Larry King has the stuff to make talk TV work

March 23, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Larry King is taking off his suspenders.

He unbuttons one side, the other, the back.

"Watch my pants fall down!" he says to the crowd.

His pants do not fall down. It is the only disappointment of the day.

"You know what Kissinger told me?" King asks, tapping my arm. "He told me: 'All these world leaders are CNN freaks.' Kissinger told me: 'Larry, they would return your call faster than they would return Warren Christopher's!' "

Warren Christopher is our secretary of state.

Larry King needs no introduction.

Which is why he donated his suspenders yesterday to Planet Hollywood.

No, I don't get it either.

But it has something to do with the fact that Planet Hollywood is a chain of restaurants that display memorabilia and now will display the suspenders Larry King wore on the night of the famous Nov. 9, 1993, NAFTA debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot.

That show was important because it confounded expectations: Gore was less like a two-by-four than people thought and Perot was more like a Martian.

The show ended up with the highest rating in CNN history outside of its Persian Gulf war coverage, and NAFTA passed Congress.

And while it is easy to make fun of talk TV and talk radio and even Larry King, who else could have gotten 11.2 million American households to tune in to a discussion of the North American Free Trade Agreement?

"The night of the NAFTA vote, you know what President Clinton said to me?" King says. "Clinton says: 'Larry, I owe you big time.' We're at Blair House; it's a party and Clinton says to me: 'Larry, I owe you big time.' "

So what does King ask in return? Only what he has already been promised: A live interview with Clinton every six months.

While critics say that news makers like King because he asks softball questions, news makers say they like King because he is neutral and fair.

But from the audience's point of view, there is another ingredient: King is an enthusiast. He likes what he is doing, and that comes through over the air.

And when you stand near him, he touches you as he talks. He touches your arm, takes your elbow, taps his hand against your shirtfront. And you can feel all this energy burbling around inside him.

Standing in Planet Hollywood, King turns to Harry Cohen, his boyhood friend and former adviser to two presidents, and asks: "We going to Opening Day?" By which King means the Orioles' first home game.

"As many games as we can get to," Cohen says.

"Jon Miller," King says, speaking of the Orioles' broadcaster. "Great!"

"They don't realize what they have in Jon Miller!" Cohen says.

"The best in the business!" King says, turns and rests his fingertips on my arm. "Right?"

After Vin Scully, I say.

"Vin Scully!" King says. "A legend!"

I mention that my wife has a 45 rpm record of Vin Scully's broadcast of the last inning of Sandy Koufax's perfect game against the Chicago Cubs in 1965 and instantly King starts imitating it: "It is 9:05 p.m. in the City of the Angels!"

When he stops, I ask him what's coming up on "Larry King Live."

"On April 1," King says, "Kermit the Frog will be the host and the guest will be Ted Koppel. Really."

I try to imagine what might happen should Kim Il Sung, North Korea's "Great Leader," tune in Larry King that night to monitor the mood of America and he sees a small green puppet sitting behind King's desk and saying: "Toledo, Ohio, hello!"

Anything else? I ask.

King drops his voice. His fingers touch my shirtfront.

TC "How about a Hillary-Dole debate on health care?" he says.

Hillary Clinton vs. Bob Dole?

"Wouldn't that be great if we can do it?" King says. "Wouldn't it?"

It would be great. If he can do it.

"Henry Kissinger is in Moscow," King says, "and he sees Gorbachev and he asks Gorbachev if he watches TV and you know what Gorbachev says? Gorbachev says: 'Yeah, I just saw Larry King interview Janet Reno.' "

Janet Reno is our attorney general.

Everybody knows who Larry King is.

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