Larry King Is Still Asking Questions
An interview about digital media, death, kids these days, and the real Donald Trump
“What are they going to remember you for in fifty years?” the broadcaster asked the Trekkie. The spaceman leaned forward, not missing a beat. “They’re not going to remember,” he answered. Unsatisfied with the response, the broadcaster repeated the question. This time his guest’s reply was even more opaque. Utter nothingness.
“Do you see him freaking out right now?” a producer quipped from the safety of the greenroom. “Larry does not like that answer.” Dead ahead, through a glass partition, and on monitors and screens all over the Glendale, California studio, Larry King looked like his suspenders were about to pop.
A year shy of his sixtieth in the business, the eighty-two-year-old King’s movements are slow, but his eyes and words still radiate a sharp vitality. And by his own admission, he fears leaving the screen more than his own earthly departure. His swan song Larry King Now, is direct-to-web, streaming on OraTV, distributed via Hulu. While King’s people won’t reveal how many viewers it has, they point out that the show was recently nominated for its third Emmy (the same number of nods as in twenty-five years at CNN).
When we spoke, the man who refuses to learn how to text was surprisingly candid about his digital transition, which he admits hasn’t been easy on the ego. After decades of getting others to open up while remaining shut off himself, he appeared unafraid to share. His is a late-style magic leap—as J.M. Coetzee wrote, “If you live long enough, you come to a third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.”
You’re friends with Trump — can you speak to him in a way that cuts through the bullshit?
The best thing about Donald is whatever you say doesn’t matter. Last July, I was in Craig’s restaurant, and Donald was there and he calls me over and says ‘I think I’m going to run.’ And I said ‘Donald, you went on my show seven times, you were gonna run for governor, you were gonna run for president, you never run. You know you’re not. You like to say you’re gonna run, you like to be interviewed, it sells more hotels, but you know you’re not gonna run.’ He says, ‘This time, I may run.’ So he called me, a month ago, he said ‘I told you. I tooooold you.’ He remembers everything. So I kid him, I say ‘Donald, you’re against abortion?’ And he laughed and said, ‘Well, I’ve had some changes.’ He plays the game. His unbelievable advantage is, if you’re at a press conference and you say ‘Donald, you’re a pedophile!’ ‘I’m a pedophile? Your father’s a pedophile!’ He likes that. He likes to boast and say ‘If I shot someone on Fifth Avenue, it wouldn’t matter.’ It doesn’t matter what he says. So we have to confront that. What Hillary has to confront is, ‘What do I say to a guy who it doesn’t matter what he says?’
He remembers everything…He plays the game.
He attacks Hillary — I would bring this up with him — for enabling her husband by defending him against the charges of women. Yet he said, we have the tape, years ago, ‘Paula Jones is a fraud, why are they doing this, I’m standing up for Bill Clinton. Why? Because he’s my friend.’ If I ask ‘Did you enable Bill Clinton?’ he would get out of that. I know he would. It’s all bravado to him. He has a commercial running in which I say ‘He’s an egomaniac.’ That’s on his commercial!
And he loves that.
He loves it. He’s hard to fight, because he’s like the two guys chasing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Will he lose?
It’s hard to make predictions…I don’t think he can win. On logic, I don’t think he can win key states. He can’t get the Hispanic vote, he can’t get the gay vote, he can’t get the black vote. What is he gonna do with women? She’s disliked, he’s disliked more. It’s the most disliked campaign ever. You know who would have won this in a walk? Joe Biden, who you can’t dislike. What are you gonna call him? Trump would figure something. ‘He’s poor.’”
It’s the most disliked campaign ever.
You’re on an online-only show. Does that feel different than broadcasting on CNN?
I just taped William Shatner this morning, and I’ve taped Sir Anthony Hopkins, movie stars, hip-hop artists, but — I’m not doing anything different. Nothing different than the first day I was on the air in Miami. I’m still asking questions…The venue is different. It’s a half-hour rather than an hour, it’s not live. I like live better, but it’s like saying I like one child better than another. But I’m not doing anything differently — I’m being delivered differently.
If CNN knocks on your door again and said ‘We want you back,’ would you return?
[Heavy sigh] I would go back to be around — well, I’m eighty-two. Eighty-two year old people don’t get calls. However, I would be advantageous to them. I’ve got a good memory and a long knowledge of this political game. The first campaign I got really involved in was Truman, 1948, to which I gave out leaflets in New York. In ’52, I was in the crowds with Adlai Stevenson, in ’60 I was very involved in the campaign of Kennedy. Bumped into his car once. So I have a history I could bring to it. I would return to be involved, live, in action news. But I wouldn’t want to do tabloid. We did a lot of tabloid stuff at CNN. That was my least enjoyable.
We did a lot of tabloid stuff at CNN.
How much autonomy do you have here?
Total. There’s no bullshit. I don’t have suits around. I never got caught in office politics, which is why Ted Turner resisted selling for so long. This show is making money, I’ve got a great crew here. I had great crews at CNN, I had great crews in Miami. I’ve been lucky.
How much does luck matter? If you were starting over, could you achieve the same success?
I don’t think so. Too many people in the boat. And I don’t think people would go for long-form interviews. When I used to do my radio show the guests would be on for three hours. An hour-and-a-half interview, hour-and-a-half phone calls. And then two hours of open phones on anything. Five hours every night. Clinton called into that show when he was governor of Arkansas. So many things happened on that show. I don’t think that exists now. Maybe talk radio.
Barring a Howard Stern?
But Howard’s also matured a great deal. We were in Washington together, and he was — I couldn’t listen to him. Now I respect him. When I’ve gone on his show, he’s been very kind to me. He used to call into my show and have crazy people call in, that doesn’t happen anymore.
What about your model now — even thirty minutes — is it a testament to the guests, your name?
I think I can hold people. I ask good questions, I ask short questions, I listen to answers, I’m very curious. The show is entertaining. I would have been a stand-up comic if I weren’t doing this. I like that just as much. I like going out on the stage, cold, and telling stories. Would it have worked today? I have a certain personality that enough people watch to keep me healthy in the business for a long time. I knew I needed a Ted Turner to like me — what if he didn’t? — it’s subjective.
Is the business of media and journalism in a better or worse place today?
The worst [thing] is, anybody can be a journalist, and the Internet can spread lies. Twitter, you can send out whatever you want, anyone can blog, so everybody’s a journalist. So what we don’t have is we don’t have Walter Cronkites and William Brinkleys.
Does this generation appreciate the value of an Edward Murrow or Dan Rather?
I don’t think they know who he is. It pisses me off. My kids, two bright kids, they wouldn’t know who Edward Murrow is. But he’s a historical figure.
When you asked Shatner will anyone remember you in fifty years, he said ‘No one’s going to remember.’ Do you believe that — at what point do you say ‘I don’t want to do this anymore?’
Shatner was partially right. Let’s take Arthur Godfrey. You probably don’t know who I’m talking about. Arthur Godfrey was 33% of CBS’s income. He did a national television show, a national radio show. He was very important — when he had lung cancer it was front page news in The New York Times. He had enormous power. And no one knows him. No one. So, am I gonna be known? I think when you’re gone in today’s world of eat-it-up-spit-it-out, when you’re gone, you’re gone. Take Prince, that was a big story. A two-week story. Next month…
It happens so fast. And because I don’t think I’m going anywhere and I don’t have a great belief that I’ll be seen afterwards, I hope I leave a legacy that I entertained and informed. And that people remember me through tapes, it’ll be nice to know you’ll be seen. But when I’m dead, I ain’t gonna know. I’m not gonna exist. So if I’m not existing and I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. I was very lucky to have lived this long. When I was a kid, I didn’t know anybody [who was] eighty. Nobody was eighty.
I don’t have a great belief that I’ll be seen afterwards
Do you feel eighty?
No, I don’t. I don’t feel eighty. I had a heart attack, heart surgery, I have type-2 diabetes. Had prostate cancer. I feel fine. I drive, I stay alert. Now about retirement, I don’t think I could ever retire. As Milton Berle said, ‘Retire to what?’
What’s the most surprising thing about your life?
That a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who only wanted to be on the radio — since I was five, it’s my only memory I wanted — would have the kind of life that would take him into being known around the world.
Screwing up marriages…I had a tough time in a personal life, and a great time in a professional life. I had two lives. Bouncing balls. Now, I’ve been married for close to 20 years. So it seems like I don’t remember those tough times. I mean, I had a child. And then I look up and say ‘Where did it all go? Where did it go?’ If I make it to May first, next year, I’ll be on the air 60 years. Not many people have broadcast in seven decades. So, I’m aware that I’ve done all that, but at the same time, I enjoyed talking to Shatner this morning. I drive home, I got two boys, watch them play baseball. Got a young, pretty wife.
Is that the best part of life?
Best part of life came late. Although, I’ve always loved what I’ve done. If you love what you do, you’re ahead of the game. So, all the modern technology and everything, I still like what I do.
What’s your take on our addiction to technology?
All I do with my phone [takes it out], and I’m proud of it, in this modern technological world, I make calls, and I receive calls, and it’s a phone. I can actually put it up to my ear, like a phone. I don’t text, I can receive a text, but I don’t send a text. I will not get an iPhone. I have a flip phone — because I have an addictive personality. I was addicted to cigarettes from age seventeen to fifty-three. And at the end, I was smoking three packs a day. The day I had the heart attack, February 24, 1987, I had cigarettes in my pocket at the hospital. I threw them into the Potomac River, driving home, a week later, never picked up a cigarette again, or ever wanted one. Because I was so scared. My father was a smoker, he died at forty-six, of a heart attack. I’ve outlived him to eighty-two.
I have a flip phone — because I have an addictive personality.
So I knew I’m an addictive personality. Now I see people with their iPhones. My wife, the worst. Up all night with the phone. Here’s the typical: she’ll fall asleep at 2 a.m. with the thing in her hand. At 2:30 a.m., wake up, start looking. The whole day. I don’t want to be controlled. I was controlled by cigarettes, so I know if I had it, I’d be controlled. I went to dinner with four guys once, I was the only guy at dinner. I would confiscate iPhones. In fact, I would ban them. Right now, you must have that phone?
Everyone who has it says ‘unfortunately.’
I’m recording our conversation, I’ll take a photo for social media, because that’s part of the game.
Tell you what bothers me: my kids never pick up a newspaper. Ever. First thing I read every day: LA Times, New York Times, USA Today, New York Post, New York Daily News, Wall Street Journal. I love the Washington Post, I love the Miami Herald. But The New York Times. What a paper that is. Every day the New York Times surprises me. The way they cover a story…The New Yorker does that, too. I’ll read an article about something I never thought about, suddenly I get absorbed in it.
If you sent me back two hundred years, what could I show them? Nothing. I could tell them, but I couldn’t show them how to make a car, a plane. Couldn’t explain a telephone. Technology produces bad and good. You just know — you don’t know when — someone’s gonna get into America with a mini-nuclear weapon. Someone’s going to invent it, and it’s going to blow up a city. Someone’s going to get into the drinking water of a whole population. Because some scientist is working on that. At the same time, another scientist is working on curing cancer. And they’re both working as feverishly. Einstein regretted the atom. He split the atom and died regretting it, because he killed a lot of people. If you never have an airplane, you’d never have a death in an airplane. With progress, comes regression. But, people text and drive and drive over cliffs. Or hit people while they’re texting.
Or don’t have present relationships.
My son, Chance, met, dated a girl and broke up with her and never was with her. They dated by text. If you could have sex by text, and someone will come up with that, there’ll be a way. Which would solve myriad of problems.