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Next, on Larry King. . . THE WHOLE WORLD! : Why Is He So Darn Popular? Howard Rosenberg Had a Few Ideas and Thought He Should Call and Bounce Them Off Larry. . . Everybody Else Does.

November 12, 1995|Howard Rosenberg | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

"Larry gets better every year," declares famed media critic Ross Perot in a CNN publicity kit packed with Larry King endorsements. "I'd want to be on 'Larry King Live' the night I announce my candidacy," says hallucinating Henry A. Kissinger. "This is like dancing with Fred Astaire," says twinkletoes House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. "The road to the White House these days runs right through Larry's studio," says roadrunning Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas.

Although the 1996 election is a year away, you know the campaign is up and going by the number of presidential hopefuls who already have raced to "Larry King Live." About to turn 61 and still heady on high-octane memories of his epic 1992, the host is typically revved up and ready.

The issue is not what makes Larry run, though. It's what makes others run to him. Friendly fellow, you say. Fun to be with, makes you laugh, goofy wardrobe, yadda yadda yadda. No argument here. He is also no threat, though, avidly passive as host, at times wearing his guests' footprints on his chest beside his trademark loud ties and suspenders.

Thus, do they ever run to King's 11th floor CNN studio in Washington, a stunning, empowering VIP cattle call that gives his talk show a thundering resonance far out of proportion to its U.S. audience. Although peaking in 1993 when an estimated 11 million Americans watched Perot and Vice President Al Gore debate the North Atlantic Treaty agreement on "Larry King Live," the show typically attracts about 1.2 million homes an evening. Many of King's dittoheads are probably within the Beltway, where a favorite pastime of newsmakers is watching other newsmakers, and where anything quoteworthy on his show gets magnified and then bellowed to the rest of the nation via newscasts and newspapers. Because CNN is beamed to about 200 nations, King may have more followers internationally than even global syndication queen Lucille Ball. In the United States, though, his audience is a mere tumbleweed on the TV prairie; ABC's "Nightline" and Ted Koppel regularly gain more viewers and more respect from fellow journalists. Yet it's King whose half-hour show more consistently grabs the biggest headlines and headliners. You don't learn from an hour on the telephone with Larry King anything deeper than what he learns from his subjects in a typical hour of "Larry King Live." What you do learn, though, is that he remains as pleasant to interview as he is pleasant to those he interviews, even when knowing that his questioner has repeatedly berated him in print for being too much of a patsy on the air. For being too amiable when he should be tough. For sitting on laps and in hip pockets. For hanging out on his show with too many of his creme de la newsmaker guests the way late-nighters schmooze and rub shoulders at cocktail parties.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 17, 1995 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
It was incorrectly reported in "Larry King, People Magnet" that Ross Perot and Vice President Al Gore debated the North Atlantic Treaty agreement on "Larry King Live." They debated the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Earthy, Brooklyn-bred King surveys his panoramic, huge realm of good fortune and sees no problem, the view from Mount Rushmore looking just fabulous to him. "I know you criticize me sometimes, which I never understood," he is saying, genially.

The gracious guy does understand that he is "no jugular guy" and declines the invitation, thank you very much, to be one for his critics or anyone else. "Don't watch me if you want jugular," he says. No student of anatomy, in fact, King couldn't find his way to the jugular even with a compass, track dogs and body map. On occasion he gets as close as the pectoral, but he usually gets hopelessly lost somewhere in the vicinity of the elbow and turns back.

It wouldn't matter except that King matters. When he flies to Orlando, Fla., to moderate a Nov. 17 debate among candidates in the next day's straw poll for GOP presidential hopefuls, it will be another anointing of him as personal talk-show host to America's political gentry. His television career is so sunny these days that he's sizzling in his own success. And with 18 months of O.J. Simpson shoved out of the way just in time for the election, 1996 here he comes, top hat and tails, just like Fred.

Only recently, reports King, crazylegs Gingrich himself forecast on "Larry King Live" that if retired Gen. Colin L. Powell decides to take a sabbatical from Olympus and parachute into the race for President, "obviously, he's gonna announce it on your show." Obviously. To King, it figures. Makes sense. "It's live, it's nice, it's comfortable," he says, making six nights a week of "Larry King Live" sound more like a satin boudoir than a talk show where the power elite drop by to cuddle up with America.

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