20 Questions: John King

How are things going with the new show?

I’m very happy. It’s new, and when it’s new, there are bumps. I liken it to being a NASCAR [driver], but if you’re in the Daytona 500, often you hit the wall a couple of times, you get a couple scrapes … The goal is to win the race, but I like the way we’re driving right now. It’s getting better every day.

What has changed for you, lifestyle-wise?

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Quite a bit. When I was doing the Sunday show, I would travel usually two days a week. With the daily news show, you’re more back into the routine of having to make decisions by the hour and sometimes by the minute. There are times at 6 o’clock at night, we rip up the plan and start from scratch.

It’s something I need to get used to again, but I love it because my roots are — I’m an AP wire guy.

You seem to be going for a casual look on the show. I’ve seen you in an open-collared shirt, and your guests are sometimes in overstuffed armchairs.

I would like the word “comfortable” over “casual.” I interviewed Sens. [John] Kerry [D-Mass.] and [Joe] Lieberman [I-Conn.] at the Capitol, and [Defense Secretary] Robert Gates over the weekend, and in those settings, you should wear a suit and tie.

We view the set of the show as: It’s my space. And I think if people are comfortable, you have more candid conversations, more relaxed conversations.

How are you trying to differentiate your show from all of the other cable news shows out there?

I don’t sit around saying, “How do I want to be different from Wolf or from Anderson, or how do I want to be different from O’Reilly or Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow?”

I think the most important thing is I have to be me. If I’m not me and if I’m not enthusiastic about what I’m doing and have a passion about what I’m doing, the viewer is going to pick that up. So it has to be what I love to do, and that is part of the first six weeks — sort of getting a rhythm for what I love to do and how to fit it in a show.

I will say this about being different. I’m not a screamer. I want to have provocative, and interesting and sometimes feisty, conversations, but I want them to be about something.

What kind of feedback are you getting about your show?

You get feedback from all quarters. And you need to be respectful in listening to everybody. Most important to me are the viewers, and the subset of viewers who are those who know you well — family members, friends, people I keep in touch with.

Any changes you’re looking to make based on the feedback?

This might not come out the way I mean it to come out, but the most important feedback so far for me is from me. I’m very hard on myself, and I think at the beginning of the show, one of the things that I was not doing well was setting my priorities, perhaps, and trying to help with a little bit of everything instead of worrying about … I need to be more sharp in my writing, more sharp in my communication and defining the mission we’re trying to do.

My attitude is the old throw-them-in-the-pool-and-see-if-you-can-swim kind of thing. We knew it was going to be rough at first.

Who are some other people you’d like to get on your show soon?

This is such a fascinating year that my list would range from the president of the United States, of course — it’s a great year, he’s in an interesting spot — all the way to down to some county Democratic or Republican chairman in Pennsylvania or Kentucky or Arkansas, to some guy working the phone bank and passing out fliers.

Do you ever get nervous for big interviews?

I get nervous a little bit every day, and the day I stop getting nervous is the day I know I need to start doing something else.

Are you sick of answering questions about the magic wall yet?

No. I’m a 46-year-old man who, in the last several years, has more aggressively and willingly embraced all the change around us. The technology or something else about our business changes almost every day.

There are all these new social-media things out there. You can resist this, and if you do, then you’re the print media industry, because for so long, most people in this industry resisted change. We’re dealing with this, too, and so the magic wall I found in the [2008] campaign was this fascinating way to use my experience. Instead of a guy in a box talking about statistics, I can say, “Hey come with me, this is what I’m talking about.”

The magic wall, I think, is a great way to help bring people closer to the story.

What’s your favorite magic-wall feature?

It varies, depending on the story. You can do incredibly powerful things to explain what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The favorite part for me is what I think is the most helpful part, which is, “Come with me, I’m going to show you this up close.” We need to talk with people, not at people. That’s the challenge of our time.

You started out in print. Did you ever think you’d end up in broadcast?

Not only was it something I didn’t aspire to do, it was something I promised myself I’d never do. Not quite that strong, [but] I loved what I did, and I had great bosses in the AP. I had no intention of doing anything else. There came a time after the ’96 presidential campaign — I had done the chief political correspondent job for five years. Not that it was old, but it wasn’t that new. It was time for me to get out of the way.

Any embarrassing on-air moments that you’d like to share with us?

This is more funny than embarrassing. Every now and then my Boston accent comes blurting out, and I’m “pahking a cah” and calling someone “Mr. Chahman.”

I laugh when it happens. It happens when I’m tired, and my wife likes to tell me it happens when I’m getting very relaxed.

I don’t think about it. If you overthink anything, it’ll just make it worse.

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Other than that, when I first started, I was sweating through my shirts; my knees would knock. My first job on television news was covering the White House. Information-wise, I was doing fine; presentation-wise, those early days were pretty humiliating.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love to spend time watching my breathtaking children grow up. It’s the greatest gift in the world. Whether sports events or school events. I’m now helping my son look into college. I love to cook. I love to travel when I can, for pleasure. My wife loves the beach and the ocean, and so do I. I love to snowboard, be in the snow, in the mountains. I just love being outdoors. I also don’t mind putting my butt in the lounge chair and popping a cold beer.


To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or e-mail him at kkitto@thehill.com.

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