Backstage and on the page with the King of television talk
For political junkies and devotees of behind-the-scenes drama, a new book by CNN's Larry King is a dream come true. Viewers of Larry King Live know that all kinds of drama - and melodrama - take place backstage and out of sight during commercial breaks. If only we could get a peek!
With Anything Goes! What I've Learned from Pundits, Politicians, and Presidents, King pulls back the curtains on those hidden "anything goes" moments.
There is often a wide gap between what the public sees and what takes place beyond earshot, especially when it comes to politics. "That's part of the game," King said in an interview, pointing to a recent incident in which George W. Bush used an obscenity in referring to a New York Times reporter. "It's a classic example of what goes on behind the scenes. They look out and they are smiling and waving, and at the same time they are calling someone a [derogatory name]." With that, King laughs: "Of course that is not exclusive to the Republicans or to Bush."
King's book details behind-the-scenes encounters with a wide range of politicians and celebrities, including Marlon Brando, Ross Perot, Bob Dole and others, but some of the most riveting moments involve President Clinton. On one occasion, they were 20 minutes into a live interview, when King asked if the president could stay an additional 30 minutes. Clinton said that would be fine, but during the next commercial break, his aides approached him and told him not to do the extra 30 minutes.
"I'm not doing well?" Clinton asked, looking annoyed. "Do you think I'm handling myself poorly?" With the program again going live, the aides stepped out of camera range without answering the president.
"He was very annoyed and stayed annoyed," says King. "When we ended that show, he looked at me and said goodnight, then he said, 'I'm going to find out what the hell this is all about.'"
As it turned out, the president's aides had learned about Vince Foster's suicide during the program and could not tell Clinton until they were off the air. "He and I were the only two people in the building who didn't know what was going on," recalls King. "I had already noticed one strange thing that night. We took about five or six calls. All were from overseas because [the producers] were hesitant to take a call from somewhere like Memphis or Washington in case someone had a police line and had heard about the pickup of the body and was going to break it to Clinton on the air. That would have been horrifying."
Larry King may be a central player in the television news revolution, but he thinks books offer something television cannot. "You control that book, whereas with television you may have the clicker, but it's still moving on. With a book, you can digest it, read back over something. A book is a precious thing to me. I need that thing in my hand. I'm always reading a book."
If Muhammad Ali has the most recognizable face in the world, then surely Larry King has the most recognizable voice. But with recognition comes pressure to live up to expectations, so you've got to wonder if King ever considers that a burden.
"I never look at it as a burden," he says. "I look at it as part of the process. I love what I do. I go in and I meet interesting people and ask them questions, and hopefully the show will have an impact. I'm living out a dream - and they pay me for it!"
James L. Dickerson's most recent book is I'm So Sorry: The Stories Behind 101 Very Public Apologies.