What misguided journalistic convention compels op-ed editors to drain the élan vital from copy? Oh, a few well-known columnists run the blockade to blend blood with ink and animate newspaperdom’s opinion pages: the pun-drunk warmonger William Safire; the shiv-wielding Michael Kelly; that Shecky Greene of the policy debate, Michael Kinsley; desperate entertainer Maureen Dowd; and a handful of others. But most op-ed pages prefer pieces painted with gray and dead words, if only to signal the seriousness of their page.
Some writers require no such prodding and actually prefer the color of ash. The high exemplar of this form is syndicated columnist William Pfaff, whose last name conveniently works as a verb to describe the act of lifeless writing. Listen to this recent pfaffing:
The NATO debate has included warnings disconnected from real threats and policy proposals irrelevant to their solution. America wants help in carrying out a policy fatefully influenced by the notion that conquering Iraq will permit Washington and Israel to take control of the Islamic Middle East and its peoples—and that this will have a happy ending.
Every op-ed columnist pfaffs from time to time, but one almost never does: Colbert I. King. If you haven’t heard of King it’s probably because his employer, the Washington Post, hides his hanging-judge vociferations in the plain sight of the Saturday edition, the week’s least popular.
I salute King not because he’s the most artful writer in the business or even the brainiest, but because he possesses the most relentless voice I’ve encountered in a daily newspaper since alcohol dimmed Mike Royko’s and death extinguished it. He’s a winning example of what editors (and writers) could do with the op-ed form if they drew on their passion now and again. King takes names. He names names. And he calls people names.
The 62-year-old King, who does double duty as a Post deputy editorial-page editor, writes half of his columns about national/international issues and half about local Washington stuff, a subject he knows well, having grown up in the city. His national/international stuff is good, but his local stuff is fabulous. King expands the limits of what can be discussed on the op-ed page, and that alone distinguishes his copy from the standard op-ed mush. He also expands the vocabulary of the op-ed debate beyond the Post’s usual staid standards. For instance, in last Saturday’s column, “The Mayor’s Friends and Supporters,” King rides roughshod over Washington’s Mayor Anthony Williams, by now a well-worn path.
King asks if Williams is the “the brainy, ethical, no-nonsense mayor who is, as he described himself in this week’s inaugural address, ‘a servant of all,’ ” or a “budding jackleg politician who says all the right things publicly but who quietly and clumsily treats the city as largess for rewarding friends and supporters?” You can guess the answer.
King goes on to crack the heads of two of Williams’ political cronies, Gwen Hemphill and Theodore “Ted” Carter. The feds are investigating Hemphill, Williams’ re-election campaign co-chair, for engaging in what Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunkitt would call dishonest graft. More than $2 million in local teachers-union funds have disappeared, and a sworn FBI affidavit has spotlighted Hemphill and her colleagues. Carter, who managed Williams’ campaign, is no crook. But King is already speculating that Carter’s elevation this week to D.C.’s economic development czar is predictive of future Williams administration handouts to the businessmen who donated heavily to his campaign. (Plinkitt called this kind of outcome “honest graft.”) King writes:
To be sure, the real estate and downtown development crowd should be thrilled with Carter’s appointment. His familiarity with the role of developer money in the Williams reelection campaign ought to provide contributors all the attention they feel warranted to receive when they go calling on the [National Capital Revitalization Corp.] for things such as tax-exempt financing, favorable consideration for development projects and help with large-scale real estate ventures.
King eschews the polite language of reform favored by most op-ed columnists for the hammer of ridicule that alternative weekly writers swing. King used the words “phony” and “patronizing” last summer when describing how the mayor played against his dweeby image by joining “pickup games on the basketball court” and going to the “pulpits of black Baptist churches where the Catholic and normally religiously reticent Williams can publicly proclaim his personal relationship with Jesus Christ, as he did in the past week.” Later, King called Williams “an uptight brainiac in whose mouth butter would not be inclined to melt.” Op-eds don’t normally read like this. How does King get away with it? Maybe his bosses don’t read the Saturday paper, either.
Few newspapers jawbone the local judiciary on the op-ed page or in the news pages. King routinely pillories the judges of the D.C. Superior Court for indulging violent, habitual criminals. His Sept. 21 column, “A Washington Welcome for Hattie Purefoy,” chronicles the prosecution of a man accused of repeatedly stabbing a woman in the back and chest during a hold-up attempt. The prosecution, which had three eyewitnesses, charged the man with intent to kill while armed and wanted him detained indefinitely for trial.
But D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge Frederick H. Weisberg rejected the charge. King demolishes Weisberg with the stupidity of his own words. “Somebody wants to kill somebody, he can kill somebody. He didn’t. He took her purse and ran,” the judge said. “And maybe he wanted to kill her. But if he wanted to kill her, he could have and didn’t. Look, this is a silly argument to have.” Rather than scrutinize Judge Weisberg’s conduct, King reports, the court’s senior judicial leadership poked around in hopes of finding out who alerted the columnist to the story—even though the matter was heard in open court. The same judge later released from jail a baby sitter charged with throwing a 9-week-old baby out a second-floor window.
In King’s D.C., children are sodomized in group-homes sponsored by the city, teens are gunned down in the war zone that is the city’s streets and left to fester on asphalt for hours before the meat wagon comes for them, and a probation violator is accused of murdering (and nearly beheading) an 18-month-old and an 80-year-old. King makes stories like these come alive and asks why we ignore them. If you’re black and murdered, he writes, the Washington Post bundles your killing with two others and gives it nine inches inside Metro. If you’re white and the murder happens downtown, your story earns the front page of Metro and 16 inches over two days.
King packs the same venom into his international and national pieces. Nobody can call him a columnist-come-lately for his work on Sen. Trent Lott. On Dec. 19, 1998, in “Lott’s Odd Friends,” he asked how the knuckle-dragger became a Republican leader. And last month when the rest of the journalistic pack frothed about Lott, King asked why none of the many Strom Thurmond retrospectives included the black woman who is believed to be his daughter. “Thurmond stood between the natural coming together of men and women, even as men like him gave themselves a pass,” King writes. King’s unflinching series on Pat Robertson’s business dealings in Liberia, Zaire, and elsewhere are priceless. (I refer you to the Colbert I. King archive for the complete Robertson takedown.)
The secrets to King’s success are numerous. He knows his city intimately. He depends on the sort of detailed reporting not usually found in op-ed columns. He uses strong narratives to make his points, and narrative never hurt the readability of any copy. He’s as prepared to hunt liberals as he is conservatives. And he doesn’t believe in the perfectibility of man, as he attested in “Old Fashioned Wickedness” on Oct. 26. “Frankly, and here’s where I get in trouble with the clergy at St. Columba’s church, I have come to believe that in this brief and transitory life, there are some people who are just no damn good.”
King is also said to be a moody, irascible, and emotional cuss. After reading a couple years’ worth of his copy in one sitting, I’m sure it’s true. Maybe nobody reins him in because it doesn’t make sense to catch fire directly from a loose cannon. One way to improve Colbert I. King’s column would be to liberate him from the graveyard of the op-ed page and put him on Page One of the Post’sMetro. Let him make his cantankerous noise in the wide open where everyone can hear it.
If you’d like to make noise of your own, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.