King offers lightweight election analysis

December 02, 1993|By Chris Stoehr | Chris Stoehr,Contributing Writer

Larry King's account of the 1992 presidential campaign has the flavor of his television talk show -- it's upbeat, occasionally funny, and hardly ever tells you anything you didn't already know.

It's one of a widely growing category of books that retell what you just saw on TV, with a few personal anecdotes thrown in. Amy Fisher observers and H. Norman Schwarzkopf and grandmotherly sex experts write them. You can probably buy them on the shopping channel.

Mr. King's thesis is that TV and radio call-in shows changed the way American politicians campaigned in 1992 -- and Larry King was at the center of it. Candidates from H. Ross Perot to George Bush came by "Larry King Live" at CNN to chat with Larry and his several million viewers before the November election. They did not stop by "Meet the Press" or "This Week With David Brinkley" or Time or Newsweek with anything like that frequency.

As Mr. King quotes Bill Clinton speaking to a roomful of reporters after the election, "Do you know why I can stiff you on press conferences? Because Larry King liberated me from you by giving me to the American people directly."

Mr. King admits most callers ask softball questions. But he insists voters get a better sense of the candidate in an hour schmoozing on TV with him rather than in a nine-second sound bite on the evening news.

He's right. But what he forgets or ignores is that most candidates have at least as much TV experience as he does (Mr. King is really a creature of radio) and without a doubt have more advisers on wardrobe, hair, makeup and mannerisms than he knows about. It says much about Mr. King and his book that he spends a good portion of one chapter on why he wears suspenders and shirtsleeves. (Answer: He just likes them.)

Mr. King sincerely believes that the camera never blinks -- that the bad guys will reveal themselves somehow on camera over the course of an hour minus commercials. Or at least the weird guys will. That doesn't do much to explain how Mr. Perot -- who himself once said he was temperamentally unfit for the job of president -- could have launched and practically run his entire campaign on Mr. King's show.

"Larry King Live" showed Mr. Perot at his best -- folksy, insightful and self-deprecating, a combination Mark Twain, Harry Truman and Will Rogers. Viewers and voters loved him a lot less off the King show when he was asked by reporters why he was dropping out of the race. His answers were vague, suggesting a dark conspiracy, with some talk about his daughter's wedding.

Mr. King does flesh out that story a little. There were apparently pictures circulating of two lesbians, and one of the females had his daughter's face superimposed on it. Mr. Perot was afraid it would ruin his daughter's wedding if the pictures got out. This would seem to call for a talk with the groom, not a change in the national political picture. But that wasn't how Mr. Perot saw it.

Thinking Larry King will tell you what talk shows mean in shaping American politics is like thinking Ed Sullivan had some ideas about the future of the American theater. But as Mr. King would say, it ain't gonna happen.

He's the guy who helped politicians replace news with schmooze in 1992 -- or, as Mr. Clinton said, "stiff" reporters. And he's proud to have been a part of it.

In his defense, Mr. King says he is not a journalist but an interviewer. His job, he says, is to make the TV experience easier for his guests. He's there to put them at ease.

What separates him from a journalist, he says, is that he doesn't bone up for interviews and he doesn't ask follow-up questions. (Being informed apparently would not put his guests at ease, something to be avoided at all costs.)

Mr. King goes for "moments," he says. Tipper Gore called in the show and asked her husband for a date -- a moment Mr. King liked so much that he tells it twice here. Another favorite moment was when Dan Quayle said he would support his daughter if she decided to have an abortion. (It was not, probably, a great moment for Mr. Quayle's daughter, however.)

This is a book that's about as reflective as a TV commercial, which in fact it practically is -- a commercial for Mr. King's radio and TV talk shows. He makes it seem that 1992 was surprising, funny and touching, sort of a Kodak moment. For people not so enamored of TV politics, 1992 was so much more and so much less.

Ms. Stoehr is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "On the Line: The New Road to the White House"

Author: Larry King with Mark Stencel

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Length, price: 188 pages, $21.95

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