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You have an opinion, but do you have what it takes to be heard?

Judges' Blog

Winner: Kevin Huffman

The results are in.

Kevin Huffman wins the title of America's Next Great Pundit, and along with it a three-month contract with The Post and a launching pad into the world of punditry.

Kevin received 4,622 votes in the final round of voting. Runner-up Zeba Khan received 4,062.

Back in October, when editorial page editor Fred Hiatt hosted a Q&A with readers about the pundit contest, someone asked about his feelings toward humor submissions. The answer:

I'm for it. I also think it's very hard to do. As someone who reviews scores of oped submissions every day, I can tell you that humor is frequently attempted, only rarely successful.

Kevin Huffman tried for humor anyway. Several times over during the course of the contest. And most of those times, he was pretty successful at it -- prompting a number of readers to comment that he made them laugh out loud. Part of what makes Kevin a promising pundit, though, is that beneath the humor he is fluent in politics, comfortable delving into a range of topics and has a knack for teasing out fresh insights and drawing interesting connections. We look forward to reading what he comes up with when he starts to write regularly for Post Opinions.

For now, we must say thanks and goodbye to Zeba Khan: who entered the contest with little opinion writing experience but who demonstrated an ability to write clearly and persuasively. We'd love to see Zeba relax a bit into her writing style. But we have no doubt we'll be reading and hearing more from this smart young woman.

And so we bring the inaugural season of America's Next Great Pundit to a close. And we leave the final word to you. What did you like, or dislike, about the contest? What should we do differently if we do it again? What would you look for in an initial entry to help predict whether a contestant can produce more than one strong piece? How much should readers or judges be able to influence the outcome? We'd like to know what you think.

By

Marisa Katz

 |  November 23, 2009; 11:32 PM ET
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Comments

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How come I didn't get any invitation or anything at all after I submitted my entry? Oh, dear people, you do not allow me to speak loudly enough, though the topic of my speeches is of the great importance. I need to have attention on the big scale, and you need me to have it. I am no neo con. I am no Muslim. I am talking about things (mainly one particular thing), which are extremely important for the survival of the planet, which means for the survival of all neo cons and Muslims together. Of course, those of them, who want to survive. Anyhow, dear Wa Po editors, you would be very sorry of the treatment you have applied to me and soon.

Posted by: aepelbaum | December 7, 2009 9:41 PM
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I was unaware there was a contest until it was too late to enter. Pretty strange, since I read the Post religiously (the paper version) every single day. I guess I missed it. Was it only online? That would be strange, if true, since presumably you're trying to persuade your traditional paper subscribers (i.e. me) to keep subscribing and "milking the cow" rather than "getting the milk for free."

I wish you had publicized it more. Perhaps even placed a notice on the front page. Or on a few front pages. Did I really miss it? Help me out. Will it happen again? I hope so. WHEN?

Posted by: GreekPar | December 2, 2009 11:53 PM
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Excellent contest. Best person won. I was one of the 4,790 who didn't make the final 10.....So what....Enjoyed writing my entry. And enjoyed the whole process of going from 10 to 1. Engaging with your customers is the best way to make/keep a company great - kudos to WaPo.

Posted by: restondad | November 26, 2009 3:29 PM
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nwrtgoodstuff, interesting that your hagiography ignores Kevin's gender. Have you noticed that your friend--obviously your friend--is also yet another male? Courtney is white too, but I would have welcomed her for this reason alone.

Posted by: hjtufsk6 | November 25, 2009 2:44 PM
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His writing style tends toward wooden fluff. At least he isn't another neoconservative or some idiot who doesn't want people to have health insurance.

Posted by: thebuckguy | November 25, 2009 9:18 AM
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I was really hoping for not yet another young white male to get on the blogroll... you'll get yours soon Courtney and Zeba!

Posted by: alessandra_barbadoro | November 25, 2009 8:38 AM
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There were several "off color" comments made regarding the color of Kevin's skin...but shouldn't we be judging people by "the content of their character?" Regardless of any of this, his posts were strong. But if we're going to judge him by his skin tone, I challenge those individuals to look at the things he has done. For over 10years, Kevin has worked tirelessly to promote the education and life prospects of our 14 million children currently living in poverty...the overwhelming majority of which are students of color. So yes, he is "another white man" that will write what he thinks and believes, but at least his beliefs and actions will be rooted in social justice and equality.

Congrats Kevin and I look forward to reading all of your future posts.

Posted by: nwrtgoodstuff | November 25, 2009 3:16 AM
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A note each to Kevin and Zeba:

Zeba, I voted for you. I think your political focus is a little narrow but that will grow. You're very bright, you're capable of digging in deep and having some insight to offer. Your last column you tried to get some personality into it. Keep working on that. Read Michael Kinsley, a little of his style might suit you. You have a place in all this and you've taken a big step toward it.

Kevin, I like your writing. I truly enjoy your humor. That's why I like reading people like Michael Kinsley because he can (sometimes) make me think and deliver it with wit. Not just wit for wit's sake without a worthwhile point, which is what supposed saint Mencken often did. You've got to have more meat with your gravy. Not dull, serious meat, though that has to be part of it too. Let your quirky way of looking at things lead you to, not just a joke, but an insightful angle to broaden peoples' view.

Good luck to both.

Posted by: TomCantlon | November 24, 2009 11:33 PM
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There was no transparency in this process from the get go. For all we know these two finalists could have had 40 votes each. The editors may well have inflated the numbers as they saw fit to serve their purpose. The numbers look very similar to each other. How hard is it to switch a 2 and a 4?

Yet another example of Hiatt getting what he wants however he wants it.

Posted by: johnc1959 | November 24, 2009 8:24 PM
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This contest was a sham. As if we needed another white male snark shark to troll your tiresome editorials.

Posted by: patrickschabe | November 24, 2009 7:35 PM
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Missmolly05: Thanks for the link...

Posted by: martymar123 | November 24, 2009 4:31 PM
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Great. Because we totally needed one more white man to tell us all what he thinks.

The misogyny expressed by many commenters throughout this contest was appalling. I'm disappointed that the vitriol was not smacked down by the judges.

It should not be surprising that a public which is conditioned to seeing and hearing most often from white men, and therefore views them as more authoritative, would go on to vote white man the winner of this contest. This contest was flawed from the beginning for that reason. The contestants who were not white and male were handicapped from the start.

I wish that the WAPO was truly committed to increasing the diversity of its opinion writers. But I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Posted by: KJG79 | November 24, 2009 4:23 PM
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Way to go, WaPo! Another white man on the OpEds!

Posted by: notindc1 | November 24, 2009 3:13 PM
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I knew it! There was NO WAY Courtney or Zeba could win. Teach for America is something like 17,000 people large. They have been internally promoting Kevin from the very beginning of this whole thing. Kevin was ALL OVER the TFA Facebook pages. Another powerful, highly placed male takes home the prize. Who can compete with that?

Here is a CBS clip of Katie Couric's investigation of Teach for America's mismanaged funds.

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4254988n&tag=related;photovideo

Someone who looks a lot like America's Next Great Pundit is explaining away unaccounted for tax-payer dollars. Maybe Katie needs to be called in again to investigate why a single tax-payer funded second is spent promoting an internal head in this WaPo search.

A Washington insider for the Washington Post is very apropos.

Disgusted but not surprised.

Posted by: missmolly05 | November 24, 2009 2:37 PM
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Zeba, the world will miss the columns you would have written. You have a clear, wise voice. You had ideas that would have enhanced understanding between Christians, Muslims and Jews. Your insights into the troubles of middle America were right on target, as well as the as yet untried solutions you proposed.

Young, female, middle class, American, Muslim, just what America needed to hear. Oh, what an opportunity lost. Do well my friend, America and the world need you!

Posted by: chucky-el | November 24, 2009 2:29 PM
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So Chucky-El is convinced the neocons prevailed picking Kevin and JJCrocket is convinced it's the Marxists.

Maybe it was the voters who picked Kevin...

After all they're capable of picking both Obama and Bush.

I'm glad the Post ran the contest and happy to see that Kevin won.

Posted by: Pele | November 24, 2009 2:21 PM
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Congratulations to Kevin. I look forward to your 13 columns. I've already stated that, IMHO, you failed in the final assignment but Zeba also had a flaw...she didn't answer her own question. I hope you will re-read that piece and the comments and go on from there. On the football thing...OSU Buckeyes lose to Oregon's Ducks 34-21 or so in the Rose Bowl. Try to schedule around it this time Ohio guy!
To Zeba...I've commented on the need for
Muslim American writers in these times and you can still fill that void...I'm not saying that should be your only subject matter but if I see it I'll surely read it. Good luck.
Finally, I'll miss my cyberspace friends, those commenters who were there throughout...you know who you are. Keep writing. I put my comments on the contest itself in a response to Fred Hiatt's piece if anybody is interested.

Posted by: mfkpadrefan | November 24, 2009 2:11 PM
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I only tuned in at the end before reading the final two entries but was surprised by your clear, editorial, preference for Kevin. I think you probably prejudiced the final votes in his favor so was surprised that Zeba made it so close.

Posted by: beeguy | November 24, 2009 12:32 PM
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What a joke with an expected outcome! Guess who selected this Marxist with a teachers union background. Other Marxists!!

Posted by: jjcrocket2 | November 24, 2009 12:18 PM
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Congrats to Kevin. I look forward to seeing him bring a nimble and impish voice to the Opinion pages.

Overall, the contest was enjoyable to follow. However, I would question the process that lead to the selection of the initial ten contestants. Half of the ten were only "pretty good" at best. Could it really be that out of 5000 submissions, only five writers truly excelled? If the contest is done again, I would hope selections would be made purely off of which submissions made the best read, without regard to diversity of subject matter or demographics, which I have a feeling played heavily into the selections here.

Posted by: ChiefRocka1 | November 24, 2009 12:16 PM
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All the contestants were very interesting and pointed out that there are truly as many perceptions as there are issues, the contest providing compelling discussion on both the news of the day, as well as stories no less important that typcially linger in wait of an audience. I congratulate all ten for bringing their voice to such stories, and hope we do hear from them again. Kevin was my vote because he brought some balance to the WP opinion page. Typically infused with the voices of ivory tower expertise, at least for the next three months, there will follow a street level echo of perspective- on the "things that make you go hmmmm..." more attuned to those of us left scratching our heads with a nervous chuckle as we try to make sense of it all. This was a great contest, entertaining and interesting more for the sum of its parts. Good Luck Kevin!

Posted by: jaygee4 | November 24, 2009 12:11 PM
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Part 2:

In my humble opinion, Huffman hasn't won this praise from the judges because of his ability to 'make us laugh,' but rather because of his endless attempts to make us laugh. It doesn't matter if he fails half the time, or if the funny lines are tucked inside utterly unintelligible pieces (see the Judges try to de-fibrillate his nonsense piece yesterday), they appreciate his style despite his substance.

If the judges are prizing flashy punditry (online Q&A's that evaporate from the mind as they're happening, a 7-minute 'debate' which covered nothing other than who could say the least in the most pithy way, etc.), then why have anyone write at all? Why not have the competition begin with video submissions a la real world? Why put a column, which requires an actual and consistent ability to write, to explore, to be substantive, as the award of this contest?

It would seem that maybe a blogging contract, with promises of TV appearances, is more in line with what the Post has been cultivating in this contest. I can say that if Huffman's last op-ed is any indicator of what is to come over the next 13 weeks, you've got yourself a dud.

I've supported Khan in this contest because she has been honest enough to try to answer the questions asked of her. She has pushed herself to write about a range of topics, and has experimented with different styles. She did not have the qualities that suit a pundit (the ability to quickly generate soundbite non-answers), but she was best suited to write columns for this paper, which was, of course, the ultimate prize.

But in the end, this came down to popular vote. I don't know why the judges even participated in this contest if they weren't prepared to ultimately choose the winner. Much will be made of social networking's influence on the results, but it should be overwhelmingly clear here that both finalists employed their networks. Huffman cutely suggested that he didn't know much about these things, that he only recently joined facebook, etc., but he had an well-networked army of online supporters. Khan had a lot too, I gather, but not enough to win clearly.

I have to believe, that if the judges had been compelled to actually 'judge' in the final round, they would have had to award this to Khan.

Posted by: wpreader1010 | November 24, 2009 11:16 AM
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I guess this is the forum to accept Marisa Katz’s invitation to comment on the contest. It is probably like spitting into a hurricane, but here goes:

1. Follow the published rules - The Post may set whatever rules it wants for the contest. But once the rules are published and contestants submit entries, the Post is not free to change the rules To do so is unfair to the contestants, damages the Post’s reputation, and is arguably illegal. The Post did not consistently follow its published rules. The rules for round 3 state: “The three (3) remaining Challenge Participants with the highest scores based on a combination of public votes, reader comments and/or input from a panel of judges convened by Sponsor will advance to Round Four.” The rules for round four and the final round are the same. Yet the winners of the third, fourth and final rounds apparently were not determined by scores based on a combination of factors, but solely on the public votes. This may have affected the outcome of the final round ( I voted for Kevin). This leads to the second recommendation.

2. Be transparent - If there is an issue under the rules, let the readers know how it is resolved. At the start, several commentators (I was one) wrote that Courtney Martin was a regular columnist for The American Prospect Online, and therefore was not eligible, since the rules state: “Entrants may not have previously written or contributed to a regular column in a major national publication in print or online.” Another commentator noted that her first submission did not appear to be an original work, as required by the rules. These comments raised substantive issues that deserved a response.

3. Curb the influence of social networking - Facebook is not your friend. It is a competitor. Yet you allowed contestants, particularly the three finalists, to inflate their votes through campaigning in other media. Voting should be limited to those who have registered with the Post. This limitation would make the contest fairer and also advance the Post’s marketing interest.

4. Ask substantive questions during the video panel round - None of the three finalists are political consultants. Yet all of the questions asked by Mr. Capehart were political horse race type questions.

4, I agree with Wiggan that Lisa de Moraes should be added to the panel of judges.

Posted by: dwells3 | November 24, 2009 11:16 AM
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Part 1:

This contest had such potential, I only wish the Post had spent twenty minutes considering what it was trying to achieve. The deep, fundamental flaw is this contest has always been a lack of clarity on WP's end: do they want a pundit or a columnist? As much as Eugene Robinson is on tv as a pundit, am I crazy in remembering that there is still a colossal difference between being able to deliver a telegenic and vapid soundbite versus writing a 700 word op-ed? Most of the columnists I read only occasionally go on tv or blog - they put their energies into their writing. Maureen Dowd is frequently hilarious (this, I guess, being the most sought-after virtue by the Post), but you don't often see her on tv.

Yet the Post has revealed itself as putting a premium on style over substance (to paraphrase Jonathan Capehart's judging of a ridiculously vacuous 7-minute discussion on nothing - 'It doesn't matter so much what you're saying, but how you look when you're saying it')...this is what we're striving for?

So many of the readers comments dealt with how Kevin came off on video or how Zeba didn't. I almost fell off my chair when the judges of another pointless round (the Q&A) exclaimed that Haber "NAILED IT!" with an embarrassing cop-out answer ('there is a leadership vacuum on both sides'), that could be applied to every conflict on the bloomin' planet. Why did he nail it, though? Because it was 'short,' and 'to-the-point.'

Posted by: wpreader1010 | November 24, 2009 11:15 AM
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It's a challenge to offer ideas about what to change because I don't know whether I'm speaking to the marketing wizards, the bean counters or the editors. But since you asked for it, here's a start.

Definitely the judges should have a hand in deciding who moves on to the next round. As an example, let's take Round One from this event. Give one person a pundit card and subject the other nine to a vote. The top two vote getters advance, the bottom three go home, and the judges decide amongst the remaining four.

If the goal of the contest is to bring in new readers, then WaPo might want to consider having each contestant explain how s/he can do that as part of the entry material.

Also, as part of the entry material, give three questions, and entrants must answer any two in, say, 40 words or less. Cutting to the chase, the joy of short sentences, that sort of thing.

As for audience participation, if 3-4 commenters from one round were selected to assist the judges, then WaPo might generate more comments and interest from one round to the next.

Gotta go. More ideas later.

Posted by: MsJS | November 24, 2009 11:00 AM
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There are some problems with the contest format that have no solution.

1. The huge number of initial entries. The contest is a victim of its own success. Let's say 80% of the 4800 initial 400 word entries were transparently inferior, and could be dismissed after a cursory examination of only one minute or so. That still leaves almost 1000 entries that deserve closer examination, say at least another 4-5 minutes. Then maybe a third round of elimination to get down to the final ten. I am not naive enough to believe the WaPo staffers actually could or would have invested this level of time and diligence in arriving at the semifinalists. At some point, the old dart board had to come out, and contestants who put long hours into an initial submission feel slighted.

2. The 400 word limit on the initial submission. It is virtually impossible to say anything timely and fresh in 400 words. Attempting to do so stilts and impedes writing style. An entry that looked impenetrable at 400 words might have been very cogent at 750-800 words.
Of course fixing this problem would only exacerbate problem #1 above.

3. One hit wonders. There is no way to determine whether a single excellent submission indicates a likelihood of consistent high performance.

But there is one aspect of the contest that is easily remedied. The winner gets to write 13 columns at the princely sum of $200 per. That's insulting! If Kevin Huffman invests 10 hours in a column, you're paying him $20 per hour. My plumber would laugh if I asked him to work for that.

Posted by: reggerman1 | November 24, 2009 9:48 AM
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America's next great Liberal pundit has been crowned. To his credit, I think he fared better than Zeba on the video sections of the competition. To his detriment, I think when faced with serious content, he had little of value to say. Perhaps if he sticks to his lite role as a humorist, flogging and re flogging the same lefty jokes about Palin et al, the Post will enjoy him as much as they do Toles.

Next time you hold a Pundit contest, I suggest you get de Moraes to review them in the manner she does American Idol, so we can all enjoy the snarky winnowing process for the eventual winner we will ignore.

Posted by: Wiggan | November 24, 2009 9:45 AM
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i was happy to see kevin's picture this morning, confirming my hope that he won. I felt the final pieces submitted by him and zeba were 'neck to neck'- i had been rooting for kevin from the beginning because he made me laugh in an otherwise low chapter of my life. THAT alone counts enormously. i'm proud of you kev! you did it! hoping to see you on letterman, hoping even more charlie rose invites you on his show. i'll be following your writing of the columns. 'bang on' kevin!

Posted by: thunderkat7 | November 24, 2009 9:33 AM
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Kevin is a good writer and I'm interested to see what he does.

But I'm SO disappointed in his selection. As if the opinion pages don't already have enough upper-middle-class white men!

I would have loved to see Zeba - or, even moreso, Courtney, with the almost-unheard-of-on-the-editorial-pages feminist perspective - win the contest.

Sigh.

Posted by: vmford | November 24, 2009 9:11 AM
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Congratulations! Many happy returns are scheduled. Go ahead; win the battles.

Dear Kevin, You look really great. Throughout the entire contest it was all simply thrilling. May I expect you to mingle me with your talent?
Regards, Asokananda Prosad. 24. 11. 2009.


One World; One Religion

In this stiff-torn world everyday we are supposed to face so many problems. Their solutions are essential. Every nation often gets distress signal to run adminis-tration and as a result the development of all the countries is in jeopardy. So far we understand, it is only democracy which can provide us with adequate strength to fight the battle of life. Possibly, that’s why India and America are close together in various issues. On the contrary, I should refer to the first article, lately published, of David Hulme, Editor ‘Vision’: “Is democracy the guarantee?”

In brief, politics often play with fire in the name of Religion. Democracy is the best defense against communism, fascism and socialism. In spite of its flexibility there is least guarantee that dictatorship, supported by new concept of Religion, will not haunt the world again. “The age of Dictators and their systems may be over, but totalitarianism remains a slumbering threat.”—So has been stated by Dr. Hulme...

Posted by: asokanandaprosad | November 24, 2009 9:08 AM
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Huffman jumped the shark by invoking Sarah Palin, but then again, Eugene Robinson and Richard Cohen do that every other day on these pages. If the winner was determined by sheer appeal to the masses, then Huffman and Sarah Palin won the contest.

Posted by: diehardlib | November 24, 2009 8:33 AM
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The assumptions people are making about the impact of Facebook on the results are astounding. For those who bothered to look, the winner of this contest did not have a Facebook group created to support him. However, other contestants did. WaPo actively encouraged voters to share the voting link-- it's an online contest afterall!

Posted by: WP492 | November 24, 2009 8:19 AM
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chucky-el comments that Kevin Huffman won by the votes of his fiends on Facebook and/or by the manipulation of the WP's editors. I am not a subscriber to Facebook and voted for Kevin without reading any of the "promotions" or the comments. I read the two articles by the finalists and based on the writing voted for the one that I deemed the best. Such a comment insults the intelligence of some of us who voted based on the merits of the writing.

Congratulations, Kevin.

Posted by: zacharia | November 24, 2009 8:17 AM
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Congratulations Kevin. I did vote, and I voted for Zeba.

It was a difficult choice, someone with ideas and empathy vs. someone who could develop into a really fine humorist---and probably will, with or without the WaPo's help. If you had lost you would have laughed it off. Zeba probably cried, because winning would have meant far more to someone who is not already a Washington insider and really could have used the boost.

But, agreed, you are the better writer, and come across on video as the "upper middle class belonger"---even if I guess I think that Zeba put her somewhat lesser talent to far more worthy uses. In that sense, you will no doubt take to the sound and fury of punditry as a duck to water. You know what I mean. Don't prove me right.

Zeba, life has a way of evening things out. At your age, you still have decades to see that happen, but it does. And, Zeba, you actually told me things I didn't already know.....I'm 55! You made me respect you. (See I like Kevin--but I don't respect him yet.)

So---I voted for the loser in a contest where the winner styles himself as a humorist.....I hope you enjoy your 13 columns as much as I will, Kevin....my saber is out being sharpened. Good luck.

Posted by: martymar123 | November 24, 2009 8:16 AM
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Bravo Kevin. I have enjoyed your writing from your first piece.As I previously said in comment on one: I wish I had written it.I could have repeated myself many times over with that observation on other pieces by you as well.You offered an approach in this competition few of the others did: humor(to her great credit Maame often did as well,by the way,I really thought she should have been in the final 2)I look forward to following you for the next 3 months.For once the right person didn't get voted off the island!

Posted by: arnnyc | November 24, 2009 8:01 AM
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Pathetic. The Sarah Palin of the contestants has won with help from his 6,000 Facebook friends. OMG, those were the ideas in his final column - Palin and Facebook.

To my disgust the WashPost manipulation of the contest from the initial selection, in the video interview, to the titles put on the final articles favoritism showed through. So they got what they wanted, an unfunny comedian whose work should only be allowed in the Entertainment section or better yet, a college parody newspaper.

Did no one read the comments posted on the final articles? Kevin's stunk. It was unreadable, unintelligible. Didn't matter with the help of the WashPost and Kevin's 6,000 Facebook friend's campaign to flood the vote.

So the NeoCon editors of the WP win again. Just as they helped Bush manipulate the facts to lie us to war in Iraq, and Reagan to double the national debt in 6 years with tax cuts for the rich, the WP has selected a meaningless voice of confusion to further mislead the readers. Further into the slime the WP does sink, pulling the readers and America down with it.

Posted by: chucky-el | November 24, 2009 7:56 AM
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Bravo! Kevin has been fun to read. As I mentioned a few phases back, he reminds me of Art Buchwald of happy memory.

Congrats also to the Washington Post for a good idea well executed.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | November 24, 2009 12:40 AM
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