When Larry King signs off tonight for the final time as host of his award-winning CNN TV show, what will his last words be? Only Larry knows, but chances are they’ll be simple, sincere and straightforward.
Just like him.
When Lawrence Zeiger tried to break into radio back in 1957, moving from Brooklyn to Miami to live with his Uncle Jack, he had to convince his boss to let him get on the air. He was hired to clean the station studio and office, but the 23-year-old had big dreams beyond his initial assignment.
The boss liked him, but thought his name sounded too ethnic. Minutes before he went on the air, the general manager was scrambling to come up with a new last name for the young talent. On the desk before him was an open copy of the Miami Herald and a full page advertisement for King’s Wholesale Liquors. That was it.
His first words on WAHR?
“Good morning, my name is Larry King,” he began. “I just got the name 15 minutes ago, and I’m nervous.”
The nerves quickly faded. After 53 years and 50,000 interviews under his belt, the Hall of Fame broadcaster has long been a man at ease behind his microphone. Think of someone, anyone, who has been famous or influential from the 1950s onward, and chances are Larry King interviewed him, her or them. He’s succeeded so long by being the master at making his guests comfortable and talkative, asking simple but probing questions. He’s never been interested in impressing people with his intellect and intelligence. Genuinely curious and inquisitive, King is content to let his guests do the talking.
I was privileged to appear on his show earlier this year to debate Terry O’Neil, the president of the National Organization for Women. We discussed the “controversy” surrounding Focus’ Tim Tebow Super Bowl commercial. After Terry continued to object to an ad she hadn’t even seen, Larry pointedly asked, “Do you fear that pro-choice people are going to watch this ad and suddenly be right-to-lifers?”
I think that’s a good example of the type of clarity Larry King brought to the interview table. He was willing to ask the question everybody was thinking.
Focus’ founder Dr. James Dobson was a frequent guest on his program over the years. In fact, it became something of a running joke that every time he appeared, Larry mistakenly called him “Reverend.” But regardless of the topic, they enjoyed a candid and friendly banter. Take for example this exchange from November 22, 2006:
LARRY KING: We have a separation of church and state.
DR. JAMES DOBSON: Who says?
LARRY KING: You don’t believe in separation of church and state?
DR. JAMES DOBSON: Not the way you mean it. The separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. No, it’s not. That is not in the Constitution. That was…
LARRY KING: It’s in the Bill of Rights.
DR. JAMES DOBSON: It’s not in the Bill of Rights. It’s not anywhere in a foundational document. The only place where the so-called “wall of separation” was mentioned was in a letter written by Jefferson to a friend. That’s the only place. It has been picked up and made to be something it was never intended to be.
What it has become is that the government is protected from the church, instead of the other way around, which is that the church was designed to be protected from the government.
LARRY KING: I’m going to check my history.
After the show, Gary Schneeberger, our vice president of communications, bought a beautiful leather-bound copy of the United States Constitution. Dr. Dobson sent it with a playful note to Larry. He loved it! That’s just the kind of good sport Larry King is.
Born to immigrant Jewish parents from Russia, Larry has regularly expressed a keen curiosity about Christianity. Visits with guests like Dr. Dobson and Dr. Billy Graham often included questions about heaven and eternity. Mr. King seemed genuinely fascinated how evangelicals saw the world. Somebody once asked him why. Reflecting on his New York roots, Larry answered: “The only thing we didn’t have (in New York City) was Protestants. We had Catholics and Blacks and Jews but no Protestants. I didn’t know what a Protestant was.”
Of course, there were some Protestants in New York City (!) during the 1930s and ‘40s, but a young Lawrence Zeiger ran in other circles. Nevertheless, Mr. King has spent his career making up for lost time, getting to know people of every race, creed and color.
I’m grateful to be one of them.
It’s my prayer that Larry King will continue to enjoy good health to match his coming years. I also hope that he never loses his inquisitiveness and curiosity and that he continues to ask himself important questions, including the most important question of all: Who is Jesus?