Lunch With Charlie Rose
The PBS interviewer prefers tap water.
True to form, Rose orchestrates another twist in the conversation and asks how long I have been in New York. I explain that I got my current job 10 months earlier and that it feels "a huge privilege to be here at such a pivotal point in American history and the media".
He nods enthusiastically. "I cannot imagine anything that I would rather do than have the opportunities I have now, to do interesting things—these opportunities coming out of the economic collapse, new administration, the recent [midterm] elections, the fact that the Chinese president has come for a state visit ... "
I ask Rose about his early career. With practised ease, he tells me his life tale. He grew up in a tiny country town in North Carolina, in a rural area heavily dependent on tobacco farming, where his parents ran a small shop. From a young age Rose—who has no siblings—helped mind the store and he still has a farm in the state. "My parents had a great work ethic," he recalls. However, he escaped his home town by attending Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, to study history and law, where he also met his wife, Mary. After graduation he briefly worked for Bankers Trust bank. But he quickly decided that he was not cut out for banking. So when Mary got a job for the BBC in New York he, too, drifted into journalism, originally as a television producer.
His big break came in 1984 when he was offered a chance to do an (initially) very low-profile interview programme on CBS. "[It] was from 2am to 6am—before anybody started doing anything at that time," Rose chuckles. "The [company] wasn't sure anyone would watch—they would flip it over, do it once from 2am to 4am, and then repeat."
But, against the odds, the graveyard slot started to attract viewers, both for the quality of its guests and for Rose's easy-but-serious southern style. His star began to rise. "It was great having the luxury of a whole two hours. We realised that we could really make a difference with engaged conversation with interesting people." By 1993, he had a show in his own name on Public Broadcasting Service. Since then his fame has steadily grown.
So, can you get anyone you want on your shows these days? I ask, as the food arrives. His plate is a bowl of well chopped salad; my plate is an elegant array of artfully cooked cod. "It's easier than it has ever been, but I still can't get President Obama to sit down with me," he admits, in a slightly confidential tone. "[US Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner, [U.S. defense secretary] Bob Gates, Secretary Clinton and everybody else has done it. But Obama won't. And there are other people I want on because I admire their talents, but haven't got. Like Jasper Johns, the artist. And I pushed hard to do Lucian Freud."
He pauses, as he flicks through a mental Rolodex of famous names. "Harold Pinter did some with me—we had some wonderful conversations before he died! But Jack Nicholson? He does not do television interviews. Oh, and I always tried to get Marlon Brando and could never really convince him ... And I would love to have a conversation with Nancy Reagan. And a series of conversations about his political life with Bill Clinton."
So what has been the best interview? He flashes another smooth smile. "I'm not prepared to say that."
But have there been disasters? Big fights? "A long time ago Edward Teller [a scientist who was the model for Dr Strangelove] walked off—but that was just Edward Teller."
This is not the sort of dramatic stuff that sells other television shows in America, where shouting matches are almost commonplace. But, as I listen to Rose talk about his approach, it occurs to me that this difference is also the secret of his success. In an age dominated by angry blogs—which have become doubly so since the Arizona shooting earlier this month—Rose stands out precisely because he is thoughtful and neutral. Moreover, at a time of frenzied bursts of short electronic news, Rose delights in offering an extended, all-too-human conversation.
So, I observe, you are the anti-Twitter!
He laughs, and explains that what he really wants to do in the next few years is to keep celebrating the concept of "conversation". He is, for example, thinking of writing a book about "friendship". He recently started keeping a diary that he hopes will act like an archaeological record of his spoken adventures. One of the reasons why he loves New York, he adds, is that a vast number of bright and ambitious people are crammed into such a small space that they—and their ideas—can constantly collide. And, of course, talk.
Gillian Tett is the Financial Times' U.S. managing editor.