Larry King, who reigned over the 1992 presidential talk show campaign, now wants to negotiate peace in the Middle East by bringing leaders to the table on his program.
The nation's king of gab, in Baltimore last night to receive the annual Louis D. Brandeis Award from the local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, spoke emotionally of rediscovering his Jewish roots when he visited Israel in May.
"I don't know why all these years I hadn't gone," Mr. King, 58, told a packed ballroom at the awards banquet at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "I never had a better time in my life. I renewed my Judaism."
Dressed in a tuxedo that covered his now-famous suspenders, he mingled easily with the more than 2,000 people attending the glittering affair.
Mr. King, accompanied by novelist and Vanity Fair writer Sugar Rautbord, was the center of attention as men in black tie and women in silk dresses craned their necks to catch a glimpse of him.
At the cocktail hour, he talked excitedly about his dream of taking his popular show overseas next year and broadcasting live from Cairo and Jerusalem.
"If we made a presidential candidate, maybe next year we might bring peace to the Middle East," he said.
While he emphasized that he's an "interviewer, not a leader," Mr. King said his show could be a catalyst for ending hostilities in the Middle East, much as it helped shape the political landscape this year.
Also honored by the Zionist organization was Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Maryland. He received a humanitarian award for his work with the city's Jewish community.
"For the first time in 2,000 years, Jews are the rescuers, not the rescued," the 48-year-old rabbi said in a passionate speech on Israel.
He talked about Israel's growing role as a sanctuary for persecuted Jews across the world. "A generation ago," he said, "Jews were at the mercy of others."
Like Larry King, Rabbi Wohlberg said, he grew up in Brooklyn and has a glib tongue. Pulling back his jacket to reveal a pair of suspenders, he joked that the only difference between them was now gone.
The Brandeis award, named for the late Supreme Court justice and Zionist, is given to those "who have, through their work and dedication, enhanced the lives of the Jewish people and contributed to the perpetuation and well being of the Jewish State."
Mr. King was selected after he talked about his weeklong visit to Israel on the air and wrote a moving column for USA Today, said organizers of the banquet, in its 49th year.
The new age of broadcast politics was ushered in by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who launched his unconventional bid for the White House on Mr. King's CNN TV show in February.
In the following months, President-elect Bill Clinton and President Bush joined Mr. Perot on the talk-show circuit, bypassing traditional journalists to chat with Mr. King, Phil Donahue, Jay Leno and David Frost.
Mr. Clinton played his saxophone on the late-night "Arsenio Hall" show and rapped with young voters on MTV. Mr. Perot produced hourlong commercials, but Larry King dominated what pundits dubbed the "Talk Show Campaign."
Cher called him to talk to Ross Perot. Bill Clinton's mother telephoned the show. Even Mr. Bush, who at first scorned the talk show phenomenon, eventually appeared four times on "Larry King Live" and apologized there for calling Mr. Clinton a "bozo."
"Clinton was able to overcome Gennifer Flowers and the whole draft issue because he was good on television," Mr. King said last night. He bristled at criticism that he asks "soft" questions, saying politicians and celebrities enjoy his show because of the longer format and live call-in questions.