Charlie Rose on Charlie Rose, Part I
VTR Date: May 4, 1993
Guest: Rose, Charlie
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Charlie Rose
Title: Charlie Rose on Charlie Rose, Part I
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I’m also quite envious of my guest today, not just because he’s so much younger and better looking, and not so much any longer because Charlie Rose has so much more and so much better time on the air than I do, but because he’s on the other side of the table on this OPEN MIND, and the next one too, which means he can simply sit back as a guest and just talk, talk, talk, which I’d like to do someday too. But so it goes, so it goes. I’ll just grin and bear it, squelch the envy, admire Charlie Rose for the real success of his nightly public broadcasting interview and conversation program, and begin today by asking him what personal philosophical or perhaps psychological imperatives inform and motivate the incredible energies and enthusiasm that go into the hard, hard work of preparing for and doing “Charlie Rose” each night.
ROSE: That’s an interesting question. First let me say that I admire anybody who uses as his essential set, a round table and a background that is essentially black. That is something, so you were here before I was so I…
HEFFNER: Thirty-seven years ago, Charlie, thirty-seven years ago.
ROSE: The great thing about a set like this is that you can go anywhere. If I take my program to San Francisco, or to Los Angeles, to Chicago, or to Raleigh, North Carolina, it’s very easy to call the public television station up and say, “I’d like to originate from your location.” They say, “What’ll you need?” I say, “I need a table and a couple of chairs, and that’s it.”
HEFFNER: And public broadcasting can provide that.
ROSE: And that’s something they can understand. I think what infuses my own curiosity about it is the notion somehow, developed early on, of wanting to ask questions about people’s experiences and what made them tick. I grew up in the South, small town, only child, had a lot of time to allow my own imagination to flourish, and then went to law school at Duke and had an opportunity over a process to meet a lot of interesting people. And I don’t think that what I do on the air is any different than what I’ve been doing for a long time. I mean, I remember working in my father’s country store. And at that time a lot of the people there, you know, the conversation was about politics, and sports, about books, about what’s happening around the community. And to be part of that, you develop I think either the capacity, you know, to be part of the conversation or you sort of were not relevant. And I found that my own sense of curiosity was whetted.
And now when I have an opportunity to sit down as I did last night with Toni Morrison, the great Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, for an hour, this is a luxury that I had never dreamed that I would have. And it’s infused by the notion of; who is she? You know, what talent, what influences, what relationships, what made her and what made her work, in one example. That’s what infuses me; some sense of trying to understand what it is that produced wonderful novels, and who is this individual and this personality who came out of Ohio, you know, and became a teacher and didn’t write until she was thirty, didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize until later and who in somehow has become a definer of the African American experience. I mean that’s a wonderful whole spectrum of questions. And my mandate, I think, for the audience is to sit there with the information that they would have if they had time, and question this person, and whoever it might be, about what it is, you know, who they are, how they got that way and where are they going, what’s their journey.
HEFFNER: Charlie, do you think there’s something middle-American about that or, in your instance, North Carolinian about that; something to do with the energies that are not dissipated by beginning in an urban area? Sounds like a peculiar question, but I wonder about that a lot when I see the kind of drive that you exhibit coming from people who haven’t been born and raised in a large urban area like New York.
ROSE: I don’t know. I mean, I know a lot of people from my region of the country, from a small town experience who have enormous drive, enormous energy. At the same time I know a lot of my friends who have come out of a large, urban environment who have the same kind of drive. And I have no kind of insightful wisdom about where it comes from, whether it’s genetic. My father, who died in 1990, was a workaholic, I mean, who was driven but also a man who loved life and enjoyed the community and sense of friendship that he drew from that community. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s always been there, a restlessness. I mean, I tell the story of sitting on the second floor of a little house that we lived in and watching the trains go by, you know, and with a great sense of wanderlust about where they were going and might I jump on one, even as a very young person. So, I don’t know what makes one of us have the drive and the sense of urgency, and another to see life in a different way.
HEFFNER: Of course when you say, want to get on the train and wonder where you’re going; where are you going? That’s a question I should really save for the end, Charlie, but where are you going?
ROSE: I really don’t know.
HEFFNER: What do you want to do when you grow up?
ROSE: I want to do exactly what I’m doing. I really do. I mean, I think this is the best job in television. It is at 11 o’clock, or 11:30 thereabouts, or 12 in some markets, across the country. My mandate is quality, to be as good as I can, to find the most interesting people, and sit across from me as I am sitting across from you, and find out who they are, what makes them tick, you know, what are their passions, what are their influences, all those things that you and I would explore if you were sitting at the table next to me. And to say, this seat here belongs to the viewer. Come, sit at this table and engage, eavesdrop on the most interesting conversation that we can possibly produce. I mean, I don’t know where it ends. I don’t have an agenda and I’ve never had an agenda for that. I mean anybody who watches my show knows that I care passionately about the country and about politics. And I am an old fashioned political junkie, who, one of the earliest books he read was V. O. Keys’ book about southern politics. And I would go to the courthouse in my hometown of Henderson, North Carolina, you know, and be a part of that milieu, and it was a fascinating place to be. And so that’s part of me. So I have an ongoing interest in politics, an ongoing interest in sports. But I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I hope to do it a lot better.
HEFFNER: So, when I ask you before, are you going to run for office?
ROSE: No. No, I’m not.
HEFFNER: Why so definitively?
ROSE: Well, because I think that there are a lot of very good people who are in the state legislature. If I ran it would be in North Carolina. I live in North Carolina on the weekend, and that’s the place I grew up. People have asked that question of me before, perhaps because I’m in the public eye. And the answer has always been, to me, is no. And the reason is that, while if I had three or four lives, it will be one of those things. It will be enormously attractive to me because I do care greatly about political discourse. I care about an activist government. I care about the relationship between government and people. All those things are of enormous interest to me. That’s why, if I could diverge for a second, my program now spends one day a week in Washington simply because I decided that in 1993 after the inauguration of this administration, we were facing an extraordinarily interesting time in the country. There was a generation change, a power change. There was an ideology change. And there was a sense of let’s see if we can make government work. And I thought, this is an interesting time, I want to take this program to Washington one day a week. So, politics would be an obvious thing for me to think about, but I can’t imagine it being any more interesting than what I do now.
HEFFNER: I thought a moment ago you started to say there are so many people who are better qualified and better prepared.
ROSE: I did say that, yes.
HEFFNER: And that made me think, my God, that’s Mario Cuomo. And I thought of the program, the hour long program you did with the governor not so long ago.
ROSE: When he wanted to know why I wasn’t president of NBC news is when I asked him why didn’t he want to be a Supreme Court Justice.
HEFFNER: What did you think of his answers? Not yours, but his.
ROSE: Well, here’s what I thought. I thought this was a man who was entertaining the idea, expected at least to be considered, and was trying to deflect in an easy way, you know, my inquiry about being a Supreme Court justice. My sense was that at that time – he told me, “I have not made a decision about running for governor because,” and he said to me because of this notion of the Supreme Court he’s aware there was being rumored. He is the most baffling politician I know. And secondly is Bill Bradley, in a sense, for different reasons. Governor Cuomo, because I’ve got to believe somewhere he deeply regrets he did not run for president in 1992. If he sat across from me as you sit across from me, he would say, “No I don’t. I wish I had… I’m sorry that door’s closed,” as he would probably say. Although Bob Dole once said the door was closed, and it may not be. I’d love to know what he thinks and how he really feels, and why he didn’t run. I mean, I take him at his word, as you have to. But I don’t know that all the story has been told. I don’t think it’s any of the obvious things. I don’t think it has anything to do with family and all those silly rumors. I think it really has to do with his own ego.
HEFFNER: Tell me. His own ego, wouldn’t that be best satisfied by the presidency?
ROSE: No. I don’t know, I, I… I’m certainly not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. But my sense of him is that he would look at it and say, you know, is… that’s what makes him complex, but I think it’s caught up in his own ego, how he sees himself, what risk he wants to take. I mean he ran for governor when a lot of people thought he could not beat Ed Koch, and he did in the primary, and went on to become governor. You know, he has a great sense of when it’s right to do something. He didn’t think he should run for mayor, but he ran. And he then ran for governor and thought he could win, and he did although everybody said he couldn’t. So you know you could say, well gee, he took risks. It’s not a question of being afraid of risks because he clearly wasn’t. He took that risk and he was elected and has been reelected. He’s the most complex man that I know who is in public office. I think, as some of his friends will say, there is that sort of poetic – dark, poet side of him. At the same time there is, you know, the command that I think he brings from the enormous talent. And people that I know who know politicians consider him as smart as any, or smarter than any politician they know. Tim Russert, my friend down at “NBC Meet the Press”; I said, “What’s different about Mario?” He said, “He’s smarter.” And I suspect that’s true. And somehow that, caught up in terms of the ego and what he wants to do; my bottom line is that he didn’t do it because he thought that it would get very, very complicated, and perhaps didn’t think and wasn’t convinced, he made some reading, that he could win. Or he couldn’t square it with who he was; that somehow people might say that he promised not to run or he didn’t settle the budget thing. I don’t know.
HEFFNER: Complicated, that’s an interesting word. It’s probably the best word to summarize the governor. But, you know, you’re talking about him. I started by asking you about the potential for political involvement on your own part.
HEFFNER: I thought you sounded very much like the governor there.
ROSE: Well, I’m flattered to think that because I do admire him enormously. I have some differences with him, clearly. I think we could go down the line about some of the political positions that he takes and where he and I might differ over where I was and where he was. I mean, I’m clearly not a politician. I’m not going to be a political person, but love the process, love both the running for public office and the game of that and the horserace of that, and also the public dialogue about issues. And also I’m fascinated by governing, making government work. I just did an interview with somebody recently talking about the politics of meaning. You know, the whole notion, and I feel strongly about this and I think the country’s missing this; somehow the notion of candidates that reach across and not only talk about programs, but connect with the sense of where America is and how to take it, you know, and how to take where America is and lead it by voice and by vision to a place that’s meaningful for all of us, that it affects people, not just in terms of jobs and their own lives, but in terms of how they find what their lives mean to them and how they relate to their community.
HEFFNER: Now you’re talking about leadership.
HEFFNER: A most important kind of leadership.
ROSE: And I think Cuomo has that.
HEFFNER: Charlie, you were a student of history when you were an undergraduate. And I wondered whether you have the sense, as you talk to as many journalists as you do, that there is a disparity between what they consider to be their obligations in relating the present to the public, a disparity between what they consider to be their obligations and what the historian considers to be his obligations as he tries to translate the past.
ROSE: Yeah. Well it’s clearly they have different stages, you know, as you know better than I do. It is, you know, journalists are said to write the first version of history. They are writing the first episode of history and then historians come along and write, and rewrite the finished version. So I think journalists are looking at it as a first effort to look at events and put them in some kind of political perspective.
HEFFNER: You think that’s an adequate way of looking at it given the power of journalism today?
ROSE: Well I think that journal… my complaint about journalism is… When I go make speeches around the country, people constantly talk to me about bias. There is this notion of the bias of journalism. That doesn’t concern me. I think that reporters are not reflecting bias. What concerns me is something that I have thought about. What I use is four C’s which is commerce and competitiveness – commerce, competitiveness, cynicism and I’ve forgotten what the other is, but it is the notion of being driven by factors other than, that reflect more on them than reflect on the work.
HEFFNER: Explain, please.
ROSE: I find when a lot of people write about me, for example, that it is less about the show and is more about the personality. It’s more about Charlie Rose as a personality. I’m interested in that. Maureen Dowd is one of the great reporters who, recently I read a piece about her. It talked about the notion that when we look at presidents, you know, and it is probably about their character that influences their presidency more than anything else; Nixon and Johnson specifically are two examples. And I think that’s what’s interesting about Mario Cuomo, more than a programmatic kind of attitude, a list of programs. And I think that’s what’s missing from Bill Clinton’s presidency so far, is a sense of people wanting to march because they don’t really know where he is. I mean, there was a lot of talk about a new Democrat and a traditional Democrat, and a whole litany of things that he wants to correct and programs that he has, whether it’s childhood immunization or changing healthcare or education reform or welfare reform, all of those other kinds of things. But I find that character’s important and personality is important. But I don’t think that – I find that pieces that are written about me, in many cases are in part, simply the reporter is writing something that will make him or her look smart, cute, witty, rather than, in a sense genuinely interested in who I am and what I’m about. I don’t know whether it comes from a cynicism. I don’t know whether it comes from the competition with peers, because they know that a biting kind of piece is more likely to attract attention than one that is otherwise. And I have been very, very lucky. People have written a lot of very nice things about me. But I find that in many instances pieces are reflective of a kind of edge that are motivated, it seems to me, by things that have to do with the reporter rather than have to do with me. And that concerns me.
HEFFNER: That’s a hell of an indictment.
ROSE: It is.
HEFFNER: Of the press.
ROSE: Well it’s not the press in general. It is people, I think, who write profiles. I find it discouraging that sometimes when I see these kinds of things. I mean, it seems to me that they’re driven in some cases, profile writers, some of them driven by a motivation that is not genuinely interested in understanding what makes someone tick. I mean I’ve had instances in which I have written, people have come to me and said – I’ll give you a perfect example. We’re way away from the first draft of history which is where we were.
HEFFNER: We’ll get back.
ROSE: Well, we’ll come back to it. I find that… In one instance, a reporter came to me and said, in writing a story about me, not about an interview, and not by comparing an interview that I did with George Shultz, say, with one that was on any other broadcast or any of those kinds of things, so looking in and, say, “Did you do your best?”, and questions, you know, “How did you go about it? What makes you…?” you know, not ever asking a question about what makes me tick, what motivates me to do what I do, as you just asked, but more like, “I have formed this opinion. Tell me, is it …?” Now, this opinion in this case happened to be, that because I did “CBS News Nightwatch” for six and a half years and then I left it to go to the west coast to do a show, which was a stupid decision by me – I probably, maybe would have made the same decision over again because at the time it looked like an interesting thing to do and some other things that were part of it didn’t turn out, and still haven’t turned out because the people that I were going to work for have not reached that point that they thought they might reach in 1990. I made the decision to go out there. I made a mistake. It was a broadcast that was badly reflecting, I thought, on who I was. It was not an extension of me. So I said, “Let me out of the contract. I’ll go back to my farm and I will find a broadcast that is more me,” which is the broadcast that I do now.
I was at six and a half years in Washington doing “Nightwatch.” I loved it. It was a wonderful show to do. It was second only to the experience I’m having now, as a rare opportunity in broadcasting to do what I wanted to do. The range of people who came in front of me were a whole, you know, from Saul Bellow to Lech Walesa to Bill Clinton and Al Gore and Reynolds Price and a whole series of people from politics and sports and literature and health and medicine and science and fashion and movies and theatre and a whole range of the world that interests me. It was a great, great job. I didn’t get a lot of attention. They didn’t write about me very much. So the reporter said to me, “You must have been frustrated.” I wasn’t frustrated; I was having a great job. And then they said but Ted Koppel at “Nightline” was getting all this attention. I said of course he was. He deserved every bit of it because “Nightline” was a groundbreaking broadcast. Ted executed it extraordinarily well, and there was no sense of comparing myself with Ted and the attention he got versus the attention I got. We were two very different people operating in two very different ways. He likes to have people in different rooms. The comparison was silly. I like to have people as you and I are, right across from each other. It makes the program better for me and I think the guest is more likely to be at his or her best.
HEFFNER: That isn’t the way it appeared I’m sure.
ROSE: Of course it didn’t. It appeared as, my denial was not part of, you know. Other people who worked with me were in the same problem. The same issue was raised with other people. 9 out of 10 of them said, “He wasn’t. He had a great job. He taped the show during the day. He met everybody.” It was a show that had a cult following. It was a wonderful broadcast. I was proud of it. CBS was proud of it. You know, they tried to keep it on the air for a year after I left with different hosts, then decided to go in a different direction. But what I’m saying, they found one person, this reporter did, one person who said, “Well he must have been frustrated because, you know, Koppel’s getting all this attention or Donaldson,” who does something different, “is getting all this attention.” My point is what about the fact that I said it wasn’t true, what about the fact that 9 other people said. That is not as interesting as making the cut that says, “He was frustrated. He wanted to be something he wasn’t in Washington.” I didn’t, you know. I understood the difference. And I’m just saying that that kind of journalism concerns me. And it also concerns me that the person – it’s a small thing with me because of a lot of other very nice things said about me. It only concerns me because, in my case, you can understand it. You know the facts so therefore you are in a position to judge. What concerns me is the opportunity to set the record straight.
HEFFNER: Charlie, we’re going to go back to the larger questions but this seems to get under your skin.
ROSE: Well, what gets under my skin is the sense of – I, in my broadcast care deeply about understanding who people are, that the motivation ought to be, my motivation, what drives me is the sense of who is this person, you know, how do you make them justify what they have done; so, to take my audience on a journey of exploration with them. Sometimes it’s tough. Sometimes it’s evocative. But that’s what ought to be done. You asked me the question about journalism. Those are the kind of questions I have. For me, journalism is not about bias, it is about energy. It is about caring to find out the story.
HEFFNER: You know, you’ve related it to these personal interviews.
HEFFNER: No concerns on a larger, again, more cosmic scale in terms of reportage? I mean, I know you’re right or at least we agree with each other about the nature of this kind of reporting.
ROSE: Well I find on the larger scale that journalism is extraordinary. I think we are in a time of the best journalism we’ve ever had.
HEFFNER: You’re joking.
ROSE: No I’m not. I really am not. I look at the New York Times today and I look at the Washington Post today and I think there are better stories, more complete stories. Those papers have never been better. I’m not joking.
HEFFNER: You think we’re being well enough informed by our press.
ROSE: In an extraordinary way, yes. I think that, clearly. I mean, I think the amount of analysis that goes into – I mean how many stories could you have read about the healthcare deliberations that are taking place now with the taskforce that Mrs. Clinton has put together? An extraordinary amount of stories looking at every angle of it; I find that those two papers which I read first in the morning, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and then the Wall Street Journal, there’s an extraordinary amount of reporting. Let’s take Bosnia for example, and maybe this dates this but there is an enormous – I have seen more opinion pieces. I have seen more analysis. I have seen more reportage about the stakes for the United States and weighing the levels of American participation whether as a U.N. effort, or whether the United States goes it alone, or whether the United States just puts ground troops on, or just airstrikes and ending the embargo. There’s an extraordinary amount of brilliant reporting. Every year when I look at the Pulitzer Prize winning list I say yes, these were brilliant journalists doing an extraordinary job.
HEFFNER: You know, my impression is that almost everyone I know who has participated in, or observed at first hand, public events, reports that when they read the reports of what has happened they find things that they know never happened or couldn’t have happened, didn’t happen.
HEFFNER: Now, that isn’t your experience? The reporting, aside from the personal reporting, is as far as you’re concerned, pretty darn good.
ROSE: Oh yeah, I do. Now, you see, I made two different – I made on the one hand, high praise for the quality of reporting. Look at the campaign of 1992. I thought there was first-rate reporting about the issues. Now, you could quarrel with me or with others and say, “But look at Gennifer Flowers and look at that whole episode,” and I would say, “That was a very small part of the campaign, and, in fact, the news chain got into a healthy debate.”
HEFFNER: You’re a pro.
HEFFNER: I’m going to say that’s all the time we have for this program. You’re going to stay there and we’re going to do another program, ok?
HEFFNER: Thanks, Charlie Rose. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.