Occasionally, the learning curve would prove a little precipitous. He thought the Dalai Lama was a Muslim. His coup
at getting the surviving pair of Beatles together was somewhat undermined when he addressed Ringo as ‘George’
(prompting some severe side-eye from Paul McCartney). He enraged Jerry Seinfeld by erroneously claiming that the
epoch-making Seinfeld had been cancelled by its network. But King, already a radio talk-show veteran,
became the sharp-angled, arch-shouldered, pointy-elbowed, saucer-spectacled, gravelly baritoned,
statement-suspendered face of CNN at a time when the network was becoming the United States’ signature media export.
He called his soft-shoe style “infotainment”, while The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd archly referred to it
as “the resort area of American journalism”. But over the decades, his hot seat played host to every U.S. president
since Gerald Ford, plus Eleanor Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Marlon Brando
and Frank Sinatra. He interviewed Mike Tyson while Tyson was in prison for rape, and the day after O.J. Simpson was
acquitted, Simpson rang into his old pal King’s show for a live chat. As far back as 1999, Donald Trump revealed to
King that he was exploring the possibility of running for president. Mikhail Gorbachev made sure he donned a pair of
the brightest braces before meeting King for dinner. Paul Newman said that, whenever he landed abroad, the first
thing he did was turn on CNN and look for King. Stephen Colbert told King he lost his virginity to an audio backdrop
of King’s throaty bray.
King told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1996 that the secret of his success was his sincerity: “I’m
really curious. I care what people think. I listen to answers and I leave my ego at the door. I don’t use the word
‘I’, which is irrelevant in an interview. It has no place other than showing off.” And, in truth, his
less-than-adversarial, raspy-uncle-at-your-bar-mitzvah mode of questioning often yielded water-cooler moments. To
Richard Nixon: “When you drive by the Watergate building, do you feel weird?” To a late-term Ronald Reagan: “Is it,
for you, frustrating not to remember something?” And to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the historically selective former
president of Iran: “Why do you keep saying if the Holocaust happened?”
When King was once asked, by The Washington Post, “Who is Larry King?”, his retort was sharp: “All the
things that Lawrence Harvey Zeiger never was.”
Born to Orthodox Jewish parents in 1933 — his mother, Jennie, was a garment worker of Lithuanian extraction, while
his father, Aaron, from what is now Ukraine, ran a diner before working in a defence factory — he encapsulates two
imperishable strains in American life: the art of reinvention and the can-do spirit. After his father died of a
heart attack when King was nine, precipitating a lifelong horror of/preoccupation with death (for years he insisted
he wanted his corpse cryogenically frozen, pending future resurrection), the family survived on welfare benefits,
and his education effectively ceased. No matter; his earliest memory was of listening to the radio when he was
around five, and knowing he wanted to be on it.
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