Larry King Retires Nine Years Too Late

Howard Kurtz wrote in The Washington Post "Timing is everything: Larry King abdicates." He seems to think that this was the perfect moment for King to resign; I think King was nine years too late. In 2001, when doing the book tour for Me and Ted Against the World, I was asked on FoxNews what I would do if I were still running CNN. I said I'd replace Larry King with Bill Clinton, who was just about to become available.

The idea was warmly greeted, at least by The San Francisco Chronicle, where TV critic Tim Goodman wrote, "With CNN desperately trying to reinvent itself, one of the men who created the network -- Reese Schonfeld -- came up with a new idea: Replace Larry King with Bill Clinton. This is not a good idea. It's a brilliant idea. And don't think it's a pipe dream." It wasn't a pipedream. I had already talked to Bob Barnett, the Washington lawyer who represented Clinton, and asked if Clinton would consider an offer. Barnett said it sounded interesting to him, and he'd bring it up with Bill.

Goodman suggested that Clinton had nothing to lose:

So why not be an ex-president with a nightly talk show on television... CNN is a great fit for Clinton because all his right-wing enemies have long labeled CNN 'The Clinton News Network.' Are you beginning to see the synergy here... Even his detractors admit he's incredibly smart...He could upgrade the inane navel-gazing and self-aggrandizement that passes for political thought on television.

When it comes to navel-gazing and self-aggrandizement, few could outdo the retiring Larry King. Goodman's comment, seems to me, to have been remarkably prescient.

Goodman goes on to laud Clinton for maintaining: of the highest approval ratings of any sitting president... the people loved him. Bill Clinton was the Oprah of presidents. To have his own talk show would only extend the love because, despite some pretty convincing evidence to the contrary, people believe that he is genuine and honest. He connects with them.

Additionally, from a TV point of view, there were few world leaders who wouldn't want to have a one hour conversation with Bill Clinton broadcast live worldwide over CNN and CNN International. I think Clinton's booker would've had an easier time getting the most important newsmaker of the day on the ex-president's program than any of her/his competitors -- especially with the ratings he was likely to get.

After that article, I called Walter Isaacson, the then-president of CNN, told his assistant of my conversation with Barnett and the opportunity for CNN to make a move. I didn't hear back. I made a couple of other calls and never got a reply.

So, nine years later, King's ratings have declined by two-thirds, their 8pm slot now belongs to a disgraced former governor and a lesser known conservative-lite columnist, Anderson Cooper limps along at 10pm, and CNN is still trying to reinvent itself.

Kurtz, who is currently The Washington Post equivalent of what Tim Goodman was at The Chronicle nine years ago, and hosts a show on CNN, appeared on CBS Morning News Wednesday, praising King to the skies. He credited King, who joined CNN in 1985, with being the first to get a sitting president on the air in primetime. Those of us who were around CNN in 1980 remember that Jimmy Carter did an hour for us with George Watson and Steven Ratner on the night we launched. Kurtz wrote that King "essentially moved the call-in format to television." His predecessor's show had been live call-in for five years. King's chief skill was knowing how to be quiet.

A professional broadcaster once compared Larry King to Charlie Rose: "You can go on Larry King and interview yourself, or go on Charlie Rose and listen to him interview himself." Larry knew that when a guest was interviewing himself, he might be very frank, and it was Ross Perot's frankness on the King show in 1992 that really made news and changed Larry King Live from chat show to a must-see for news hounds. Then O'Reilly came along, and he became the must-see and King became the afterthought. Toss in Rachel Maddow and third place in the ratings, and Larry King abandoned ship just a little too late.
Tim Goodman imagined a program where Bill Clinton could "berate and abuse the Republicans... rebuild his reputation nightly, and reinvent himself in primetime." He might've reinvented CNN, too, and that would've been a very good thing.