SPIEGEL: Mr. King, your last operation was deemed important enough by the international media that it made the news all over the world. How are you doing?
King: I'm much better now. The swelling is gone. The condition is called corroded artery. The doctor said I came close to having a stroke, and I went under the knife the same week.
SPIEGEL: Three days later, you were sitting in front of the camera again interviewing African-American presidential candidate Barack Obama.
King: Obama? He is charismatic. He comes into the room well. I like him as a person. The whole week was very stressful. Apart from the daily show, I had to give two speeches and I also went to see my wife in Las Vegas, where she's appearing right now as a singer.
SPIEGEL: You've been on the air almost daily for 50 years. Do you ever take a break from the camera and the microphone?
King: It would be hard. I never take a long vacation, but I am taking a few days off to go to Hawaii in April. It'll be one of those rare times that I'll have a week off. Of course, even when I go on vacation I still read ten newspapers each morning.
SPIEGEL: How did you first become interested in broadcasting?
King: You want to know something very funny? I wanted to be a broadcaster when I was five years old. I didn't want to do anything else. There was no television back then, and I used to look at the radio back in 1938 and 1939 and pretend I was a broadcaster. There used to be a lot of famous radio shows and then I'd go to the bathroom and imitate them, pretending to be an announcer. Some radio shows had live audiences in New York and I'd go and watch them.
SPIEGEL: Did you see it as a way with which you could escape your humble background?
King: My father died young and at times we had to survive on welfare. I got started as a salesman in a department store. Then I worked as a delivery man for the United Parcel Service.
SPIEGEL: How did you end up in front of the microphone?
King: Someone introduced me to a man in New York from CBS and I asked him for advice on a good place to break into radio. He said: Try Miami, where there are lots of radio stations and no unions. In a city dominated by young people and seniors, there are two kinds of people in Miami: People on the way up and people on the way out. I was knocking on doors for a job and this small station gave me a microphone test. The manager said, "I like your voice and you have some potential. There's no opening now, but if you hang around here you will get the job as soon as there is one." There wasn't anything to do, so I just swept the floors and tried to learn as much as I could. Two weeks later somebody left and I got the job. I had an opportunity and used it.
SPIEGEL: Were you nervous the first time you went on the air?
King: I didn't think I was nervous, but then when I tried to speak, nothing came out. Finally, my boss said: "Say something." And I did something then that I still do now. I told the audience what was happening. I said: "This is my first day on the air. And my boss gave me my new name ten minutes ago."
SPIEGEL: Your real name is Lawrence Harvey Zeiger.
King: My father was from Austria. My boss said that's not a good name, people will not remember it or know how to spell it. You need a new one. He had a copy of the Miami Herald and there was an ad in it for "King's Wholesale Liquors." He said, how about Larry King?
SPIEGEL: Well, it's better than Larry Liquor.
King: Larry Liquor Live (laughs). Although "Larry Liquor Live" sounds better.
SPIEGEL: How has broadcasting changed since then?
King: First of all, everybody smoked in the studio back then. On the air and off the air, everybody I worked with smoked. In fact, someone who didn't smoke was rare. We all smoked on television. Mike Wallace smoked on television. Johnny Carson. Ed Murrow lit one cigarette a day. And from this one all others, he died of lung cancer. We all smoked, even me. What's changed the most is technology -- cable and satellite. Satellite changed the world, I never dreamed as a kid that I would be on in Germany and around the world -- broadcast out of a small studio in Los Angeles. That would have been insane. The Vietnam war was shot on real film. You had to drive to the airport and develop it and that would take a while. You saw it that night or the next day. Today we show wars in real time. The things kids grow up with today is unbelievable.
SPIEGEL: Do you see that in your two youngest sons?
King: They get much more information. It's both good and bad -- that's the thing about progress. I've thought about this, if there had never been airplanes, a lot of lives would have been saved. Progress is yours to curse. On the other hand, look at the surgery that went into my artery -- they have a machine that can tell them how clogged my arteries are. Everything has a good and a bad side. There's a lot that's good about today's broadcasting, there's a lot that's bad.
SPIEGEL: The big Hollywood stars have been on your show -- legends like Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando.
King: We had Brando twice -- that was really something. We had a good time, we did an hour and half. I was at his house. He was a wonderful host. He had champagne and hors d'oeuvres for all the crew. He put on his own make-up. I really liked him. At the end of the show he just kissed me on the mouth. The next thing I knew, we were off to dinner and when we got there, there were thousands of paparazzi. I didn't call anybody to tell that he was coming. Part of his genius was also that he would look around the room and tell you things about people. "That waiter," he said, "doesn't like his job." He could tell by his gait. "And see that couple in the corner? Unhappy." How do you know? See the way he crosses his legs? And his eyes look over her shoulder, not looking at her. That's what actors do -- they observe -- and that's what I do, too. Marlon was a real actor, a genius.
"An Absurd Competition Has Broken Out"
SPIEGEL: How do you prepare for the guests on your show?
King: Not much. By the way (he says turning to his assistant), what's on the show tonight, Bridget?
Assistant: Anna Nicole Smith, her autopsy report is coming out today.
King: Oh, no, not again. I hate this show, but it's the news of the day, so we have to do it. It takes no brains to do Anna Nicole Smith tonight. There is no inventiveness to it, no challenge.
SPIEGEL: Why dont you just refuse to do these tabloid stories?
King: Of course I could say no. But then they (the network) would say you've got to keep up with the ratings. And I do understand what they are facing. You win some, you lose some. But if they were to go too far, then I wouldn't do it. A colleague once told me that, "If I put a couple having intercourse on TV at 9 p.m., I could win tonight."
SPIEGEL: The character of news has changed, hasn't it?
King: That's the downside.
SPIEGEL: Even a star like you is powerless to stop it?
King: Sometimes it's easier for management to take the easy way. If you want to do a show on the Middle East you will not get good numbers. Even though you can certainly say that the Middle East is certainly more important than Anna Nicole Smith. Who would deny that?
SPIEGEL: How do you deal with the competition?
King: An absurd competition has broken out between the talk shows. They have Anna Nicole's brother? Then we need her doctor. Or sister. But it isn't important. I mean, it has no effect on your life. Would we have done that years ago? In my radio days and in early television maybe one show would have been done about Anna Nicole. But Anna Nicole Smith wouldn't have been a figure 40 years ago because she didn't do anything. So its a story because its a story. Corporations today are run by accountants. In those days they were run by broadcasters, and they understood better what a broadcaster did. Now it comes from accounting and accounting is all about the bottom line.
SPIEGEL: What's more important for politicians today -- a good speech before Congress or an interview with you?
King: If you are running, it's more important to be on television because in Congress you only appear on C-SPAN (the US cable channel that airs sessions of Congress).
SPIEGEL: Every president since Nixon has been on your show and many of the presidential candidates. Who is tougher -- Bill or Hillary Clinton?
King: Good question. There is a side of Hillary you probably don't know. She has a great sense of humor. She's funny. Bill is the most charismatic politician of my lifetime. There's nobody in his league. Critics have gone into the room wanting to hate him and you can't hate him.
SPIEGEL: Who is more clever -- Bush senior or junior?
King: Clever isn't the word I'd use for either one of them. They are different. Bush senior is a wonderful, bright, sensitive and very emotional man. George W. is dogged, sincere, a true believer and he has a credible baseball team. His father would be more movable -- you could change his position on an issue. Barbara Bush is the toughest of them all.
SPIEGEL: There is a debate in Germany about whether talk shows should be the dominant poltical arena. How do you feel?
King: Television is such an important media. It really depends on what your goal is. Take the example of the North American free trade agreement, NAFTA. Al Gore absolutely wanted it, but it didn't look like he was going to succeed. But he debated the issue on my show in 1993 with Ross Perot. It was the first time that an American vice president had pushed an issue that hard on a talk show. It clearly had an impact on Congress and it passed. Clinton called me up the next day and said: "I owe you."
SPIEGEL: Politics is increasingly being presented as show business. Politicians want to show their private side.
King: Politicians are, in fact, opener today and more willing to speak about their private matters. Take, for example, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who has spoken about his wife's cancer. But it's not necessarily bad -- it's just different from the way it used to be. Most Americans didn't know that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. They hid that. They thought that if people would know that it would harm them. It used to be that if you were a politician with ambitions for higher office, you couldn't be divorced. But those days have passed.
SPIEGEL: Does your high profile and influence and the idea that people are watching you around the world, from Auckland to Zurich, ever worry you?
King: I don't think of that. I can't be sitting there with my friends and say I'm a world figure. It is what it is.
SPIEGEL: Over the past five decades you have conducted around 40,000 interviews. Who is missing from the list?
King: I would have sure loved to get the last Pope. We are working on getting Castro before he dies. He's the longest reigning leader of the 20th century. I like to get the better guests and you're happy to get the good guest first, but I don't get mad when other people get guests I haven't had before. And I don't have professional jealousy -- at this age, I'm content with whatever comes along.
SPIEGEL: But first you're going to celebrate your anniversary.
King: From April 16-20, we're going to air "King-Sized Week." I'll have Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton as guests on the show.
SPIEGEL: After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the media stood firmly behind the Bush administration's war on terror and any criticism was seen as unpatriotic. Even CNN constantly displayed the American flag. Was that the correct thing to do?
King: That was true for a while after the bombings. Certainly it was nationalistic. But that has wilted away. Iraq has wilted it away and now terrorism is not in everyone's mind as much. Iraq will be an issue in the next election. If you are pro-Iraq war and say, let's bomb them, then you are going to lose. Right now people are more opposed to Iraq than were opposed to Vietnam.
SPIEGEL: Presidential candidates like Obama and Clinton are making huge use of the Internet for their campaigns. Do you, and people in television, see the Internet as a threat?
King: I know it's there, it obviously has an impact. But everyone has a television and we still reach more people.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever used the Internet?
King: I started to use it because they made fun of me for not using it. I don't send e-mails, though. I like faxes. I like mail, snail mail. In that sense I'm glad I'm not a technology victim. I look at people with their computers and with ... What do they call them?
King: The Blackberry owns them. How many people have been hit by cars reading their Blackberries? I don't have a Blackberry.
SPIEGEL: Do you have real power with your show?
King: Well, we certainly can't alter the course of elections. But Henry Kissinger once told me I could work as a diplomat: I could do that because I was known abroad and people would come. We once tried to do that on the show with the 1995 Middle East hour. We had three heads of state: Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan. But we don't do enough of that.
SPIEGEL: You are sometimes accused of being too soft in your diplomacy. Critics allege that Larry King gets all the guests because he doesnt ask hardball questions.
King: I don't think that confrontation will get you any further with a guest. A lot of people in the media do that now. I'd rather come up with good questions and get the answers. I'm not going to yell at them. You are not going to change how he feels. You ask questions like why would you do this? You don't have to do it with arguments. My opinions are irrelevant. There's a movement right now for these young guys to be opinionated, scream, you know, all sorts of things. For me, they are fake personalities. But I'm "me," the same person sitting here now will be on the air at six o'clock tonight. That is something that goes way back to my radio days in Miami, which is to always be yourself. A friend of mine once told me: The only secret of success is that there is no secret. Be yourself. If they like you they like you, if they dont, you can't make them like you. It's like with women ...
SPIEGEL: ... who, at the very least, are a major issue in your private life. We had trouble counting -- are you on your fifth, sixth or seventh marriage?
King: It's five because I married one girl twice. So it's six marriages to five people. I grew up in an era where you couldn't really live together with anyone -- you had to get married. And sometimes you get married when you are not supposed to get married. I've been in love three times, and one of the three I never married. I've got a friend my age who has never been in love. Never had that feeling. But maybe it's better to be "in like."
SPIEGEL: Which question do you most regret asking in all your years of interviewing people?
King: When I had just started radio, I had only been on the air for two weeks. I was interviewing this Catholic priest and I asked him how many children he had.
SPIEGEL: Mr. King, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Frank Hornig and Marcel Rosenbach in Los Angeles.