by piers morgan
photography by robert ascroft | October 10, 2011 | People
Suit and dress shirt, Morgan’s own. Tie, Joseph Abboud ($98). Bloomingdale’s, 5300 Western Ave., Chevy Chase, 240-744-3700
|Suit, Dolce & Gabbana ($1,750). Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Shop, Mazza Gallerie, 202-363-2059. Dress shirt, Morgan’s own. Polka-dot tie, Louis Vuitton ($205). The Collection at Chevy Chase, 301-656-1827|
If I had any remaining illusions about the enormity of following Larry King at CNN, they were unceremoniously shattered as I watched his farewell show. A fulsome tribute from President Clinton. A salutation from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. A trio of cheers from the main TV news anchors—Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams, and Katie Couric. And then this personal message from President Obama: “Larry, for 25 years, you’ve hosted a conversation between newsmakers and celebrities and the American people, from presidents and generals to Kermit the Frog and Joe from Tacoma. They say you only ask questions, but for generations of Americans, the answers to those questions have surprised us, they’ve informed us, and they’ve opened our eyes to the world beyond our living rooms.” In other words, proof that Larry’s place at the very heart of American news, politics, and current affairs was unparalleled.
But as the greatest of all James Bonds, Sean Connery, put it: “There is nothing like a challenge to bring out the best in man.” (Many Americans still think I am another 007, anyway: Pierce Brosnan.) So, neither shaken nor stirred, I assumed the 9 PM reins at CNN in January. It has been an extraordinary experience—not least because my arrival seemed to herald the most relentless run of big news stories in living memory: uprisings throughout the Middle East, a terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and a devastating new financial crisis (not to mention the self-implosion of Charlie Sheen!).
What has been most fascinating, however, has been the opportunity to immerse myself in American politics. As the editor of two national newspapers in Britain for 11 years [the now-defunct News of the World and the Daily Mirror], I enjoyed a unique ringside seat at the court of Tony Blair. We shared 56 private one-on-one meetings in that time, often at the prime minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street. I had just as many sit-downs with his successor, Gordon Brown. So I am not exactly wet behind the ears when it comes to politics. But Washington is an altogether more frenzied, brutal, fascinating, and world-influencing cauldron than Westminster can ever dream of being.
Political Interviews with Heart (and Heat)
Sitting with some of the District’s key players, past and present, has enabled me to make some interesting discoveries. I was warned, for instance, that Condoleezza Rice, the first person I interviewed on the set of Piers Morgan Tonight, could be rather serious and dull. Nothing could be further from the truth. In one wonderfully enlightening exchange, she explained why she had never married (“As a nice Southern girl, I always expected to get married, and I’ve come close. But you don’t get married in the abstract; you find someone you want to be married to”) and then revealed that if we were on a hypothetical date, she would cook me fried chicken and gumbo at her home and let me watch football all night. I was instantly, to my bemusement, criticized for being too “personal” with the former secretary of state. Yet I found her answers made her sound considerably more human and likeable than anything she had said in previous interviews.
These attributes are massive vote-winners in an age where television is the king medium of communication. But you need an interview format that permits this to happen. For example, Donald Rumsfeld has never struck most people as the cuddly, romantic kind of politician. But who could fail to warm to a man who said his proudest achievement was his 56-year marriage—particularly when afterward, his delightful wife, Joyce, told me, in all sincerity, “I can’t think of a single thing about Donald that annoys me”? Love of a good family is an important weapon for an American politician. When I spent the day with New Jersey’s governor—and oft-rumored future presidential candidate—Chris Christie, it was the heartfelt support and candor of his wife and children that impressed people most. Similarly, when Mitt Romney brought his wife, Ann, out for the latter part of our interview, and she spoke movingly of how good he had been as a father to their five boys, through good times and bad, and as a husband through her battles with cancer and multiple sclerosis, I could almost hear new votes being clicked off through the television screen.
A touching moment with Donald Rumsfeld
|A genial moment with Condoleezza Rice...|
|... and a controversial one with Christine O'Donnell|
Elections are won or lost through policy first, of course. But without a personality to match, you have no chance. That is why you are seeing more and more senior politicians in America wanting to come on my show. They can see it gives them a rare chance, over an extended hour-long interview, to show the public what they are really like away from the sound-bite-riddled terrain of traditional news programs.
I remember watching Scott Brown—who suffered a pretty awful childhood in which his parents divorced and he was abused by a camp counselor, fell into petty theft and, at one point, had to live with his grandparents—tearing up as he told me how his father finally apologized to him after 51 years. Nobody could watch that interview and not feel a genuine empathy toward a man who had overcome such emotional and physical trauma. (It does no harm to Senator Brown that he is visually eye-catching, too.)
“Politics,” Jay Leno once observed, “is just show business for ugly people.” But that, of course, was before high-definition television. Since the advent of that horrendous invention—well, horrendous for those like me who shun Botox and surgery—there has been a steady uplift in politicians who look good. Think about it: Current favorites to battle it out in 2012 with the undeniably handsome Barack Obama are Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney. Not an ugly among them. Which is why, when I asked Governor Christie what he would most like to change about himself, he replied, with remarkable honesty, “My weight.” One of my most memorable interviews was with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, the first since the Arab Spring. “Bibi” likely will never win a beauty pageant, but I was very moved by his passion, his sense of history and his humor. He was a hugely impressive man, regardless of whether you share his views.
The Interviewer Often Wins
Having said that, America is facing big problems right now, with a crippling debt and an increasingly obvious and uncomfortable disconnect between Washington and Main Street. What voters are looking for in their leaders is frank, open rhetoric with firm, practical ideas on how to revive this great country. They are also looking for people they can relate to, like and admire.
One word of advice for all political guests of mine—do not look affronted, or behave irrationally, when asked perfectly reasonable questions, even if you do not like them. Christine O’Donnell recently gave an impeccable lesson in how not to conduct an interview. She came on specifically to promote her new book, then feigned indignant outrage when I grilled her about issues she discusses, at length, in the very same book.
To compound her self-inflicted misery, Ms. O’Donnell then walked off set when I had the audacity to demand her opinion on same-sex marriage, currently one of the most-debated issues in American politics. And then, just when I thought she could not get any more absurd, she accused me of being “sexist” and “creepy” and of interviewing her in a way that was “borderline sexual harassment”—charges that were palpably ridiculous to anyone who actually watched the show.
She thus guaranteed that even her own Tea Party fans turned against her, and ensured we not only re-aired the interview (to clear up any “misunderstandings”) but also attracted huge buzz and ratings for the show—for which, Christine, I remain very grateful.
The key lesson from all this for politicians is to never lose your rag with an interviewer. You will always lose.