The venerated talk show host has spent the better part of four decades asking questions of heads of state, titans of industry and A-list movie stars. Now, Hemispheres has a few questions for him.
Author Chris Wright Illustration Stephanie Dalton Cowan
One way to tell when you have Charlie Rose on the phone is when you find yourself repeating the phrase, “Hello? Are you still there?” As an interviewer, Rose is renowned for his use of the pregnant pause, so much so that his elasticated, elliptical cadences have become an Internet meme (see “‘Charlie Rose’ by Samuel Beckett”).
In an age when talk shows tend to be steeped in bombast, partisanship and ironic detachment, Rose is steadfast in his devotion to outdated principles like integrity, impartiality and groundwork. And yet, while the smart money would seem to be on bells-and-whistles guys like Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart, Rose remains America’s most successful talk show host, or at least its busiest.
Along with his iconic, long-running nightly show on PBS, the 73-year-old finds time to co-anchor “CBS This Morning,” contribute to “60 Minutes” and lead an ongoing series of televised discussions about the human brain. The range of his knowledge is dizzying; he’s equally comfortable sitting down with political leaders, scientists and movie stars. Not surprisingly, he made it onto Time’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2014.
Recently, there was even talk of Rose and his “This Morning” team heading up “The Late Late Show” this month to help fill the gap between Craig Ferguson’s departure and James Corden’s arrival in March. It may not happen, but the fact that the possibility was raised at all, given Rose’s decidedly un-peppy conversational style, speaks volumes about his standing in the media world.
That said, another way to tell you’re on the phone with Rose is when you find yourself having to talk over his frequent laughing fits. “Late Night With Charlie” might not be such a stretch after all.
Hemispheres: I was trying to decide the best way to go about this, and I thought maybe you could answer every question with a question. What do you think?
Charlie Rose: What do you think?
Hemispheres: Heh. There was talk recently about you filling in on “The Late Late Show” this month. I can’t really see you hopping onto the stage to deliver a wry monologue.
Rose: Hmm. No.
Hemispheres: Even so, you’re one of America’s most successful talk show hosts. Can you tell me how you got here? Were you a chatty child?
Rose: Well, I was born in Henderson, North Carolina, which is a small town of about 18,000 people. My father went away when he was in the army and my mother moved to the next county to live with her parents. They ran what was called a general store. When my father came back he took that over.
Hemispheres: Did you sell sarsaparilla?
Rose: [Laughs] We sold Coca-Cola, and people would come in to see their friends. The store was the center of the community, a place where you’d come to touch base, a clearinghouse for local news. In order to be a part of that, I’d ask lots of questions. Curiosity was instinctive for me, and those instincts were honed at a very young age.
Hemispheres: You’ve been doing talk shows for four decades now, and you seem to have maintained your interest, which is remarkable.
Rose: Why? There’s so much to be interested in. I have an opportunity to be a part of the most interesting ideas in the world, whether in sports, entertainment, philosophy, business, politics or war.
Hemispheres: Any idea how many interviews you’ve done in total?
Rose: Ooh, about 20,000, I would think.
Hemispheres: Good grief. Early in your career, you interviewed Charles Manson. You got an Emmy for that. I don’t know if you’ve watched it in a while, but it seems to me that the first question is the important one. That sets the tone.
Rose: What did I say?
Hemispheres: He walks in surrounded by guards, and you say, “The weather here is so much nicer than the weather in Washington, D.C. We left four feet of snow! I got out here, and they said this is record warm temperature.” Manson responds with something like, “I dunno. I’ve been in the hole for a long time.”
Rose: [Laughs raucously] Oh!
Hemispheres: That must have been a hard one, because he’s kind of bonkers. It’s difficult to conduct an interview when there’s no logical progression.
Rose: I remember he stood up and circled around. Then he sat down, and I had to try to keep him on track.
Hemispheres: One thing that struck me was he had this bushy graying beard but no lines on his face. He had a doll face.
Rose: The thing for me is how small he was.
Hemispheres: More recently, “CBS This Morning” won a Peabody for an interview you did with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Maybe you should stick to interviewing awful people and really make a name for yourself.
Rose: [Laughs] Those were very different circumstances and very different times in my life, but the essence was the same: trying to figure out who the hell is sitting across from you. What’s their story? How do they justify their actions—or not justify them?
Hemispheres: You have a reputation for being charming and accommodating, but I think the Assad interview in particular showed that you can come out swinging.
Rose: I don’t think of it that way. You’ve got to be tough but fair. I always tell people, “I’m going to give you a chance to say your piece. I will listen.” The last thing that ought to be admired in an interviewer is that it’s all about me—I’m going to assume a posture so you’ll see I’m a tough person. The test is in the result. Did you walk away with something of value?
Hemispheres: In a sense, in an interview like that you’re acting as a kind of public back channel. Assad’s speaking to President Obama through you. That must be politically valuable, I imagine.
Rose: I would think so. For the Peabody, they said it was about getting inside the mind of a dictator.
Hemispheres: At the other end of the likability scale, there was that lovely interview you did last summer with Robin Williams. You must hold that dear.
Rose: Yes. I loved him.
Hemispheres: That diversity points to an interesting thing about your career: You never specialized. You do everything. Surely it would have been easier to stick to, say, being a political correspondent.
Rose: But my curiosity has never been about one subject. I’m interested in books, film, science, architecture, art. These are all human endeavors. I use them as a means to figure out what makes a person tick.
Hemispheres: How do you prepare for an interview?
Rose: I do a lot of research, but the conversations are spontaneous. They say about battles in war, all plans hang on the first contact. Everything depends on how a person reacts to you.
Hemispheres: Do you ever get nervous before you talk to someone?
Rose: I do a bit. Not nervous, but anxious. It’s like being an athlete: You’ve just cleated up, and you’re focused.
Hemispheres: You have a wonderful way of asking simple, open-ended questions, which allows the subject to lead a conversation.
Rose: It’s mostly about listening. It’s surprising to me how many people in this business don’t listen. They’ll ask something that the person has already spoken to, because they’re thinking about their list of questions. I’m never that; I’m always in the moment.
Hemispheres: You also know the value of silence. You’re not trying to fill every bit of empty air.
Rose: Yes. You have to let a conversation breathe, let it have space.
Hemispheres: I don’t want to say your style is old-fashioned, but it does go against the grain, in a world where talk show hosts are often either shrieking or smothering everything in irony.
Rose: I think that’s worked to my advantage. I think I help people explain themselves by the nature of the engagement, asking the right questions, making it feel like there’s no one there but the two of you, being silent for a moment, and then saying, “But is that all?”
Hemispheres: Sometimes it’s best to ask the kinds of questions a child might.
Rose: Yes! That’s exactly right, Chris! I did an interview with former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell last year. He was talking about something very long-winded and complicated, so I said, “Yes, but what does that mean?”
Hemispheres: That said, the other day my five-year-old daughter asked me whether we control our brains or if our brains control us, which I found unanswerable. I told her it’s a bit of both.
Rose: I think that’s a brilliant question. It’s simple, fundamental, brilliant. One thing you can tell her is that the brain changes with every experience we have. The brain you have at the start of the day is different from the brain you have at the end, because of everything that’s happened to you.
Hemispheres: One of the things you hope as you conclude an interview is that you’ve gotten closer to a subject’s character, that you understand that person a bit better, but I don’t need to worry about that because someone posted a Charlie Rose astrology chart online. Shall I tell you what you’re like?
Hemispheres: Okay, here are your positive traits: “Practical, Prudent, Ambitious, Disciplined, Patient, Careful, Humorous and Reserved.”
Rose: That sounds about right.
Hemispheres: On the negative side: “Pessimistic, Fatalistic, Miserly, Grudging, Over Conventional and Rigid.”
Rose: No, none of those is anything like me. [Laughs loudly]
Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright is disappointed Charlie Rose didn’t ask him onto his show.