In the neutral zone

Unlike the guy he's replacing, CNN's John King says he will be objective. Unless we're talking about the Red Sox.

John King, who grew up in Dorchester, hosts the weekly 'State of the Union' show on CNN and will take Lou Dobbs place with a new show on the 24-hour Cable News Network. John King, who grew up in Dorchester, hosts the weekly "State of the Union" show on CNN and will take Lou Dobbs place with a new show on the 24-hour Cable News Network. (Brendan Smialowski for The Boston Globe)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / December 8, 2009

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WASHINGTON — John King’s office is full of mementos from his decades as a political reporter: plastic Obama and McCain gargoyles, photographs of him covering Presidents Bush and Clinton, campaign signs and stickers, and dozens of press credentials from every corner of the world. But the first thing he wants to show a visitor is his Red Sox Magic 8 Ball. ‘‘Whenever I don’t know the answer, I consult it,’’ he says with a grin, shaking it so that an ‘‘answer’’ appears in the tiny window.

But the Magic 8 Ball yields nothing like the wealth of information of the iconic Magic Wall that put King on the map in the last presidential campaign. King, CNN’s chief national correspondent, drew praise - and parody on Jon Stewart and “Saturday Night Live’’ - for his constant tapping on a huge electronic map of the United States that showed how states and counties were voting during caucuses, primaries, and the general election.

King, who grew up in Dorchester and graduated from Boston Latin School and the University of Rhode Island, has been tapped to take the place of controversial anchor Lou Dobbs, who resigned last month amid criticism that he had become too biased. Dobbs, whose anti-immigration screeds had irritated both his bosses and viewers, is now weighing a US Senate race in New Jersey.

Starting in mid-January, King, 46, will anchor the 7 p.m. nightly news. He faces a daunting task: Dobbs’s show was in third place for cable news, behind Fox News Channel and MSNBC. King has made it clear that he will be an objective anchor. “I do not subscribe to the advocacy journalism school,’’ King says during a recent interview. “It’s not who I am and not who CNN wants me to be.’’

King’s boss, CNN political director Sam Feist, says the new show will have passionate advocates - but they’ll be guests, not journalists. “John is a great moderator, a great interviewer. I’ve been working with him for over a decade, and I have no idea what his views are.’’ Except on one subject: “When the Sox are in the playoffs or the World Series, he’s a little distracted.’’

On the air
With his wavy silver hair, blue eyes, and football physique, King is telegenic and genial, liked and respected by his colleagues. He comes to his own prime time anchor seat after 25 years in the business, starting as a reporter for the Associated Press in Providence. He did a stint in the Boston bureau, from 1987-88, before transferring to Washington, D.C.

In 1997, CNN hired him away. Wolf Blitzer, then senior White House correspondent, had spent time with him in Little Rock during Bill Clinton’s campaign. “I was sick and tired of John King scooping everyone on Clinton appointees,’’ recalls Blitzer, now CNN’s lead political anchor. “I said, maybe at some point we should bring him on.’’

At first, King said no to the offer. “I had the traditional print view of TV journalists: Those are pretty people who get paid a lot of money and don’t do any work. It turned out I was wrong.’’ He made his new boss promise to let him go if he were miserable in the first few months. Turned out, he wasn’t miserable. He was terrible.

“I was humiliatingly bad at it,’’ he recalls. He stands up from behind his desk, demonstrating. “My knees were shaking, and I hoped the sweat didn’t go all the way up to my collar. After a few weeks, I went from a full shake to a slight tremble.’’ And after a few more weeks, he fell in love with it. The Internet wasn’t a player back then, and cable news, with its 24/7 format, seemed to him a broadcast version of a wire service. His first on-air broadcast was a scoop: the revolt against House Speaker Newt Gingrich by his own party leadership.

Since then, King, who has covered six presidential elections, has been the network’s chief White House correspondent and chief national correspondent. A year ago he launched the Sunday morning show “State of the Union.’’ As someone who can’t sit still long, he vowed to travel to every state for the show and, indeed, is up to 48 states in 48 weeks, with only Wyoming and Utah to go. He visits with newsmakers and does diner sit-downs with regular Americans from Wasilla, Alaska, to Little Rock, Ark., seeking their opinions on political issues.

Even with the new show, King hopes to get out of Washington as much as possible. He admits to being nervous, but he says he is always nervous on the air: “If you’re not, it’s not important to you.’’ But he’s not obsessing over it. What does his Red Sox Magic 8 Ball say about his new gig? King squints as he reads the answer: “Great catch!’’

Hometown roots
Though he has lived in the capital for 21 years, King still answers “Boston’’ when asked where he’s from. Specifically: “beautiful Dorchester, Massachusetts, God’s country. St. Mark’s Parish, between Ashmont and Fields Corner.’’ He’s the third of seven children: five boys, two girls. They lived on the third floor of a triple-decker. His father was a guard at the old Charles Street Jail; King keeps his badges on his desk.

Both his parents died young: his father at 55 of colon cancer, his mother at 59 of emphysema. “They were magicians. They gave us everything with nothing,’’ King says. “And to be in a position [now] where I could put them on a plane, or a cruise, or rent a big house for everybody on the Vineyard - at least once a day I bemoan that fact.’’

As a boy, King delivered newspapers in Dorchester. He tended bar at Copperfield’s near Fenway and washed dishes at Jacob Wirth near Chinatown, where he accidentally sliced off the tip of his index finger.

His siblings still live in the area, most of them on the South Shore. “I’m the boy who ran away,’’ King says. Still, he gets to Boston a few times a year. “I miss the ocean, I miss Fenway,’’ he says. Last summer he was here to cover Senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral and stopped by Fenway Park to interview Larry Lucchino. Afterward, he got to bat at home plate, a huge thrill for a kid who could rarely afford to go to the park.

When the Yankees won the World Series this year, King and his crew were in Seattle. One of his producers, Laura Bernardini, was wearing her Yankees hat. “He tried to lock me out of the car,’’ Bernardini says. Unlike other network stars, King, she says, is “completely and totally, 100 percent devoid of ego.’’ He’ll roll up cables, pack boxes, take down light stands, and carry gear.

“He comes from a place a lot of Washington people don’t: a working-class neighborhood in Boston,’’ Feist says, “and I think that keeps him grounded.’’

Family matters
That, plus his siblings. King’s brother Richard, 49, the eldest of them, remembers when the curtains would rustle inside the poorly insulated house whenever the wind blew. “We weren’t poverty-stricken, but we were your basic lower-working-class family,’’ says Richard, who lives in Medway and works in sales for an office furniture company. He didn’t realize how well-known his brother was until he tuned in to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show some years ago and heard him refer to John as “Clinton’s butt boy.’’

“I was laughing so hard I had to pull over,’’ says Richard. He and the others tease John about his television makeup and sprayed hair. “You gotta give him a hard time,’’ says Richard. “But Johnny’s a good kid.’’ When the family gets together, he doesn’t talk much about his job. “He loves politics, but he never name-drops. He’s just Johnny from Dorchester.’’

The one thing that has changed is his kid brother’s thick Boston accent, he says. But in an e-mail, King says it’s merely “in remission.’’ It comes back “when I am tired or maybe have had a beer or three to support the farmers. (Fah-mahs).’’

His older sister, Jean Rodriguez - “J-Rod,’’ John calls her - recalls the childhood holiday when there was a bonfire in a nearby park. John and his friend threw gasoline on it to see what would happen. “He got blown through the air and landed on his head and had a concussion,’’ says Rodriguez, 48, who lives in Marshfield. “He was a little mischievous.’’

She misses his presence and says her children don’t know their Uncle John like they know the others. “In that sense, it’s something that’s been lost,’’ she says. “I think he misses it, too, sometimes.’’

In May 2008, King, a divorced father of two teenagers, married CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash on Cape Cod. “It was Memorial Day weekend, which you know could be 30 or 70 degrees, and we had four days of spectacular weather,’’ he says. This summer they rented a house in Vineyard Haven for vacation.

His boss Feist always pictures King in New England. “I think if John King were to describe heaven, it would resemble New Hampshire the day after it snowed, the day after the primary, with candidates and media and town meetings, and campaign posters on sticks stuck into snow banks on the side of the road.’’

Feist picks up the phone to verify a certain New Hampshire inn that King loves. King has a two-word reply: “Paradise, baby.’’