TV's King is Talkmeister of the Universe

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Larry King, Brooklyn boy, son of Russian Jewish immigrants and Talkmeister of the Universe, loves to tell the story, writes Rupert Cornwell. It's May 1992, and during a pause in the US election campaign he's snatched a holiday in Israel, where he visits the Western Wall. The man next to him, in the full dress of a Hasidic Jew, pauses in his devotions. 'Larry,' he asks, 'is Perot for real or what?'

On Tuesday night, the world's most celebrated TV host pulled it off again. Watched by a global audience, the faithful of Jerusalem doubtless among them, Vice- President Al Gore and Ross Perot did battle over Nafta - not in some great public debating hall, but alone in front of the beady yet forgiving eye of the man in red braces, in the Washington studios of Larry King Live.

King himself would probably be the first to admit it was not his greatest effort. A deft one-on-one interviewer he may be, but when it came to moderating a political brawl on so abstruse an issue as free trade, he was way out of his depth. 'Guys . . . ,' he beseeched at one point, as the protagonists seemed close to blows.

But that is the essence of his charm. Aggressive interviewing and a domineering presence are not why the 59-year-old star of CNN is a national institution. He is proof that softballing works. Polite, even deferential, he puts the questions Everyman would ask. The mighty of the world do not fear him, but they give the answers.

King works for his success. That Israel holiday was his first in years. The show is on six nights a week. He has a radio slot and a column in USA-Today newspaper. A regular working day runs from 9am to 2am. The reward is an annual income of dollars 2m ( pounds 1.36m), the price five failed marriages, a 1987 heart attack and a quintuple bypass operation. Before that, an addiction to gambling briefly bankrupted him.

Of late, it is whispered, his ratings have been falling. Typically, his response last week was to go through the card. On successive nights his guests were Michael Jordan, the released Mogadishu hostage Michael Durant, Lee Iacocca of Chrysler fame, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Keaton and (through an interpreter), Mikhail Gorbachev. And now the Gore-Perot double-header.

Thus Larry roars on, in his trademark braces and huge spectacles perched on a wizened, eager-eyed face. The New York accent is as gravelly and the enthusiasm as vibrant as ever. He has been at it on CNN for eight years and who knows where it will end: with the Presidential Inauguration live in the Larry King studio, perhaps?