Lunch With Charlie Rose
The PBS interviewer prefers tap water.
The first sign I get that Charlie Rose has entered the room is when the suave maître d' of Michael's restaurant, a haunt of New York's powerbrokers, rushes across to my table and declares, with a thrilled tone: "He's here!"
I glance over, and see a tall figure by the door, wearing an understated, tweedy overcoat. Slowly, he makes his way towards me. It takes a very long time: as he passes each table, he reaches out, shakes hands, graciously receives compliments and exchanges pleasantries, as if on a royal progress.
Perhaps that is fitting; at 69, Rose is one of the nearest things that New York has to media royalty these days. Each night, he hosts an hourlong, serious interview-cum-talk show, that appears on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) affiliates and (in the past couple of years) on Bloomberg television, too. There he grills a sequence of (mostly) powerful or fascinating people, on a set that is famously austere: a trademark oak table, with a simple black backdrop.
Contrary to modern media convention, he never sends questions to his audience in advance. Nor—unlike most modern talk shows on American television—is there angry vitriol. Instead, the show is conducted on Rose's terms, as a genial debate; or, he prefers to say, a lengthy "conversational arc".
Yet in spite of this rather unfashionable approach—or perhaps because of it—the show is beloved by the American elite; particularly in Manhattan, and, as his walk to our table demonstrated, particularly in Michael's restaurant.
Eventually, after navigating the packed room, Rose arrives at my table and casually chucks his coat on a chair with a supremely confident, easy air. "It's fine there," he tells an overly solicitious waiter. Then he greets me with great bonhomie and southern charm; we have met each other a couple of times before, most recently when I appeared as a guest on his show two nights before, in a debate about America's fiscal woes.
"I was going to ask you to have dinner—it would be much more fun than lunch, quieter," he starts, oozing seductive charm. "But I wasn't sure if you had a husband, and children. Do you?" asks Rose, who was divorced in 1980; a subsequent long relationship with Amanda Burden, a socialite and city-planning advocate, ended five or so years ago (the couple still has, says Rose, a unique relationship: "I am close to her children", whom he regards as "family").
I laugh, and mumble about my family. "Well, we will have to stick with lunch," he says, pulling a face. "I don't want to ruin your reputation for parenting." Uneasily, it occurs to me that I am at a distinct disadvantage interviewing a man who is himself a brilliantly skilled interviewer; a master at charming his subjects into revealing interesting pieces of information.
A waiter hovers and I ask for sparkling water. Rose breezily specifies that "tap water is fine", and then glances vaguely at the menu. It is a couple of years since he suffered a heart scare but his face and physique could belong to a man of 50. Cheerfully, Rose explains to me that he makes it a priority to eat sensibly and exercise each day. At the grand old age of 69, he is certainly not the oldest television personality in America; it was only last year that the 77-year-old former CNN host Larry King announced his retirement. But he has younger, up-and-coming competitors, ranging from comedians (think Jay Leno), to comedians-cum-pundits (Bill Maher), to opinionated pundits (Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow). Maintaining a ruggedly handsome, seemingly ageless face, is a key part of Rose's appeal.
With a minimum of fuss we place our orders: Rose chooses a simple Cobb salad; I opt for blackened cod and a side of spinach. The food at Michael's is trendy and healthy; it does not feature many carbs. Then, almost without preamble, Rose starts discussing the issue dearest to his heart: his recent shows. He is particularly animated about a recent debate he staged on Afghanistan. "My job [on these shows] is just to ask questions, so with Afghanistan you have to ask: 'Why are we [Americans] there? People say that we are there because of al-Qaeda, but there is no al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, they are in Pakistan! So then you have to say: 'What are we going to do about Pakistan?'"
So what do you think America should do? I ask, conscious the issue is provoking heated debate. Over the years, Rose has built his career by extracting information from others; he himself never takes political sides on air. And, while it is widely assumed that he holds liberal views, he refuses to back any party—or policy—in public. "I don't talk about my politics," he explains. "I am registered as an independent."
Gillian Tett is the Financial Times' U.S. managing editor.