Like many workplaces, the Washington Post follows a collegial protocol when it comes to feting the retirement of a valued colleague. Someone fetches pies or cakes and lays them out. Everyone assembles and noshes amid the exchange of best wishes, warm thoughts, and insider jokes.
One afternoon late last year, preparations for just such an event were under way in honor of longtime Postie Colbert I. King, who was leaving his job as an editorial writer but keeping his weekly op-ed column. Editorial writer Ruth Marcus had rounded up some store-bought pies and cheesecake. Staff members were drifting away from deadline duties to partake in the ritual.
The guest of honor, though, was unavailable. He had blown through the corridor with a quick “Bye” and disappeared.
The group dug in anyway. “Nothing goes uneaten here,” says an editorial board staffer.
Opinion on the editorial panel is divided on King’s exit, with one school of thought saying it was a diss on his colleagues and the other saying it was a misunderstanding. King says, “I wasn’t really aware of it. Well, I made it a point of leaving so I would be keeping my word: I wanted to leave the way I came in—quietly.”
The send-off celebration and its attendant platitudes certainly didn’t appeal to the 67-year-old King. According to Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, King had requested a no-formalities departure. His colleagues, nonetheless, felt compelled to put something together.
Those colleagues would later learn why King, a deputy editor of the page, didn’t want to stand around and say nice things: He had few nice things to say.
In a farewell memo, King lectured his fellow opinion writers about various alleged problems on the Post editorial page. The paper’s editorials, King suggested, were “resorting to sophomoric language”; some editorial writers were too cowardly to voice their opinions in meetings; and the page was practicing a double standard on race, using different language when dealing with black and white leaders in the Washington region.
The bombshell, though, drove at the very heart of editorial boarding: King implied that a single member had run away with the page. “Editorials simply must not be used to advance one individual’s causes or views,” read the memo.
This particular slam, say sources, stemmed from King’s frustrations with the board’s position on the Iraq war—a position that King has criticized in his guise as an op-ed columnist. The memo seems to suggest that if only weak-kneed board members would speak up, the Post could end its pro-war tilt on Iraq. “The board…needs to think through its position on Iraq, encouraging a full expression of views,” wrote King.
The extended screed from King’s memo carried a tinge of familiarity for editorial board members. “He would deliver long lectures in meetings,” says a former colleague. “He was increasingly embittered for reasons none of us entirely understood. He didn’t seem to respect the fact that we were all operating in good faith even if we didn’t agree with him.”
Getting scolded by Colby King is a serious matter. The guy has a bio that stretches out the door and down the hall. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for his op-ed work, and his 2006 columns on the circumstances surrounding the death of longtime New York Times reporter David E. Rosenbaum were Pulitzer-caliber. (The Post, however, didn’t see fit to nominate them.)
Before joining the Post editorial board in 1990, King held high-level slots at Riggs Bank, the World Bank, and the Treasury Department. He also served the State Department and the Army.
To his federal and international background, King adds unbeatable local cred. He grew up in Foggy Bottom, graduated from Dunbar Senior High School, attended Howard University, and worked on the Senate’s District of Columbia Committee in the early and mid-’70s. In that post, he helped write the city’s controversial home rule legislation.
Equipped with that background and the Post’s centrality in city life, King headquartered the fourth estate of District politics. He guided the Post’s editorial stance on D.C. affairs, a position with important gatekeeping functions. No aspiring officeholder in search of a Post endorsement could finish the late-summer primary swing without stopping to see him. “When you try to get something done in D.C. government, first you work with your staff, the agency heads, and the mayor. When you really go to the top of the list, you go to the Washington Post, and for the past 16 years, that’s been Colby,” says former Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
But within the wonky confines of the Post editorial board, King had a bit less sway over topics beyond D.C.—national politics, foreign policy, and the war. Particularly the war.
“Irrefutable” is the only word you need to understand the Post’s position on Iraq. That’s how it characterized the Bush administration’s contentions that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had a trove of killer weapons. The paper seemed to believe the whole mobile-weapons-lab-UAV-aluminum-tubes crock more deeply than the intelligence-twisting hacks who offered it up.
And in the face of post-invasion mayhem and missteps by the Bush administration, the Post has pressed for a “patient, sustained U.S. commitment.”
That King hasn’t been pleased with the Post’s Iraq editorials is clear to all those for whom Lee Hockstader and Jonathan Capehart are household names. To voice his dissent from the conference-table debates, King has spouted off in his weekly op-ed column. In August 2005, for instance, he wrote, “Why are American women and men sacrificing lives and limbs in a country where women may have to settle for less? Stay the course. What course? So religious-based militia can divvy up the northern and southern portions of the country? So Islam can be enshrined as a principal source of new Iraqi legislation?”
Not exactly a vote for a “patient, sustained U.S. commitment.”
As King edged closer to his dessertless farewell, he has laced his op-eds with rhetorical IEDs aimed at his colleagues. Just last October, he wrote, “But there are other aspects of Iraq that bother those of us who aren’t as smart as the brilliant Washington thinkers who got us where we are today. Some of us can’t forget the prewar talk about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s partnership with al-Qaeda, and how wrong the foreign policy elite were about that.”
And in January: “Yet even now, neoconservatives inside and outside of government are counseling Bush to remain in Iraq for years to prevent the Shiite-dominated regime from collapsing.…But then again, they have a tolerance for risk and cost that exceeds that of those who actually do the fighting and dying.”
King’s former boss sees no veiled slights in his op-eds: “I didn’t take it that way,” says Hiatt. “Since I’m not a neocon, why would I take it that way?”
Whoever the targets may be, King’s rants against the war establishment have framed him as a liberal hero. Here’s a stand-up man who shouted down his warmongering fellow board members and spoke truth to the people calling the shots.
But does King have the bona fides to wave his antiwar banner?
No. As it turns out, he could monger war with the best of them. When it mattered most, King was part of the Post’s battle-ready consensus suiting up for the March 2003 invasion. In the words of Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., that Post platform “helped drive the drumbeat that drove almost two-thirds of the people in this chamber to vote for that misbegotten, stupid, ill-advised war that has destroyed our influence over a third of the world.”
That’s not to say that King shared his colleagues’ views on the occupation. He wanted U.S. forces to take out the weapons of mass destruction, leave behind a big check for reconstruction, and get out. No telling who would have gotten the money. Chalabi? Uday?
Big-check diplomacy was just one idea that King floated over the years. “Frankly, anyone who tries to sum up Colby’s view is underestimating the complexity of his view and how it evolved over time,” says a source.
When asked to sketch King’s position on the war, Hiatt responds, “I’d love to,” but points out that doing so would violate the board’s code of confidentiality.
Says a former colleague: “He infuriated many of us with his refusal to acknowledge his own role in a position that we had taken as a group.”
Last month, upon the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion, the Post ate some crow for its faulty positions on the Iraq war. The editorial voice of the paper confessed to having been “insufficiently skeptical” of the administration’s intelligence, among other failures in judgment.
In King’s telling, those editorial lapses link to process lapses. The Post editorial board has had a tradition of reaching its decisions via consensus, an era that King implies has passed. In his parting memo, King writes that a Post editorial “is not the special province of any writer, no matter how prolific or dogmatic he/she may be in his/her views.”
And this writer is apparently intimidating people: “[M]embers of the board must have the courage of their convictions—that the place to put views on the table is not in the corridor, rest room or across the dinner table at home—or in whispered conversations with friends and newsroom colleagues—but in the conference room where what is discussed there, stays there…”
King’s memo never IDs this polemical Terminator, but multiple sources confirm that it’s Jackson Diehl, the board’s deputy editor. Diehl is the panel’s specialist on foreign policy, and in that capacity has wielded a persuasive voice on Iraq, according to board members. King disputes the characterization. “I didn’t find him persuasive…dogmatic, yes,” he writes via e-mail.
Hiatt lands in the persuasive camp.“I’m happy to say that I have never worked with anybody more intelligent than Jackson Diehl. He is rigorously honest, and I have never seen him reluctant to engage in an argument to defend his position or to take other people’s views on board,” says the editorial boss.
Diehl declined to comment for this story.
Of the ten-odd current and former editorial staffers contacted for this story, not one seconded King’s depiction of board politics. “I could not be happy at the place described in that memo,” says Jo-Ann Armao, an editorial writer and former top Metro editor.
Benjamin Wittes, a legal affairs expert who recently left the board, writes that King’s memo “describes a world in which I never worked and people whom I do not recognize.” Although Wittes says that he was “discomforted” by certain positions on legal issues taken by the board, his departure was prompted by several factors, including his wish to write bylined work. “I would not want the reasons for my departure, which could not have been more amicable and mutually admiring, to be confused with the allegations in that memo.”
For his part, King insists that he left the board over fatigue with D.C. politics and a general need to move on. “The prospect of a few more years with [Marion] Barry and a new administration was too much to take,” he says.
And the memo, he says, was “not for publication.” He writes, “I never expected the memo to be made public. I did expect to hear from my editorial colleagues, however. Instead, the silence was deafening.”