The King & I
This story was originally published in Issue 747 on November 14, 1996.
A FEW TIMES EACH YEAR, Larry King puts everything aside and sets out for La Costa, a health spa in the hills north of San Diego. Nearly 10 years ago he had a heart attack, followed by quintuple-bypass surgery, and going to La Costa is his way of as king fate for a few more years. Each morning he takes a brisk walk around the golf course, checking his pulse along the way. Each afternoon he heads to the spa, pulls off his clothes and steps into a pool in a secluded courtyard. The pool is filled with naked men, ages 60 to 90, who pick sides and then play a rigorous game of nude volleyball. Many of these men have also had heart attacks, so every chest is marked by the jagged scar where the surgeon went in. They say this makes them members of the Zipper Club.
When Larry is behind a microphone in Washington, D.C., he’s one of the most visible people on earth. Six nights a week he can be seen in more than 170 million households in 210 countries and territories. In recent years, the show has become a kind of international forum where statesmen go to spin, explain, get elected. Recently he has interviewed Benjamin Netanyahu, Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres, Louis Farrakhan, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole and Jacques Chirac. And Larry himself has become part of the machinery of world affairs, like the voting booth or the ballot. The way a surgeon is on constant call from patients, he’s on constant call from the world at large. Any phone can become his own personal beeper. Yitzhak Rabin’s been shot? I’ll be at the studio in 20 minutes.
“This all came out of the 1992 presidential election,” Larry explains, settled in a chair by the side of the pool. “Ross Perot announced his candidacy on our show, which made us a must-do for all the candidates and a place where news sometimes breaks. During that election, we had Perot, Clinton and even George Bush, the sitting president, taking calls. The coming election should be even more exciting.”
In the early evening, Larry sits at a small table in La Costa’s Brasserie restaurant. He says coming up here is like returning to the Catskills of his youth, the “Jewish Alps” where he worked at the famous resort Grossinger’s. “We’re doing it all again, only smaller,” he says, looking around. “Less food, less stories, but that’s the way everything is these days.”
As he talks, the hills darken to a silhouette against the sky. Coming up here, Larry often recalls the night in 1987 when he almost died, in an emergency room at a Washington hospital; his voice assumes the reflective nature of a man taking stock. “If our parents could see the kind of life we lead, the kind of money we make, they would never believe it,” he says. “The numbers would be like nonsense to them. ‘Three million dollars a year you make? Are you crazy?’ “
Sometimes he thinks he did die back there, that everything that has occurred since his heart attack has been a sort of fever dream, the last images that flash through the mind in the moments before death. “All these things that have happened since — the  elections, the success,” he says, “they seem so remarkable to me. And sometimes, when I think of the old days, it all seems so remote and distant. But most of the time, the things that happened back in Brooklyn seem more real, more present, more important than anything that has happened to me since.”
Brownsville was the bright idea of a clear-thinking land developer, Aaron Kaplan, who in 1887 looked at this marshland on the edge of Brooklyn and saw an escape valve for the overflowing slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By 1933, when Larry King was born there as Larry Zeiger, it had grown into one of the biggest Jewish slums in the world. It was the home of Murder Inc., a squad of Jewish hit men who waited on the corner for the call. Now and then, word came of another body found in the weeds of Canarsie, full of bullets or with a cord around the neck, and the tongue blue or just some teeth and a watch, and everything else burned up. Mothers told sons the same fate awaited them if they grew too friendly with those well-dressed men on the corner.
Larry’s father, Eddie Zeiger, a hard-working immigrant from Pinsk, Russia, owned Eddie’s, a bar and grill on Fulton Street in Brownsville — a favorite among cops on the beat. Every day, Larry walked straight from school to the bar’s dusty interior. Once in a while, some cop would sit him on the bar and ask what was wrong. “Kid, don’t you know I’m a cop?” he’d ask. “I can fix anything.”
One day in 1944, when he was 10, as Larry made his way home from the library, he could see in the distance the dull throb of police lights. He then saw squad cars parked in front of his building. He heard screams. His mother. Before he made it through the door, a cop picked him up and drove him off to the Loew’s Pitkin, a nearby movie theater. And it was there, as Robert Taylor fought “the Japs” in Bataan, that the cop told Larry about the sad way things sometimes happen. “Your father died of a heart attack this morning,” the officer said. And Larry sat there to the end — Taylor, machine gun in hand, fighting to the death as he’s overrun by the enemy.
That summer, Larry’s mother moved her family to Bensonhurst, a middle-class area clear across Brooklyn. The Zeigers, now fatherless and “on relief,” as welfare was called in those days, took an attic flat on 83rd Street. “The city of New York bought me my first pair of glasses,” Larry wrote in When You’re From Brooklyn, Everything Else Is Tokyo. “Wire-rimmed glasses, free, that told all the world that you were poor and on relief, and couldn’t afford a pair with frames.”
When school began, Larry had trouble settling down. To a boy who has lost his father, some things just don’t matter. What did subjects like English and biology have to tell him? Larry never again got good marks. He was smart but reckless. Several times each week he was sent to the principal’s office, and that’s where he met my father. “Herbie Cohen was the first friend I made in the new neighborhood,” Larry wrote. “If Brooklyn has produced its share of characters, Herbie may head the list.”
Over the years, Larry and my father have remained great friends. They talk at least once a day. They guard each other’s stories. When you see them somewhere like Glencoe, Ill., where I grew up, it’s like seeing a piece of Brooklyn out walking around. When people ask my dad where he’s from, he smiles and, in his thickest Brooklyn accent, says, “Cheyenne, Wyo.” It’s surprising how many people walk away believing they’ve just met a man from Cheyenne.
Larry has written two books that chronicle my father’s childhood exploits. My dad moves through these texts the way the youthful hero, the hero destined to fall, moves through all coming-of-age novels: “Herbie was a provocateur,” wrote Larry. “He was a schemer and a troublemaker, but he was in it for the sport, and he got just as much satisfaction from getting into trouble as getting out of it.”
Back in Brooklyn, my father and Larry spent much of their time at 86th Street and Bay Parkway, the Corner, beneath the West End elevated subway. They hung out there the way wise guys hung out on the corners of Brownsville, only without the killing. There was Sandy Koufax, who went on to pitch for the Dodgers; Asher Dann, according to Larry the best-looking kid in Brooklyn, who later starred in September Storm, a B movie, as a Spanish cabin boy; Bernard Horowitz, who once, when asked a question, said, “Who?” and when the question was repeated, said, “Ha?” and was ever after known as Who-Ha; Sid Young, a terrific basketball player; Sam DeLuca, a football star who later, as a member of professional football’s New York Jets, blocked for Joe Namath; Herbie Cohen, who started trouble for the same reason scientists mix chemicals — to study the results; and Larry Zeiger, known as Zeke-the-Creek-the-Mouthpiece. Even then, Larry was a broadcaster, announcing happenings on the corner. “Here comes Sam DeLuca,” he might say into a rolled-up newspaper. “Now DeLuca is telling Zeiger to shut up. Now DeLuca is approaching Zeiger. Now DeLuca is lifting Zeiger off the ground. This is Larry Zeiger, signing off.”
After dinner, the friends met again on the Corner, some of them wearing jackets that proclaimed their allegiance to the Warriors, a club they had formed. They stayed out until the lights went off in the apartment-house windows and the fire escapes, where big brothers dreamed of girls and the Second World War, filled with the glow of cigarettes.
And then, one day, someone was missing. A friend who used to be on the Corner was not on the Corner anymore. Maybe it was Sandy, who had gone off to play baseball. Or maybe it was Herbie, who had gone down to Camp Chaffee, Ark., to train for the Korean War. And the next day, someone else was gone. This time it was Who-Ha or Gutter Rat or Bucko or Inky or Sheppo or Moppo. And then one afternoon, Larry went to the Corner and waited. And waited. But no one came. He raised his collar. He smoked a cigarette. He rolled up his paper to announce, but the stadium was empty. The summer was over. So Larry left the Corner and went into the world.
After graduating from high school, Larry got a mail-room job at 1440 Broadway in Manhattan. “Great location,” Larry says now. “That building was home to WOR [Radio].” Between errands, he rode the elevator to the top floor, where the station was located, held the Open button and gazed into the newsroom. “That’s where I wanted to be,” he says. Riding back to the lobby, he spoke to strangers in a booming voice — “Wonderful weather we’re having today; can’t wait to get out into it!” –pretending he was a broadcaster on his way home from work. But each night, he stepped off the El and back into Bensonhurst, where a group of younger kids was colonizing the Corner. One night, coming off the train, he ran into my grandfather, Morris. They walked together for a time. “Tell me, Larry,” asked my grandfather. “What will you do with your life?”
So Larry told Morris of his love for the radio. For kids of Larry’s generation, radio had a romance that is hard for us to imagine today. The voices on radio were like voices in a dream. “That’s what I want to do,” Larry told Morris. “I want to be on the radio.”
“What are you, Arthur Godfrey?” my grandfather asked, shaking his head. “Pipe dreams! Get a Job. Come work for me at the bias-binding factory.”
These days, whenever anyone asks Larry about his early years, he tells this story. Somehow, Larry Zeiger has been able to live a dream most people would be happy to catch a glimpse of. “You know what?” he asks, smiling. “I think I might be bigger than Arthur Godfrey ever was.”
Not long after that, a friend introduced Larry to a radio executive. When Larry arrived at the meeting, his head was swimming, and before he knew what he was doing, he was tearing open his chest and showing his bleeding heart. He told this man how he dreamed of the radio, how he used to roll up the newspaper and broadcast from the Corner, how no other career much touched his imagination. “What would you do if you were me?” Larry asked. “Where would you go?”
“Miami,” the man said. “It’s the coming city, a place full of kids on the way up and old guys on the way out. Low pay. Long hours. But at least you’ll be working in radio.”
Miami in the ’50s had the wide-open feel of a gold-rush town. With the end of the Second World War, tourists came in droves. Each year, a new hotel, more opulent than the last, opened on the beach. The Fontainebleau, the Eden Roc, the Americana.
It sometimes seemed that Brooklyn itself had moved down there. Each morning, old men with New York accents sat around tables at delis like Wolfie’s or the Rascal House, smoking cigars, telling lies. “This shirt? I got this shirt for a dollah!” Looking down Collins Avenue, they proclaimed Miami the true promised land of the Jews. “Same climate as Tel Aviv,” they would say. “Better neighborhood.”
This was a good place for Larry to break in. Here was a community of expatriates, strangers in a strange land. Larry could serve a function here. He could be the Brooklyn accent on the radio, the sound of home.
He stayed at an uncle’s place near the beach, sleeping on a couch. Each afternoon, Larry went from radio station to station, asking after openings. He at last found his way to WAHR, a small Miami Beach AM station where the general manager was actually impressed by the voice Larry had made up on the Corner. “Hang around,” the GM told the kid. “Someone’s bound to quit.” After two weeks, someone did quit, and Larry was given the morning drive-time shift. Larry Zeiger, the schmuck from Brooklyn, was about to become Larry Zeiger, the disc jockey.
A few minutes before his debut, Larry was called into the GM’s office. “All right, kid, what’s the name you’re going to use?” he asked.
Larry looked back blankly.
“Zeiger is too German, too Jewish,” explained the GM. “Not show-business enough. So what will it be?”
“OK,” said the GM, drumming his fingers on his desk. “You’re Larry King.”
Sitting behind the mike, Larry was too nervous to talk. He faded the music down, then back up. When the GM burst in, explaining the term “communications business,” Larry found his voice. “Ladies and gentlemen . . . my name is Larry King,” he said. “This is my first day on the air, and I’m nervous. I’ve been fading the music up and down, trying to think of something to say, and the general manager just came in here and told me I’d better start talking.”
Larry Zeiger never did make it on the radio; but here, at last, was Larry King. Within 18 months, he was hired away by a bigger Miami Beach station, WKAT. Soon after, someone had the idea of taking him out of the studio and putting him in the front window of Pumpernik’s, a popular restaurant on Miami Beach. All morning, Larry would sit in the window, talking on the air to anyone who happened through the door. His fourth day in the window, who walks through the door but Bobby Darin, whose song, Mack the Knife, was No. 1 in the country.
This was Larry’s debut as an interviewer. His gift was clear from the beginning. He probed with the simple, straightforward curiosity of the Corner. In the coming weeks, visiting stars discovered King and made regular morning visits to Pumpernik’s.
“I was working the hotel showrooms,” says Frank Sinatra, who knows King from the early days in Miami. “Larry is a good listener, does his homework and doesn’t throw out phony questions. We have the same type of conversation whether we’re on his show or at dinner.”
For Larry, the world had become his Corner. People dropped by his various shows, important people: Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Jimmy Hoffa, Hubert Humphrey, Jackie Gleason, Danny Thomas. By the late ’60s, in addition to the radio show, Larry was hosting a TV show, calling play-by-play for pro football’s Miami Dolphins and writing a newspaper column for the Miami Herald. Miami was his town.
In a movie, this part would be shown in montage: champagne, limos, Cuban cigars, gangsters, yachts, women. There would be lots of sunshine. Still, there would be something else, the hint of trouble, something dark just coming into focus. The sequence would close with Larry in a sports car, barreling down an empty road at night. The audience sees the cliff; Larry does not.
For years, Larry had been living beyond his means. He bought things he did not need and needed things he could not afford. He bought cars, ran up tabs, dodged creditors, bet hunches. He paid off one loan by taking out another, using only his celebrity as collateral. And always, even when the horses were running in the mud, he was at the track. And it was at the track that he met the man who would accompany him to the bottom, Lou Wolfson.
Lou Wolfson was a legend in South Florida, an early corporate raider. He made his first million before he was 30. At one time, he controlled an empire worth around $400 million. Wolfson had a mysterious quality to him. He was, to Larry, like one of those exotic, Upper East Side Jews, the Jews of charity balls and philanthropies. Wolfson built wings on hospitals; he also had a high school named after him.
Wolfson had other things, too: houses, a box at Hialeah racetrack, a string of thoroughbreds. He also had a way of working his way into people’s lives, plumbing their needs, reaching for his checkbook. Nobody ever told Larry just what Wolfson was buying. What did it matter? Wolfson was rich; Larry was strapped. What else could matter?
One day, as Larry entered the track, he heard someone call his name. Turning, he saw this handsome white-haired guy. “You’re Larry King, aren’t you?” the man asked. “I watch your show.”
Larry followed Wolfson up to his box. The two had dinner a few days later. “No small talk,” said the older man, sitting down to eat. “What’s your goal in life?”
“I don’t really have a goal,” said Larry.
“How much money do you make?” asked Wolfson.
“$70,000 a year,” said Larry.
“Seventy! That’s chicken feed!” said Wolfson with contempt.
Soon they were seen everywhere together. Wolfson gave Larry money, philosophy, advice. One night, Larry’s guest was Jim Garrison, the district attorney of New Orleans who was later portrayed by Kevin Costner in the Oliver Stone film JFK. On the show, Garrison ran through his assassination theory — cover-up, magic bullet — and something he said must have touched Wolfson, for he asked Larry to arrange a dinner. At that meal, Garrison went through his theory again, and afterward, Wolfson reached for his checkbook. “How much do you need?” he asked Garrison.
“I sure could use $25,000,” said Garrison. As this was an ongoing investigation, he added, he would prefer the money in installments: $5,000 a month over five months. Agreed. And Wolfson wanted to give it in cash. Agreed. The money would be given to Larry, who would then get it to Garrison. Sometimes this worked; sometimes not. On at least one occasion, the money made it from Wolfson to Larry but went from Larry to somewhere else. Creditors or bookies, or the track. Who can remember? Larry told Wolfson that he had spent the cash, making a vague promise to pay it back.
At this time, Wolfson was probably susceptible to conspiracy theories. The feds were really after him for securities fraud. He went to Larry for help. It so happened that Larry, who had come to know Richard Nixon over the years, had been invited to a private party to celebrate Nixon’s election to the presidency. There were only about 20 people at the party, so Larry was able pull aside the president-elect. Larry told Nixon that he had this friend, a wealthy, well-connected friend, a friend in trouble, and could the president-elect look over some of the court papers? Could something be done? Among friends, something can always be done. Nixon called over a bald man. “Larry, this is John Mitchell,” Nixon said. “John is going to be my attorney general. Give him the papers, and John will get back to you.”
Hearing of this cheered Wolfson. Here, at last, was a return on the investment in King. About a month later, though, Mitchell told Larry that he wanted nothing to do with the case. Instead of relaying this news, Larry told Wolfson that Mitchell’s law firm would indeed look into the matter.
Why did Larry do this? Maybe he didn’t want to let a friend down? Maybe the same empathy he has for his guests took an irrational turn? Or maybe he was actually looking for a way to destroy himself. There has always been something in Larry that leads him out of the sun and into a thicket. In the coming weeks, Larry told his friend elaborate tales of Mitchell’s efforts. “I’ve thought many times about why I did what I did,” Larry later wrote. “In some perverse way, I think I almost believed my stories; I know I really did want to help Lou, while proving to him that I was an important man, too. But lying about what I was doing was only going to prove one thing: my foolishness.”
One last-ditch effort: In January 1969, Larry flew to New York and called the Pierre hotel. He asked to speak to Richard Nixon, then just about a week away from his inauguration. Larry was on hold for 10 minutes. “Hello, Larry,” a voice finally said. “This is Dick Nixon. What can I do for you?”
“Oh, Mr. President,” said Larry. “I know how busy you are, but it’s urgent I see you.”
Nixon met Larry in the lobby of the Pierre. They walked down Fifth Avenue, a wall of reporters breaking before them like the surf. When Nixon asked what it was all about, Larry could not go through with it. He could not ask the next president, as a favor, to pardon his pal.
When he returned to Miami, Larry went to Wolfson’s house and confessed everything. The blood drained from Wolfson’s face. He told Larry to leave.
Shortly thereafter, Wolfson went to prison for nine months. When he got out, he went to the police and accused King of stealing the five grand that never made it to Jim Garrison. In Larry’s mug shot, he looks like someone utterly without hope. That night, the local news opened with a description of the arrest. The next day, Larry made the front page of the local papers. And, one by one, he lost his jobs: radio station, newspaper, TV station — they all fired him. The charges were eventually dropped, the statute of limitations having run out, but no one seemed to care. Larry could not get hired.
Larry was 38 years old, and all he had was a past. He sat in his apartment. He looked at the walls. He says he was like a scared man in a small town waiting for someone to come kill him. When he rallied, he went to the track and lost what little he had left. At night, he imagined packing his things in a suitcase, catching a train north, watching time run backward out the window, summer to spring to winter, like a movie in reverse, returning to Brownsville, walking beneath the El, the air overhead filling with sparks, then stepping into Eddie’s, his old man’s place, where some benevolent cop sits him on the bar and says, “Don’t worry, kid. I’m a cop. Whatever it is, I’ll fix it.”
But it could not be fixed. Larry had been set adrift. Friends disappeared. Calls went unanswered. At last, to get moving, he accepted an invitation to the Kentucky Derby. He had been invited by Bill Hartack, a jockey in the race. Then, because Hartack asked him and because there was really nothing to go back to, Larry decided to keep on. He and Hartack traveled track to track, race to race, the next city always just over the next rise. In Chicago, Larry met someone who knew of a job. As a result, he found himself heading back south, to Shreveport, La., to work public relations for a racetrack. Everything was different down there. This was not Miami. This was the real South. The woods along the roads were dark and gloomy. In the spring, the sky opened like a faucet. The rain would wipe the faces from the buildings. Each night, Larry was again on the radio, only now he was reading results from some chickenshit track in the Deep South. Things picked up in the fall of 1974, though. Larry got a job with the Shreveport Steamers of the World Football League. He was back on the air, a color commentator broadcasting from rickety booths in rickety, old stadiums.
With the end of football season, Larry decided he was again ready to take his place in the world. He spent a week in Miami. Something had changed. He could feel it. Time had done what time does. A new man was running his old station, so he went over. Small talk led to big talk. Larry was offered his old job back — a nightly talk show.
He was 41 years old and starting over. His exile had made him more formidable, more worldly. He had lost and now knew the value of things. He had suffered. He was an adult. This was in the summer of 1975. Richard Nixon had resigned. Miami Beach was full of tourists. Larry, who had been frozen out of Miami for almost four years, leaned into the microphone, took a breath and began speaking: “As I was saying . . .”
The show was more popular than ever. In 1977, the program came to the attention of the president of Mutual Broadcasting System, a national radio network. So, how about it, Larry? Are you ready to take the next step? Can a radio show attract a national audience in the television age? At this point, failure was not something Larry feared; it was an old friend. He had already lived through one professional death; why not go for broke? Why not put King alongside the names of radio’s golden age — Winchell, Murrow, Godfrey. “When you’re lucky, what do you do?” Larry asks. “Do you stick? Hell, no. You raise the stakes.”
The Larry King Show debuted in January of 1978 on 28 radio stations across the country. The program aired live weeknights from midnight until 5:30 a.m. The late hour promoted a kind of easy informality. This was not Meet the Press; it was friends talking away the night. By the fourth year, Larry’s show was being carried on more than 250 stations across America.
When his guest left at 3 a.m., Larry took calls on any subject. For many, Larry’s voice was a comfort in the dark. It told them they were not alone, that other people lie awake in the night.
It sometimes seemed that the whole world was tuned in. One night, I was awake in bed in Illinois, listening to Larry interview Jimmy Piersall, the former baseball player. Piersall was talking about some of the men he knew in baseball who had since disappeared. “One guy everyone loved but no one hears from is Pete Burnside,” said Piersall. “Where the hell is Pete?”
Burnside, it so happened, had been my high school homeroom teacher. As I was mulling this over, Larry took a call from New York. “I know where Burnside is,” said a familiar voice. “He’s my brother’s teacher.” The next day, when I came down for breakfast, my mom was on the phone with my brother, who was then a junior at New York University. “Here’s what I think,” she was saying. “Spend more time studying, less time on the radio.”
“That show was the best,” says Alan Simpson, a Republican senator from Wyoming and a frequent guest on Larry King Live. “I know Larry from years back. He’s friends with a friend of mine from Cheyenne — Herb Cohen. Herbie introduced me to Larry, and I started doing the all-night radio thing. We’d spend hours taking calls from Broken Phone, Neb., and Elktoon, Tenn. And it was fun. Right then, I knew Larry had the secret; he was great at something because he was having a great time.”
In 1985, Cable News Network called with the offer of a prime-time show. Ted Turner, CNN’s founder, knew Larry’s work and was impressed with his “sense of curiosity and the ability to put people at ease.” Back then, the idea of a radio host on TV might have seemed silly, but so did an all-news network. Bringing Larry aboard turned out to be a stroke of genius. Here was something so old — call-in radio — that it was new. From Week 1, when Larry interviewed Mario Cuomo and George Will, the show offered guests and viewers something long absent from network shows such as ABC News Nightline — time. Where most interviewers use carefully crafted questions, Larry relies on his innate sense of human nature. He knows that if you give people time — to talk, to explain, to dissemble, to clown, to fuck up — their true nature will eventually shine through. “The radio taught me to listen,” he says.
“His style is not the same as that of other good interviewers, but it works for him because it is him,” says NBC’s Bob Costas.
Between my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked for Larry at CNN in Washington. This was the late ’80s; I was wearing suspenders almost all the time. On my first day, I went out to lunch, had several drinks and came back an hour late, dead drunk. I thought this was what people with office jobs did. I was told by the producer that I was wrong — very, very wrong.
These were the early days, when Larry still had a healthy diet of cranks as guests. It was a wonderful place to work. One night, Larry had on an 8-year-old boy who had been expelled from school for preaching at recess. The kid sat quietly as Larry interviewed his father: “Is this something the boy learned at home?”
“C’mon,” Larry finally told the kid. “Let’s hear it.”
The kid opened his mouth, and out came an ear-rattling denunciation of man. Seeing this, I began to laugh. Seeing me seeing this, Larry began to laugh, too. He laughed so hard he had to turn his chair around and look at the wall, which left the kid on camera. After the show, the producer made me swear up and down that I was not drunk. I was also there the night a woman phoned in and told Garry Shandling that she had driven an hour to see him perform, only to hear again all the jokes she had already heard him do on The Tonight Show. When we went to a commercial, Shandling said, “Ma’am, are you still there?”
“Yes, I am, Garry,” came the reply.
“Fuck you, ma’am. You ever hear that on The Tonight Show?”
That summer I got a good sense of how Larry works. He arrives at CNN each night just before show time, eats Chinese food — chicken with cashews — straight from the carton, drinks seltzer and clowns with the staff. As he enters the studio, an intern hands him a card full of notes on the upcoming guest. Larry almost never looks at this card. He refuses to prepare — a refusal he has fashioned into a broadcasting philosophy, a kind of Brooklyn Zen. If a host knows too much — the plot of a movie, the point of a book — he will inevitably ask the kind of insider questions that will bore most listeners. “Also, I don’t like asking questions I already know the answers to,” he explains. “If I come in cold, I learn right along with the viewer, so I wind up asking the kind of things the viewer would ask.”
During the last decade, Larry has helped CNN grow, and the growth of CNN has played out through Larry. In 1990, Larry King was a well-known Brooklyn eccentric, a radio legend with a cult following. But in 1991, when the gulf war became the first battle ever covered live on television, Larry became the color commentator of the most lopsided fight in heavyweight history. As CNN was then (and is now) the only truly global network, Larry was bringing ringside analysis to people around the world. Saddam Hussein was said to watch the program each night in his bunker.
Then the 1992 presidential election got under way. In the spring, Ross Perot made his political debut on Larry King Live, clearing the way for appearances by Bill Clinton and President Bush. So now Larry had an even bigger role — MC of the democratic process. In 1992 there was even talk of Larry King revolutionizing the American system. The oligarchy was falling; Larry was taking the calls. “A sitting president had never come on a show like ours and faced the phones,” says Larry. “And the show became the place to be.”
Some journalists hated Larry for this. All over the papers, commentators said King was mucking up the process. Some reporters think the news, like every other story, must be given a narrative; that events in pure form are not safe for public consumption; that like cocaine, they must first be cut and packaged. Such critics thought Larry too soft for this role, that salesmen like Clinton and Perot went on his show not for the access it gave them to the American people but because King threw softballs. His simple, straightforward questions now seemed less charming than insidious — a free pass given to just those who needed to be challenged.
But these critics just don’t get it. Larry’s not a soft touch; he’s the Good Cop! And everyone knows the Good Cop gets the confession in the end. And when the nice way isn’t working? Well, then the producer unleashes an angry, home-all-day caller to ask the hard question –“Just how did the fingerprints get on the damn file?” — and in steps Larry to restrain his “partner.” “The caller was a bit over the top,” he might say. “But, really, what did happen?”
Where Ted Koppel is a kind of prosecutor, Larry is everyone’s best friend, the ultimate enabler. If he is sitting across from a comedian, then he’s Dean Martin, the best straight man in the world, setting up jokes, stepping over lines. If he’s across from a jerk, then Larry’s a prop, a punching bag, a bit. If the guest is a lunatic, then Larry is also a lunatic. If it’s a politician, then Larry is a stern Washington insider. And if it’s a populist politician, well, then Larry is the American People, the Prairie, the heartland, the deep-down decent type.
“When this thing took off, we got a lot of press, and it’s true — much of it was negative,” says Larry, frowning. “People said I didn’t ask tough questions. Why don’t I badger people? Well, it’s just not me. Besides, I don’t think it works. If you listen to the answers instead of the questions, you’ll see what I mean. For example, let’s say I have O.J. Simpson as a guest. What is it I really want to know? What exactly happened that night. And what’s the worst way to find out? To start off saying, ‘Look, killer, I’m sick of your lies. Give it to me straight.’ And it’s just not my way. My way is to talk. No matter what happens, this person is my guest, and that still means something.”
La Costa. Larry has finished dinner and is walking back to his room. He follows a road through the trees. The hills rise around him. “It’s beautiful up here,” he says. “Everything is clear.” Larry has gotten better-looking with age, no doubt about it. As a young man, he was a bucktoothed troublemaker. Over the years, his face has thinned, his forehead taken on the high, furrowed look of a CEO. On the air he always wears suspenders, sometimes floral suspenders over a purple shirt. That’s when I think, “What is he, crazy?”
Other times, when Larry is conservatively dressed — dark suspenders over a blue shirt, say — he looks less like a media bigwig than a veteran bartender, a guy filling in at his father’s bar. This look serves him well. People unburden themselves to Larry as they would to only a bartender late at night, just before last call. How else to explain Ross Perot’s decision to run for president? That is surely the kind of announcement made by drunks all over the capital in the moments before closing.
Off the air, Larry — like many of the Brooklynites of his generation –prefers comfortable clothes. On Sunday they walk around like Mafia dons, in brightly colored sweat suits. At night, they go to dinner in shiny Hawaiian-type shirts decorated with fish or race cars, or flowers. Just now, Larry’s wearing sweat pants, sweat jacket, gold chain. “I have a wonderful time up here,” he says. “Still, I miss the action, all the history.” For Larry, history is what happens to his friends.
Since he was a kid, Larry has been making his way there, to the center of things, the great, pumping heart of democracy. And now that he’s there, what has he found? “You won’t believe it,” he says. “But it’s the same schmucks I knew in Brooklyn — same kind of guys, only now they’re running the world. And here’s the trick: Don’t let on. Make like you know what you’re doing and have as much fun as you can as long as you can. That’s what I’m doing.”
Larry walks to his door, opens it, pauses, then says, “If anything should happen to me, if, God forbid, I wind up in some hospital on life support, here is what you do: Keep me plugged in! I don’t believe in anything after this, so I want to get as much of this as I can. For God’s sake, don’t touch that switch.”
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