them up. Because it just doesn't work that way anymore. It's pathetic, I mean, it's pathetic.
But the problem is the one thing the two parties agree on is making it really hard for a third party to sprout up and call them on this, so they have this existence. But that's crazy.
Everything's done by continuing resolution, which is money. But if you have a continuing resolution, or a sequester, or a gimmick to get through the fiscal cliff to buy us six weeks to the next deadline, to buy us two months to the next deadline, now they're going to pass a continuing resolution to get us – thank you, Lord – all the way to September. That's at least time to breathe. You can't think, you can't breathe, you can't have that dinner and say, “Okay, what can we actually work on? What can we do? Let's think outside the box about something else,” when you're constantly in these crises. Because both parties, by nature, if you're in this fight, you have to gin it up.
So the DNC and the RNC are ginning it up. The blogosphere is going crazy. The President's calling them evil. The Republicans are calling him … You just can't have a conversation when every six weeks you have a deadline. Now, if they pass this continuing resolution, instead of a budget … I've become a creature of the system; I've been there for 26 years now so I'm part of the problem. But does that buy them time to think about a grand bargain? One would hope so. However, September 2013 means 2014's right around the corner. So they needed to actually do this before the last election, or right after the election because now it's really hard.
I mean, the math is pretty compelling. Clinton wanted to do this and the Lewinsky scandal got in the way at a time of a great economy. That would have been the time to deal with entitlements. In a time of a great economy, you could have done it in a way that was less painful. Bush wanted to do it. Whether you agree or disagree, President Bush showed some courage; he traveled the country pushing his Social Security plan. A lot of people opposed the plan, but you have to give him credit for actually standing up and traveling the country and taking some Democrats with him.
Clinton, back in his day, used to travel with Rick Santorum talking about welfare reform. This is not a novel idea, to reach out to the other guy. Have an event like this, bring in different voices, let people ask questions. But that's just gone now, because it's constant … I can do this here because I see some gray hair. I said this to my Kennedy School students last week and they all looked at me like, "Where are you from?" Politics is not Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots. It's that old game where you're just trying to knock his block off and then you push it back on and you knock it off again. Nothing happens, it's not about anything, you don't get anything in the end. It's just fun. It's a stupid sport. Not stupid, it's cool; I used to beat my big brother all the time. But it's not about anything and that's what we play. It's a stupid game. I hate to sound so cynical, but it's a stupid game.
BRIAN McGRORY: Right now it is, yeah. Have you interviewed every President since Clinton?
JOHN KING: Yes.
BRIAN McGRORY: What's that like?
JOHN KING: It's humbling. As a kid who grew up in a triple-decker in Dorchester, my dad was a guard at the Charles Street Jail and now it's the Liberty Hotel. [laughter] I had to stay there one night, just to walk in there because when my dad would forget things occasionally, he'd put you in the car and say, "I got to go back to the jail." So you'd hop in the back of the station wagon, and you'd flop around. But it was great because that meant you got to go to Riley's Roast Beef. Remember Riley's Roast Beef? It was right around the corner. So Dad, keep forgetting things. But you walk in. I remember that like yesterday, the stone part that's still there. You walked in and it used to be steel doors, guys behind the bulletproof glass. Another door slides open and you go into the third level. That part is now the bar called Clink. [laughter] Pretty amazing. I digressed.
But interviewing a President is humbling. You'd better do your homework. There are different ways, especially in television. I interviewed Clinton when I was still a print guy and then in TV. Clinton and I have this weird thing. My mother, God rest her soul, is the only person who always called me Johnny. And Clinton calls me Johnny; it's a Southern thing. So I call him Governor, even now when I see him, I'd say, "Sorry, Mr. President." He says, "Oh, no, Johnny, I prefer Governor." [laughter]
It's humbling in the sense that you want to – especially in television because it's a visual medium -- seem comfortable. You want it to seem like a conversation. But you've got to ask tough questions sometimes, so you have to kind of find your comfort zone.
They're all different and sometimes they're different from interview to interview. There were times, as you know, Clinton would shut the press out for the longest time and then when he did do press, he would be combative because he thought that was what he needed to do to achieve his political goals. I'm not criticizing him. Look, remember, they're trying to advocate their issues and defend their guy. And other times he would be the nicest man in the world, a Southern gentleman. He'd be, "Nice to see you," relaxed.
George W. Bush -- most people think Republicans are more anti-media. His White House was actually quite open. You could walk around a lot more. Now, they've cut off access a lot. Great guy, as a guy. If you're a baseball fan … When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, it was during the campaign and we were in Troy, Michigan. We were staying at the Marriott in Troy, Michigan. Bush had had a big event, I believe in Pontiac. I'm on my laptop -- thank God for technology – and doing live shots – blah, blah, blah, blah. Who cares about this? The Red Sox are about to either win or lose the World Series. [laughter] I really don't care. My country or my team? That's an easy call. I was listening to MLB audio on my laptop. Between live shots I'd turn it up and then I'd be literally, at the last second, "Now, we go to John King." Turn it off and talk on television.
I got back to the hotel and the game was in the sixth inning. There's a crowd in the lobby bar, and I say I'm going to go sit and watch the game. I just can't do it, I'm just too tense, too crazy, these people aren't Red Sox fans, I can't do it. So I got a couple of Buds and went up to my room. I'm sitting on the bed and literally about three minutes after the Red Sox clinched, the phone rang in the hotel room and it was Bush because he knew I was a Red Sox fan, and he's such a big baseball fan. He just called to say, "I just wanted to say congratulations. You guys have waited a long time for this." Now, is he sucking up? He's being a guy. [laughter]
I interviewed Obama right before his inauguration; it was a couple of days before the inauguration in 2008. You know there are some candidates who want to say hello beforehand.
Even if they know you, they just want to have a little small talk, just to try and figure you out.
Others just plop down in the chair at the last minute; they don't want any small talk beforehand. Obama will come in, "What are you doing?" and put his arm around you. He likes that. But he has gone, unless you work for CBS News – I'm going to get killed for this – he's gone dark.
BRIAN McGRORY: It's unbelievable how dark he has gone. Plus, his White House access, there is none now, right?
JOHN KING: Part of it is, they think – and they're right to a degree – is because they've succeeded, they won reelection. But now they won reelection. We can criticize the other candidate if you want. It's historic though. If you look at our history, again, I think because of technology, because of the changing communications and political environment, it's hard to … We always want to study by the old rules, but no President since FDR had won with unemployment above 7.2%; you've heard that statistic, what, seven million times in the last election. It's still pretty amazing, given everything the country went through and given that he was our first African American President and we still are nowhere near where we need to get on the race question.
The Romney campaign just made -- forgive me -- a suicidal bet on winning every white American and not caring about any non-white American. That's an exaggeration, but that's essentially the campaign they ran, and they paid the price for it.
But the Obama people think through Twitter, through their own private network, essentially, on YouTube, through text messages, through emails to people that they don't need us. Now, this runs in cycles. There are always times when suddenly they do need us and they come back to the traditional format. But I think it's remarkable and part of it is the nature of how they want to communicate. As much as we can get mad at it, saying the President should be more accessible to the traditional – or what Sarah Palin would call the lamestream – media, they just won an election their way, so I wouldn't look for them to come running to us any time soon.
BRIAN McGRORY: A common thread, though: They are three charming men one-on-one, correct?
JOHN KING: Yes.
BRIAN McGRORY: All three, I'm not missing anything here?
JOHN KING: No, different, but very similar. I've had both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush snarl at me and then laugh when I said, "You guys are a lot more alike than you think." They are a lot alike in some ways. Obama is a little bit more distant, a little more detached. It's just who he is.
BRIAN McGRORY: Cooler.
JOHN KING: Yeah, cooler. Is that an act? Is that his thing? I don't know, I don't read minds.
But he certainly likes that; he wants to pull back, the Vulcan joke, pulls back a little bit.
Look, no matter your politics – the Republicans used to think Bill Clinton was this bumpkin; they didn't like his personal life, they thought he was this overweight, bumbling bumpkin from Arkansas. How did this happen? Well, it happened because he's a damn good politician.
A lot of Democrats you talk to think George W. Bush is the village idiot. You don't beat Ann Richards, who's a damn good politician, who's at 58% approval when you start that campaign. Sure, Texas is a Republican state, but you don't beat a politician that good unless you're good, too. And we can all argue Florida and 537 votes and Antonin Scalia all you want, and if you're a Democrat you can blame Al Gore more than you can credit George W. Bush – had he only won Tennessee, sort of where he said he was from. But Bush ran a good campaign. Then in 2004, when John Kerry had every possibility – the opposition to the Iraq war was just starting to take off. Bush got lucky to a degree, in the sense that the election came before opposition to the Iraq war went up more. But that was a competitive election.
If you go back and look, the guy's a good politician. He may not be a rocket scientist, but on the stuff he cares about … I was joking, but Bush knows everything about baseball. You will not, no matter how good of a baseball fan you are … But he also knows about education and he knows about immigration, and he learned about Muslim extremism, or whatever you want to call it. If he cares about the subject, he's actually a really smart guy and he reads everything. I'm at the IOP now, I have to be careful. It's the Harvard Business School thing; his management style is to delegate. That's your department, Brian. You ask him a question, he may not know. If it's something he doesn't care about, he puts somebody else in charge.
Whereas Clinton wanted to know everything. He was a sponge. The Clinton Cabinet -- fine people, don't get me wrong -- but I could never figure out why Bill Clinton had a Cabinet. Everything was run through the White House. Bush actually let the Cabinet agencies do stuff.
BRIAN McGRORY: I once went down to Texas when Bush was governor to do a profile of him for the Globe and they wouldn't return my phone calls, so I showed up unannounced. I followed George Bush around, did a couple of events, came out to his car at the end of the third event one morning, and he whirled around in his cowboy boots and said, "Who the hell are you? You've been following me all day." I introduced myself, "I'm from the Boston Globe." And he said, "Well, why don't you come in my car with me, you can interview me." We drove out to the airport together. He said to me, "You coming up to Austin?" I said, "Sure." So we got on his state jet together and flew up to Austin.
He cleared his schedule for the afternoon. He invited me over to the house for dinner. We threw the ball around for his dog in the yard of the Governor's Mansion. At the time that he was offering dessert, I actually made up some name of somebody I was supposed to meet because I was …
JOHN KING: You'd still be there.
BRIAN McGRORY: I'd still be there. [laughter] I spent more time consecutively with him than I ever did with my first wife. [laughter] And it just showed me how open and willing he was before he entered the White House bubble. I happen to think he's a sharper guy than a lot of people give him credit for.
JOHN KING: I just went through this with Rick Perry, who's – again, I'm going to say this and people are going to laugh at me but feel free -- came across as not a bright light in his last campaign. He’s actually a smart guy. But Bush is, again, his "strategery" and his
"misunderestimated" and those things, he's sort of charming in a Joe Biden way. His tongue would get ahead of his brain sometimes. But I know what that's like, working in live television. But it's also a very important point there in that you find this a lot in politics that suddenly you get to the candidate. He turns around and says, "Who are you?" It's a governor of a big state …
BRIAN McGRORY: Karen Hughes would not return my calls for two weeks.
JOHN KING: The staff, often the staff … Karen's at the IOP now, she's one of our Fellows this semester. You should come over and air your grievances. [laughter] I'll set you up with some Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots. Best out of three.
But it's one of the things you learn in politics, often. So when people say the President is hiding or the President is this, be careful, because oftentimes it's the staff. And the staff thinks they're doing the right thing.
A lot of these young people at the IOP, it's a great gift to be here. You spend a lot of time in Washington -- you can tell from some of my answers -- and, you do get a little jaded and a little cynical and a little frustrated. And it's great to be around these kids who want to make a difference, whether they want to run – some of them want to run for office, some of them want to be on staff, some of them will go out and work for nonprofits, some of them will be doctors and physicists, and the like -- but they want to be active and involved, and it's really refreshing; it's a ton of fun.
I always tell them: Just remember, when you get into this bubble, number one, ask the guy. Don't think, “That's the Boston Globe and the Texas governor doesn't want to talk to the Boston Globe.” "Governor? The Boston Globe's doing a profile. Brian McGrory's coming down. We made a couple calls. He seems legit. You want do that, yes or no?" What did that take? Eight seconds? But they don't do it. They said, "Nope, he won't want to do that." Then the Governor's, "Hey, how are you, who are you? Come on in." So some of the stuff, you've got to be careful when you're criticizing a politician to make sure that the politician actually has any clue of what you're talking about, because the staff may have insulated it from him.
BRIAN McGRORY: What's it like to moderate a Presidential debate?
JOHN KING: I just finished my Newt therapy. [laughter] Here we go, paging Dr. Freud. I'm making light of it, but I think it's a great responsibility. And it's crazy, in the sense that it's live and you can structure parts of it. We can talk about that particular event if you want. There's a legitimate point about is it the right question? We had a long meeting about it, and I don't shy away from it. I think journalism school should have debates like that.
BRIAN McGRORY: Refresh the audience.
JOHN KING: Anyone need to be refreshed? Can we get a fan to blow my hair back when I talk about it?
BRIAN McGRORY: We have it on the screen behind us, so do you want to see it live?
JOHN KING: The day of the debate, Speaker Gingrich's second wife had given an interview to Brian Ross of ABC News, in which she said when their relationship was collapsing and she found out that he was more or less living with his current wife, Calista, that he came to her and said, "I just want to have an open marriage. We don't have to get divorced, but I'm going to be with Calista. Let's just have an open marriage." That's what she said. She said it in a televised interview, on camera. She had the dates. She gave some background information. And it's the day of a Presidential debate in South Carolina, a state where culturally conservative electorate in those issues play.
So you have a meeting and so you ask (a) is it a news story? My answer's yes. Some of your answers might be no. I'm personally very, very hesitant. Number one, I'm far from a perfect human being. Number two, I'm not a judgmental person. Number three, I think we in our business should be very careful about being holier than thou, or deciding what's in and what's out. So it's a very, very tough issue. So we had a lot of conversations all day long, and we decided – and I take full responsibility, I was the moderator of the debate – that we were going to ask the question. A couple of times during that day, people tried to ask him at campaign events and he ignored them or gave non-answers. So if he had answered it during the day, we might have had a different calculation.
One of the reasons was that this had been an issue that had come up in some of the campaigns. Another of the reasons is that everybody in South Carolina was talking about it and they had a primary in a couple of days. So we decided – and we can have disagreement in this room about whether it's right or wrong to ask the question in a Presidential debate – we decided since they were having these debates, since everybody had been asked just about anything, that we were going to ask it. Then we had a debate about when do you ask it. There were some people in the room, my colleagues, my friends, who were saying, “Let's start with other stuff and somewhere late in the debate have a little character part, and do it there.” My personal judgment was that that seemed cowardly, that seemed too cute. Again, this is a legitimate conversation that you have about these kinds of things, tough, sensitive stories like this, you have in the newsroom.
One of the calculations was, maybe if we don't ask it one of the other candidates will bring it up because he was surging. He had had his Juan Williams moment about a week before; in another debate he had attacked Juan Williams of Fox News. Newt was starting to come up and the Romney people were worried because they thought they were going to win South Carolina and that would have been game over for them. And we thought, well, maybe someone else will raise it for us. My take was that's cowardly. If we think it's a legitimate question, then we have to have the courage to ask it. And if we're going to ask it, in my view – that's my AP background – if there's a big news story of the day, that's what you start with.
Again, I'm sure there are people in this room who either think it never should have been in a Presidential debate, or even if they think, “Yeah, okay, I could see it in the debate, but shouldn't have been first.” I entirely respect your opinion. That's part of the process and to have it through.
But we had a process and we went through it.
And if you were watching that debate … I said I got all these gray hairs from Bill Clinton, that was a lie. He came at me pretty good. The interesting part was in the room beforehand I said, “Okay, so we've decided we're going to ask this. Here's what's going to happen.” And I gave a little Newt impression and I was about three words off. [laughter] Because I knew him, I knew him over the years. I said he's going to make this about me. He's going to turn and he's going to attack me for asking the question and he's going to attack the media.
One of the interesting dynamics is that you have a live audience. Most debates, historically, have not had audiences. And this is where AP wire guy John King, I lose this vote and I will always lose this vote. In the TV meeting, I always say you should not have a live audience; it should be a debate. But it's better television, even when the audience is screaming at the moderator, and it was great television.
When that happened, the power of social media, we had a pretty good audience anyway. People started tweeting "Newt's trying to rip John King's skin off," and the audience grew exponentially, like that, as things were happening and then went back down.
I thought it was a legitimate question. I don't begrudge him. People say, "You must be so bullshit at Newt for attacking you like that." Not at all. I was doing my job as I see it. And again, some people will disagree with my call, but that's fine; I respect that. And he was doing his job as he sees it, and I knew he was going to do it.
There are those who say I helped him win South Carolina. I can't read voters' minds either. Again, you can't think about that. As a journalist if you think, "I can't ask this question because it might influence an election," you're just getting caught in this web and a box that you'll never get out of. If it's a legitimate question, you have to ask it, period. And if you're wrong about that, if you think I'm wrong about that, that's fine. But in my view, we have to ask the question.
It'll be really interesting to see what both parties decide next time. The Republicans are saying, "We're only going to have debates sanctioned by the RNC." Well, we're not going to cover them then. Only Vladimir Putin gets to speak? This is America, we have to have some independence here. I think the value of 20-plus debates was no matter who won that one and who won the one before, the one after, cumulatively, over the course of a few months, you had a pretty good impression of not only what they thought on taxes and spending, what they thought on immigration, but who they were. Did they have a sense of humor? Were they a President? Were they jerks? You got a good sense.
Newt walks up to me during the first break, puts his hand on my shoulder and says, "This is a great debate." [laughter] And I remember looking at him, I was like, "Huh?" [laughter] You just called me, I think, reprehensible, right? I said, "Didn't you just call me reprehensible?" He's, "Oh, come on, you know how that works." And then after the debate, "Calista, Calista, didn't John do a great job?" [laughter]
BRIAN McGRORY: These debates are a rare opportunity to see the candidates in unstructured moments, correct? Even though many of the moments in a debate are somewhat structured.
JOHN KING: Different moderators do this in different ways, especially if you're the sole moderator. In the 2008 campaign, I was part of a debate I think Anderson moderated and I was on a panel with Campbell Brown and Jorge Ramos of Univision. I actually like the panel setting because when you get caught up and I'm asking you a question and you're answering me, I'm trying to stay focused on that question; I'm in that moment. Where, as he's right there, he might actually catch you saying something; he can fact-check you or something pops into his mind, or a better follow-up pops up.
The egos of television say, "I want to moderate this debate and nobody else can be there; it's mine." No, it should be about the quality of the conversation. It shouldn't be about the candidates or the … I mean, it's about the candidates and it should be principally about the voters – how do you get them a better conversation. The TV part of it, the ego part of it can be funny sometimes.
But I think it's better. You don't want ten people, but if you have two or three people, just so you get help. If you have good quality people, they're going to catch something that you missed or they're going to maybe jump in with a good follow-up question.
You learn a lot about the candidates. I mean, I was struck -- I asked Romney the question, when the other candidates were talking about his taxes, so you try to think of how can I ask this question. This has been asked and answered a thousand times, right? So I asked him the question about his dad – When your dad ran for President in 1968, he released 12 years of tax returns. And he said the reason he did that is because if you only release one or two and you knew three years out you were going to run for President, well, you could change your behavior so that the two years you released didn't capture the truth of your life. He looked at me like I was from another planet. I was actually shocked, because his dad's his hero, legitimately. I mean, whatever you think of Governor Romney, his dad is his hero. And he seemed surprised by the question and he didn't have a good answer, and it stunned me.
So that's one of the moments where I say you need help. Because I was like, John, you've got a debate going on here, you can't just look at the Governor going, “Whoa, dude, you're not ready.” [laughter] I don't like to watch myself on television, but there are some of those moments where
I go back and look after because it seemed like, did I just stand there for ten minutes going … [laughter] and it's probably a second-and-a-half, but to me it felt like I just made a total ass of myself on national television. But you learn at those moments. You just stop, like, huh? You don't have an answer to that? So you learn a lot about them. They're fun, but you'd better do your homework.
BRIAN McGRORY: Tell us about Wolf Blitzer. What's he like?
JOHN KING: When the batteries are changed. [laughter] Wolf, it's funny because Wolf and I, personality-wise, Wolf and I are very different. But one of the things I worry about in my business … I talked earlier about, as a kid, getting on that plane. You know it very well, one of my dearest friends teaches at BU now.
I was blessed, when I was an intern in the Providence AP bureau, there were two guys just a little bit older than I, Chris Callahan and Mitch Zuckoff, and our boss was only about six or eight years older than we were. In that setting, I had people who helped me when I was totally green and I didn't know much. They were your friends and your colleagues and your mentors, and they always had your back, and you knew it.
Then when I got on that plane, there were people I didn't really know very well. Jack Germond -- if you know who Jack Germond is -- he's a legendary columnist and just a great American and a great journalist. You had Jack Germond, Bob Novak, just great people. David Broder and Dan Balz, and as I mentioned Walter Mears. You'd go to the bar at the Sheraton Mayfair, and you'd close the bar with Jack Germond. Oof! [laughter] He'd wobble down the hall, "Kid, if you can close the bar with me, you're going to have a good future." It's like, yeah, great, if I make it to my room.”
When I came to CNN, Wolf was the senior White House correspondent, and his network goes out and hires this guy, John King, away from the AP because John King is, quote/unquote, the best-sourced Clinton reporter. That's usually a source of trouble, right? The guy is a gentleman; he's just an amazing guy. He's a good person. He's a great human being.
We always joke that Wolf can do 24 hours of television and literally, "Did you go to the bathroom, dude?" [laughter] He's got a very different personality. His mannerisms are very different, but he's a total pro. Number one: He used to work for Reuters news service, so he has wire experience. Obviously, most of you first met Wolf in the first Gulf War when he was at the Pentagon for CNN. But he's a total reporter. He's a mensch. If you know what a mensch is -- just a good, loving, friendly guy. People were just waiting.
So I come to the White House job -- I'm technically the number three working weekends. He's the senior White House correspondent. I called myself the junior White House correspondent; there was no such title. So then what happens? If you remember, Clinton started bombing Iraq, Saddam Hussein. There were the no-fly zone incursions and they were bombing right around the same time the Lewinsky thing happened. There were other things going on in the world. We literally destroyed the White House lawn. The TV cameras used to be on the other side of the driveway, but we were on TV so much and the weather that year was so horrible, that we literally destroyed the White House lawn; it turned into a mud pit. That's when they moved us on to the other side.
We worked brilliantly together. I always knew that in those days, if there was only one piece at the end of the day, Wolf was going to do it. So whatever I had, whatever information I had was going to be fed to him. But we worked very well together, especially at a very sensitive time when there were some people who said Clinton was going to resign. People who met Clinton in the Oval Office and would come out saying, "I'm convinced he's going to resign." So that's when you have to look your colleague in the eye and say, "What are we going to say on television? Let's be really consistent here."
A couple of times I think I was helpful because my experience with Clinton was, "No, no, no, they're going to have to carry him out of there in a box." [laughter] And I was right.
If you want to know about him personally, he's a great basketball fan. He has Wizard season tickets, as do I. I'm a Celtics fan, but I'm a basketball fan. My seats are better than Wolf's, if you're ever in Washington. [laughter] He's actually a very, very funny guy. If I knew you were going to ask about Wolf, I would have brought … Wolf has this thing where right before he goes on television -- he's done this for 16 years -- "How do I look?" [laughter] So we used to -- the best guys in television are the cameramen -- we'd get one of them to say, "Where's your beard?" or make jokes with him. But one time he was just doing this, waiting for a live shot. You remember the Chumbawamba song? "I get knocked down, but I get up again," this really one-hit wonder? You don't even remember, right? Good for you. Wolf was just somehow doing it, and we were in the White House booth and you could see the feed coming down. So I just called the bureau quietly and said, "Somebody roll a tape on this." So we've humiliated Wolf; we have this greatest hits of Wolf singing and we roll tape whenever Wolf sings. I never sing.
But he's just really a great guy, and he's a wonderful colleague. You want people of experience around at those crazy moments. On election nights, Wolf and I now don't have to talk to each other, really. On big election nights, when there's something going on, you do it with eye contact.
BRIAN McGRORY: Are there ever days when you just don't want to go on TV?
JOHN KING: Yes. I found this with my daughter. I have a 16-year-old daughter, which is the most humbling and wonderful experience in life. But I was with her shopping once and I found this little sign that says, "A make-up-free day is a really good day." And I have that hanging in my office. [laughter]
Early in the Clinton Administration, Clinton did this poverty tour, and we were in Hazard, Kentucky, in this little, tiny school, a really poor community, and this little, tiny school where there is rust on the sinks. And I'm in the boys' room -- not the men's room, the boys' room -- it's an elementary school. I'm putting on my make-up and these two kids come in. They're like in the fifth grade, and I'm putting on my TV make-up. These two kids walk in -- [laughter] Hazard, Kentucky, remember -- and I say, "You guys like this school?" "Yep." "You really like this school?" "Yep." "I mean, really? You really, really like this school? Then do not go home tonight and tell your father you walked into the men's room and there's a guy putting on make-up." [laughter] It's weird to put on make-up and to do that, and it's still weird 16 years later. But to me, if I haven't put on make-up, that means I got to spend the time at my desk reporting.
One of the things if you're doing a lot of live television is it keeps you away from making phone calls. I always say the test of television is is it show or is it tell? I want to be in the tell business, I don't want to be in the show business. So if you want to have something to tell, you have to do the reporting. Our jobs are both easier and harder now in the sense that when I'm on live television on election night, I'm talking to people; I'm just doing it here. Or every now and then you disappear behind the Magic Wall when you have to call somebody out in the field and you do it on the phone and you whisper or you walk out of the studio for a minute.
Technology has made our jobs, just in our lifetime … You remember when you had the old TRS80s, Radio Shack, with the couplers? And you had to push the phone in there and lean on the phone to keep the signal? Now, literally, it takes me about 40 seconds on this phone and we could be on live television around the world. It's got an application; it's HD. It's not the greatest thing in the world, but I've used it covering hurricanes. You just go, and we're on. Atlanta, it gets a little beep; when I log in to the system, Atlanta gets a little beep. And if they want to punch me out, one button, and you're on TV.
BRIAN McGRORY: You had those couplers on a pay phone and if anyone moved within a mile of you, the connection would be broken and you'd have an editor yelling at you.
We're going to go to audience questions.
JOHN KING: Only polite audience questions.
BRIAN McGRORY: We're in Dorchester. [laughter] First a comment: I mean, this has got to be a real kick. You're up here at Harvard a couple days a week. You're sitting at the Kennedy Library doing this event. You grew up, as you pointed out, a mile from here in a three-decker in Dorchester. You worked at Gerard's for a brief period because you weren't quite good enough.
[laughter] Come on, this is pretty great.
JOHN KING: Again, it's humbling. And I'm the luckiest SOB who's ever lived. And I say that like I mean it. I'm sure everybody in this room probably feels that way about themselves. But yeah. My dad got laid off a few times; there were times growing up … There were seven of us, and the other six Kings are still here in Massachusetts; they're spread out all over the place.
There was a time in our life when we were on food stamps; things were really hard. So to have the opportunity to cover the White House … I also worked at Jake Wirth's by the way, Jacob Wirth Restaurant downtown. I say that because when I worked in the White House, every day I'd walk down the driveway of the White House. As crusty and cynical as you're going to be and as tired as you are during some of those days when you're working 20-hour days, it's pretty cool to walk down the driveway and there's that building right there. You drive by the monuments in DC.
I tell everybody, especially my kids, "When I start grumping about this, kick me in the head." Because it's a privilege and it's a great honor. To think that I was at the Mandela inauguration, and I snuck around the halls of the Kremlin, been in the President's house in China and South Korea and Japan. It's crazy. But it's a gift.
It's a testament, number one, to hard work. I work hard. But I got that from parents who told me that's how you get by. My mom used to work at what was then the First National Bank right up the street here on Morrissey Boulevard. She had a pretty good job for a woman in those days. She was an assistant to the president and then she quit to raise seven kids. My dad had a heart attack at the jail and had to retire, and then she went back to work after that and she hadn't been working in 25 years. She just knocked at the door of the bank and they found her old file and they gave her a job that day. Because they found the file and it said something right, and that was always a lesson.
My dad had a good test, and I have failed it many times, but it's still my test. He'd say, “The first person and the last person you talk to every day is the guy in the mirror. If you can't hold that gaze, then fix it.” I thought that's a pretty good test. It's the greatest gift in the world. To me, it's proof that we live in a time of economic anxiety and everything else, and this sounds pretty corny, but there are a lot of people who legitimately question the idea of the American Dream. As a parent, I worry about our schools. I was lucky. In my family, we were pretty much told …
There were baseball bats in the house. We went to Catholic school for six years because the
Boston public schools weren't so great at that time. I still believe they'll find out my dad was working with Whitey or something, or robbed banks, because I don't know how he paid for that on a Charles Street Jail salary. But we went to Catholic school. But we were told, "Pass the Latin test." Pass the Latin test and get it out of the way. So your younger siblings coming behind you, luck of the Irish.
At the time, was I a model student at Boston Latin School? But you look back now and both the nuns at St. Marks and the education I got at Latin School, it's the bricks for everything. Everything that came after that is just based on that. I had no idea of it at the time, but that's where I got … I love to write. I learned that at Latin School, mostly, and to be curious, which is what we do.
BRIAN McGRORY: Is there a memoir in this?
JOHN KING: I've been asked that a couple times, about a book, and I don't know that I have anything unique to say. Maybe some day when I can … You have a house on the Vineyard, can I borrow it? I don't know. That's the thing -- when people write a book, you're supposed to say something that's ground-breaking, right?
BRIAN McGRORY: I wrote a book about a chicken, you don't need to be ground-breaking. [laughter]
JOHN KING: I will consider that advice. [laughter]
BRIAN McGRORY: We're going to open it up to questions from the audience. We do have microphones on each aisle. Feel free to step right up and ask a question. If you could introduce yourself, that would be terrific. Sir?
QUESTION: I'd like to ask a question. I saw Governor Chafee here about a month ago and we were talking about moderates. We're in the biggest Democratic state in the country, but for years we elected moderate Republican governors and our first black Senator, Brooke. What's happened to the moderates? Chafee said, "The reason I can't be a moderate is I've got no room in my own party and I can't raise any money as an Independent." Do you think the day of the Independent or the moderate is dead?
JOHN KING: No, I don't, because as Brian noted earlier, I think if you take the center left of the Democratic Party and the center right of the Republican Party, there's a middle there. Now, the middle moves from time to time, depending on economic conditions, depending on what's motivating the country. There's a rally around your President if there's a crisis or something like that. I think a lot of Republicans stuck with George W. Bush -- even though they started to get really squishy about the Iraq war -- they stuck with him because he was their guy.
But, we just lost Olympia Snowe in Maine. I started as an intern for the Associated Press in Providence, Rhode Island, when Governor Chafee's dad, John Chafee, was the Senator for the state of Rhode Island. The Chafee name in Rhode Island is like the Kennedy name in
Massachusetts, to a degree. So he can win on the state level because of this name. Can a guy with his own views come along and run as an Independent in the state of Rhode Island and win?
Sometimes yes, but probably not.
Maine, some states have a better history of this. Maine now has Angus King, who was an Independent governor, who's now an Independent Senator. You could probably call him a Democrat; he's going to caucus with the Democrats and he tends to lean that way. But they have more of a history of independence.
The Republican Party needs to figure out whether it really is a big tent or not. Part of this is back to that House dichotomy I talked about. In a primary, in an environment where in House races and then with the rise of the Tea Party -- which is relatively new and it's a different thing in different states. I mean, Scott Brown was called the Tea Party guy here in Massachusetts. Take him to Kentucky; he'd be called a liberal. But the Party's going through an interesting transition. If it decides that a Lincoln Chafee, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Jock McKernan, who's the former governor of Maine, a Scott Brown, for that matter, a Mitt Romney or a Bill Weld are not welcome, well, where do those people go?
My personal view is that, look, the dysfunction and the dissatisfaction and the disgust with politics – I used to always say it can't get any worse, and it keeps getting worse, so I stopped saying it can't get any worse. The opening for a third party, some new political movement, is huge. The problem is it's the only thing the two parties agree on, is making it really hard for there to be a third party.
It is my personal view that Ross Perot set this back about 25 years when he ran again in 1996. If you think about 1992, the guy got 20% of the vote; he got nearly 20 million votes. He got the Reform Party through his own money. It's hard; you have to get all those petitions signed. Ballot access is different in every state, but it's a pain and a huge hurdle in every state. He did that out of his own pocket – hired the petition companies, hired the people to knock on doors, whatever it took, different in different states, but he hired all that.
So the Reform Party had ballot access and then he gets 20% of the vote. So they have it the next time around. If he had not run in '96, and had become chairman emeritus and they found somebody to run, would that person have won? No. But I think they would have started the foundation of something, and maybe an Arnold Schwarzenegger when he went after Gray Davis in the recall election would have run as a Reform Party governor, not just an Independent.
QUESTION: I think Chafee, though, got so frustrated with no room in his own party, they didn't listen to him; he got disgusted and said the hell with it.
JOHN KING: Right. And some of that is self-interest. I'm not criticizing him, he's a very interesting and thoughtful guy. But in the Senate Republican caucus, he didn't fit anymore. Now, in part, this is a question, if your party's platform -- whether you agree or disagree -- is anti-tax increases, anti-business regulation on some things, anti-abortion on some things, and if you disagree with so much of the party's platform, there is a legitimate question about whether you belong.
But part of that is, again, we live in this very complicated 50-state puzzle, and the Republican Party in New York and Massachusetts and Rhode Island has always been very different from the Republican Party of Texas and Nebraska and Oklahoma. But the Party now, it's missing leadership, number one. And it's missing an emphasis on the big tent. But when you're out of power, these things get exacerbated. The Republicans have really been out of power since halfway through the second Bush term. He sort of lost his credibility – Iraq war, Katrina – people stopped listening to him. So the Republicans have been out of power and this is all playing out.
My question is could you start a centrist party? Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg thought about this. They were quietly doing focus group research, hiring people. They were prepared to start an organization. Remember Bill Clinton came out of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist Democratic group? Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger were talking about starting some kind of an independent centrist think tank, conservative on fiscal issues, moderate on the social issues.
Then Bloomberg decided to run for a third term as mayor and the whole thing blew up.
Schwarzenegger was not happy, by the way. They had this going. Now, he couldn't run for President, Schwarzenegger, but they wanted to do this to encourage candidates like a Lincoln Chafee to run as Independents and to give them the infrastructure. The problem is the fundraising and the infrastructure, especially if the two parties start punishing people who support you. And that's what happens -- the two main parties will punish people who support anything they view as at threat to them.
BRIAN McGRORY: Very good questions. Yes?
QUESITON: Hi, my name's Ben Bulger. I was wondering if you could reflect on some themes or differences between different types of political scandals. I think of scandals like Eliot Spitzer that led to resignation, or situations like Senator Vitter that more or less weathered a scandal. What are some themes or commonalities that people have done smart to weather scandals, or mistakes that people have made that have led to the end of their careers?
JOHN KING: Part of it, you mentioned two people who were elected on a statewide level. The culture of Louisiana was more accepting of Senator Vitter, and he's accountable to those voters. Unless they're a Louisiana residents here, whatever your personal opinion, you're not a stakeholder, you're not a shareholder. He decided -- I'm sure it's embarrassing in some ways -- to put himself back on the ballot. He wins. Is it case closed? No. People will dog him about that forever, but he won the election.
Spitzer made a different decision. Became my colleague at CNN for a while and then left. Interesting guy, a brilliant guy, I mean, really, really smart. The prosecutorial experience he had, when he was interviewing somebody, to watch him as a prosecutor, I mean it's great brain power. In a way, whether you're a Democrat or Republican, you should regret losing people like that in the public debate who challenge the other side, who are willing to have a good and open debate. But that was decided – either he made a personal decision/looked at his poll, New York decision.
The biggest national question of this was Gary Hart. Before Bill Clinton, it was Gary Hart, who left the race and then came back into the race and said, "I'm going to let the people decide," and they did. Then Clinton, who weathered it.
I remember when the Gennifer Flowers story came up. My bosses called me -- I was in New Hampshire -- and they said, "You have to come back because Lloyd Bentsen's going to get in and Mario Cuomo's going to get in and this is it, Clinton's done." And I had just walked the Mall of New Hampshire interviewing people. Remember how bad the economy was in 1992, for those of you who are old enough? My notebook was full of people saying, "This really bothers me, but he's the guy with the best economic plan. He's the guy who's going to get me health insurance. He's the guy who's going to keep them from foreclosing on me." And I told my bosses -- and again this is the great luck of mine -- I've always had bosses where I could say, "You know what? I think you're wrong about this. Can I stay a couple days?" And they let me stay.
Clinton, in part because of personal tenacity, in part because of his wife -- I mean, I should put those in reverse order. If she had bailed on him, game over. But she didn't. And then his personal tenacity, and then the Republicans, frankly, overplayed their hand. They just overplayed their hand in a way that I think a lot of Americans, even who disagreed with Bill Clinton, found offensive.
It's a very tough one. I interviewed Clinton the same day they did the 60 Minutes interview in the '92 campaign. It was in the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. Now it's the Taj, I guess, but it was the RitzCarlton in those days. Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton did the 60 Minutes interview, and then we were down in the elevator and I spoke to her the entire time on the elevator because my interview started when we were walking out. Then we got into a town car and we went to Logan, and he was flying to northern New Hampshire on a little jet and she was going back to Little Rock to watch the interview with Chelsea when it aired that night, Super Bowl Sunday 1992.
I interviewed her, and then I interviewed them in the car. For me, it was like, “Whoa, what am I writing here?” In terms of the Lewinsky thing, his personal tenacity, I think even people who were offended or disgusted or whatever -- everyone makes their own judgment about that -- admired his toughness, his tenacity, and then watched the Republicans go over.
I'm going to say this and I'll probably regret it. One of my jokes -- humor in life is important, especially in these things -- only in America can Bill Clinton do what he did and two Republican Speakers lose their jobs. [laughter] I mean, Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston lost their jobs after that, for personal character questions in the aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal.
They're all different. Again, I think in my business, we have to be very careful. You used to get - and it was a legitimate question at the time -- Democrats would say, "Why are you covering this Clinton story? It's between him and Hillary." And in many ways it was, I get that, and we have to be careful in my business when we get into personal stuff. My answer was that because of the special prosecutor law, Ken Starr -- he was tantamount to the Attorney General of the United States, so the Attorney General of the United States, somebody with those powers, has convened a grand jury. They are calling in Secret Service agents, people who work for Bill Clinton. And there were staffers in the White House who were paying tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees being asked questions about the conduct of the President of United States in the White House. In my view, a different calculation of, in Arkansas, maybe it's somebody's apartment; this was conduct alleged to have happened inside the Whit e House. But it was horrible and made me sick to my stomach. I'm being honest. I'm not trying to get a gold star or anything. It made me sick to my stomach to be doing that kind of stuff. So you hope every day that you just cover it as a news story and follow the facts. I was glad when it was over, I'll tell you that. But part of it is, again, I try to make this very complicated -- in close elections or in things like this, the best politician usually wins or survives.
BRIAN McGRORY: Isn't it also the matter of how hypocritical you appear in the scandal. I mean, Clinton never appeared all that hypocritical when he was being accused of having affairs with other women, whereas Gingrich and Speaker, who was the other guy? I can't believe I'm asking this.
JOHN KING: Bob Livingston.
BRIAN McGRORY: Yeah.
JOHN KING: I was going to say it depends on your definition of hypocritical. [laughter] History has proven there were times when Clinton was flat out lying. Again, we can have a great debate in this room about whether anybody thinks that's relevant or whether it belonged in the public sphere. If you're a student of this or you have deep experience at this, which I for better or worse do, just his grand jury testimony under oath proves some other things he had said in the past to be not true.
I think what you're trying to get at is, is it a surprise and is it new. I thought, brilliantly, in '92, when 60 Minutes was trying to ask him, "You've cheated on your wife, right?" And both of them sat there and I'm not going to get this exactly right, but they said, "We have had conversations about things that I regret, and my wife knows what I'm talking about." In other words, "This is between me and you and it's really none of your business." To a degree, "I'm telling you I'm sorry and I'm telling you I did something wrong, and beyond that it's none of your business." Very smart. They found the line, I think, that people did want to know, or at least some people wanted to know, and I think a lot of people respected that it's not your business. That's always a tough call in our business.
I say our business as if I'm defining what our business is. Think about what it was then. It was the Star magazine that first put the Gennifer Flowers story out in the public domain. It had been rumored for a long time. Think about the business now. I mean, Twitter and blogs and everything else. I always think could the Founding Fathers have done what they did in the age of Twitter? "@ThomasJefferson–that jerk and his wig is crooked." Could they ever have gotten done what they did in the age of social media and Twitter? How would Monica Lewinsky have played out in the age of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and blogosphere? I don't know.
BRIAN McGRORY: It's a little scary to think about.
JOHN KING: It is, actually. I might have found a beach.
BRIAN McGRORY: Sir?
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Jim Doyle. I grew up directly across the street from John King on King Street.
JOHN KING: God's country.
JIM DOYLE: In God's country. First of all, I wanted to thank you for making my mother very happy and proud to see one of her Cub Scouts interviewing one of the Presidents. [laughter/applause]
JOHN KING: We used to hang in your grandfather's cabs.
JIM DOYLE: Cabs, I know. I was proud of you when you ended up on The Daily Show, though. [laughter]
JOHN KING: I finally made it.
JIM DOYLE: You finally made it. Growing up how we grew up, when was it that you just kind of pinched yourself and you said, "Oh, my God, how did I get here?" I mean, first time – and I mean, you've answered most of the question by being humble, but I'm just curious.
JOHN KING: I don't know how to answer that question in the sense that I'm still that kid. I came from a great family. As you know, I was sort of the odd one, in that I had an older brother and an older sister and there weren't that many kids my age. So Stevie, your younger brother is a little younger than me, so I do I hang around with him or do I hang around with the older kids? When I wanted to play, you hung around with the younger kids; when you wanted a beer, you hung around with the older kids. [laughter] That's how it worked. And I was not a model child.
Far from it.
JIM DOYLE: We were okay.
JOHN KING: But you get lucky. You have people in the neighborhood who are also not model children, but we had a good neighborhood. We sort of knew where the lines were. Remember that was the forced busing era, and it was pretty ugly in parts of the city. I remember my dad early on putting me up against the wall and just saying, when stuff started to go down, "You get involved in any of that BS and don't walk into this house. You think it's tough out in the streets?
If you get involved in any of that, you're going to answer to me." And that was a very stern, but a very fair … The thing about my parents, both died very young. There's nothing in my life that infuriates me more and saddens me more because I never got a chance to give back to them for what they gave to me. They were the fairest people, and our neighborhood was full of people like that, all of the parents – the Doyles and the Tranfords and the Sullivans and the Southerlands and the McKenzies. Good Irish Catholic neighborhood. But everybody was fair and everybody worked hard and a lot of people worked with their hands.
So you leave that, and so you get these great gifts. When people ask me where I'm from, I say
Boston, and they look at me kind of funny because I've lived in Washington for 26 years now.
I'm from Boston, I live in Washington and I hope to come back some day when I figure it out.
I'm lucky. I don't really have a great answer. I'm lucky and I'm blessed. When you're living on the top floor of a three-decker, or as you remember, we bought the house next door. We lived at 16 King Street, on the top of a three-decker, and then we bought this old Victorian that a widow had lived in for like ten years, and if you sneezed it was going to fall down.
JIM DOYLE: Your father made sure that didn't happen.
JOHN KING: My dad and his brother rebuilt the house from scratch a week at a time when they could scrape up the money to buy shingles or buy some plywood. We used to joke, everything was paneling; this is nice paneling in here. We used to go to Building 19 and get paneling. My sister used to joke, "Johnny, don't stop because if you stop and you're not moving, dad'll nail paneling to you." Because the whole house was paneled.
That's who I am. Everything that's come after that, to me, is gravy. And when I do it, I talk to my parents every day. They've been gone more than 20 years, but I talk to them every day. They don't usually talk back, but sometimes they do, actually.
JIM DOYLE: We are all very proud.
JOHN KING: Thank you. When you come from a great environment and you have a great family, what I do, I'm no special than, trust me – my older brother, who's my hero, when my dad died he held our family together. When my mom died five years later, he gave up his own career to hold our family together. He had the toughest … He's been part of this recession the last five years. He's got little boys, and one of them just going in to college.
So listen, I'm lucky. I'm not special. There are a lot more courageous and tough and successful people in my family than I am. Just because I work in this medium where you're on television, people think it's different. It's my job. It's not who I am, but it's what I do. I love it and I've been lucky in that it's allowed me to see the world. And mostly the thing that makes me lucky is I get to learn every day. I'm not being corny when I say that; it's a great blessing.
BRIAN McGRORY: How about we take one last, quick question. Sir?
QUESTION: My name is Jared Kenney from Manchester, New Hampshire. I was lucky enough to be on the CNN debate up at St. Anselm's in 2011. I'm actually wearing the tie you and Anderson signed.
JOHN KING: There you go.
JARED KENNEY: My question is -- it's a good end question -- what's the best story you've ever covered? What were you most passionate about throughout your career?
JOHN KING: It's a funny question to ask a journalist what's your favorite because we're trained not to have favorites, right? We're sort of trained not to have favorites. [laughter] Writing the chicken book is his favorite. [laughter]
I mentioned earlier that I think maybe, especially because of the time I grew up here and how ugly it was in times and challenging, the most … You forget a lot of things in life, but then there are days that just play in your head like movies; you can see every last second of them.
I was lucky to go with Al Gore to the Nelson Mandela inauguration. That was a scene. Fidel Castro's coming down the hall. Khaddafi's coming down the hall. All these crazy people coming down the hall. And Gore's trying to avoid them, and duck them, and I can't meet with them. Gore's staff was taking pictures with Castro; they later got disciplined for it. It was just a hoot. Castro, literally, handing out cigars. This is a long time ago. And "Can I have one?" So we go into this little holding room, the office, and you're in the parliament building. Gore and Mandela are about where you are, this far away. They're having small talk, and we can't hear anything of it. On the day he's to be inaugurated president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela spins away and walks over and there's like three of us. It's the Vice President. So there's a New York Times reporter, I was there from the AP, and there was one other reporter there who I don't remember.
Nelson Mandela walks over, takes each of us by the hand and says, "How are you today?" and I'm thinking, “Huh? How am I? Really?”
The grace, and to watch people crying. If you go back and look at the pictures. If you don't remember this, the military ceremony to hand him, essentially, control of South Africa, there were the three whitest guys in the whitest uniforms you will ever see handing the power to this elegant black man. And it was just, wow. It's the most overwhelming positive thing I've seen. And the poor people in the parks around there who had nothing, dressed in rags, with their belongings in buckets, like paint buckets, just had tears of joy streaming down their faces. It was the most overwhelming thing I've ever seen.
The worst thing I've ever seen was I spent – well, a couple. The most frightening personal thing I've seen in the first Gulf War, where, the thing you learn as a journalist is don't follow the photographers because they're crazy. I went into this battle of Khafji, when the Iraqis who had come south into Saudi Arabia for a while, and I was lucky to crawl out of that one. Because I followed a photographer and things got a little dicey. That was the scariest thing I've seen, watching bodies blow up around me. Rocket-propelled grenades and tanks blowing up and watching bodies fly by in pieces.
The most humbling thing, I think, was a I spent a month in Banda Aceh after the tsunami. To see the pain. That was when I felt the most inadequate at what I do. I have the power of television and a story like that, the pictures are important; it is different from writing for newspapers. You just could not do justice to the pain and the suffering of these people and the power of water. I mean, to see what the water did in those communities. Those are movies that play in my head. Whenever I think about the tsunami, I get choked up because it was just so … As a parent, imagine holding your child and the water just pulled them away and you spend days and weeks walking through refugee camps trying to find the child. I just actually saw a movie, and it was hard for me to see. I started crying halfway through the movie. The Impossible, I think it's called. It sort of got buried because a whole bunch of movies came out at once, but it's very, very well done.
I walked for three days with this man named Sabri through these refugee camps, and I was getting yelled at by work because I was doing it to help him because he didn't speak even much of his own language and he had no money, he had no resources and he was trying to get through the bureaucracy, which was frustrating. I was trying to help him find his daughter. I spent three days with him, and it was just … The strength of people after things like that – Katrina, Rita – it's just inspiring.
BRIAN McGRORY: Thank you, sir. John, I want to thank you for your masterful contributions to the public dialogue over the years.
JOHN KING: Ha, I don't know about that. I work in cable television. [laughter]
BRIAN McGRORY: For the lively conversation tonight and for your friendship over our respective careers.
JOHN KING: It's Opening Day at Fenway now, right? It's the perfect weather, let's go. Thank you all very much, thank you. [applause]