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A Prize Writer

 Prize Writer
Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King’s straight-talking ways earns him a Pulitzer and national fame
By Kendra Hamilton


Colbert I. King has been to the mountaintop. It’s something editorial writers and op-ed columnists do — the way musicians go to the woodshed — to see the visions and bring back the news the world desperately needs to hear. But King’s vision — somewhat like that of a legendary King before him — is uniquely personal and political, encompassing in its sweep the daily dramas of places as disparate as the corner of 17th and Euclid in the District of Columbia, the halls of D.C. government and of Congress, the seats of power in the Middle East and much more.
Folks in Washington, where King serves as deputy editor of the Washington Post‘s editorial page, have long prized his straight-talking ways, but his peers have begun catching on, too. He won the always-coveted Pulitzer Prize for commentary earlier this year, for “against-the-grain columns that speak to people in power with ferocity and wisdom.”
Slate magazine has called him “the best Washington Post columnist you’ve never heard of,” one whose local columns, in contrast to the “standard op-ed mush,” expand “the limits of what can be discussed on the op-ed page.”
Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor and King’s boss, puts it this way: “Colby’s so good there was no question in my mind that we would submit him (to the Pulitzer jury) every year until he got” the prize.
But King seems unfazed by the fuss.
“This is not a question of what I want to do when I grow up,” he says. “I’m 64. I’m on ‘the back nine,’ I guess you could say. So I’m not a part of anyone’s movement. I’m not trying to get anywhere — to hurt anyone or get a title or a promotion. That’s all behind me. All I’m trying to do is as honest a job as I can.”
And that job, it should be noted, is a multifaceted one. King is best known for his Saturday column in the Post, but he also writes editorials — three times a week — and oversees the “Free for All” and “Close to Home” sections, which give readers the chance to fire back or weigh in on local issues.
King says he sees his role at the Post quite simply. “Covering the city of Washington is the most important thing I do. It’s my most important issue. And most of my local stuff is on the theme of how we don’t recognize the little person.”
Indeed, when it comes to his city, King, who was born and raised in segregated Washington and did his undergraduate work at Howard University, is downright passionate. He writes about the city of Washington as the ultimate insider, one who’s seen the underside of the city’s obsession with power.
“It bothers me that people, once in power, tend to overlook the person without much clout. But that person has a voice, has hopes and dreams and aspirations. Nothing upsets me more than when people in responsible positions ignore the people who got them there,” he says. “That was part of my criticism of (former mayor) Marion Barry, the fact that he let down an awful lot of people — it’s some of my criticism of today’s local government.”
But while Washington is central to King’s identity, his take on the city’s problems is uniquely global.
A typical King technique is using global issues to illuminate local ones. In a May 3 column, “The View from 17th and Euclid”— ground zero in the city’s war on crime and drugs — King wrote, “With some of the toughest gun control laws on the books and with gun-packing (gangs) … roving D.C. streets with the audacity of the 3rd Infantry Division, Washington has the unmitigated gall to demand that the Palestinian Authority disarm West Bank terrorists?”
The opposite technique is just as effective — using the local to inform the national and even the international perspective.
“The administration speaks of establishing security for the liberated Iraqis,” King wrote on July 5. “Does that mean an Iraq in which there are no more street robberies, break-ins and looting? Where people won’t be shot to death or where homes are not invaded? Hell, we haven’t managed to pull off that trick in the nation’s capital or in most U.S. cities.”
Other times King’s weapon of choice is humor — as in a June 21 column that imagines Colin Powell being treated to a rendition of the Coasters’ 1957 hit “Searchin” in a D.C. barbershop.
” ‘Searchin’, I’m a searchin’, I’m a searchin’ every which a-way, yeah, yeah. Oh Lord, I’m searchin’ . . . mmm child, I’m searchin’,’ ” the quartet sings in perfect harmony. ” ‘And like the Northwest Mounties’— pause for a beat — ‘you know I’ll find Saddam’s weapons someday.’ “
King chuckles when asked if this is what the Pulitzer jury meant by speaking to people in power “with ferocity and wisdom,” noting that he came by the trait honestly.
“My mother was outspoken. I was always raised to say what I thought,” he says. But he notes that all of who he is — the little boy who grew up in D.C.’s warm, supportive neighborhoods; the man who served as an officer in the Army, worked on the Hill as a Senate staffer, worked in the State Department, specialized in international banking at D.C.-based Riggs National Bank — goes into what he does today.
That broad-ranging background — plus the sparkling skills as a wordsmith that were on display in King’s occasional op-ed pieces — were the reasons that the late Meg Greenfield, the Post’s editorial page editor, worked for years to get King to join the editorial board.
And while his is not a traditional background for a journalist, King appears to have taken to the pace and the demands of the profession like one born to it.
“I started on August 1, 1990 — the day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The Marion Barry trial was taking place at the same time. So I’m writing editorials on all of that,” he says. “It was definitely a trial by fire, and it’s never really slowed down.”
But atypical though his background is, he notes there are lessons to be drawn from it. “The lesson is, whether you’re a reporter or a columnist or even in another profession, garner as many experiences as you possibly can. Even bad ones, because if you survive the bad, you’ll be better and stronger. Don’t be afraid of trying because it’s the trying that will hold you in good stead.”  

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