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.”

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.

His ambitions could run further still. These days Oprah Winfrey is shaking the media world by creating not just a show that bears her name but an entire network too. “It would be wonderful to become what Oprah has become: she is in such a class of her own, as an entrepreneur, as a performer and an icon,” Rose admits. “The idea of building a series of programmes and choosing people that I think have talent to do them would be a very interesting idea. I would love to show that television can have soul, depth and range.”

But how long does he think he can continue to do so? Indignantly, he explains that he maintains his form by running with his dog, Barclay, around Central Park each day. It is very convenient, he adds, since he lives on 59th Street and 5th Avenue.

The waiter appears and removes our plates; he has eaten half of his salad, while I have finished off my (fairly spartan) cod. I order a double espresso; Rose just a regular coffee. Dessert is not even discussed.

So if he could choose three dream guests for the perfect show, I ask, who would they be? He pauses for a long time. “I would love to have a long and serious conversation with the Pope. And Woody Allen, whom I have never interviewed.”

There is another long, pregnant pause. “Then, after those two? Steve Jobs,” he continues.

My mind boggles at the combination; where would that “conversation arc” go? He laughs loudly and freely, and I notice that the once-packed restaurant has almost emptied; somehow, almost two hours have glided by, seamlessly and unnoticed. And I am still not clear who exactly has orchestrated that.

I ask for the bill, and we walk out. For a second, as he strides down the street in his brown coat, he looks almost anonymous. But when I return to my desk, a colleague tells me that as we sat eating, Michael’s has proudly tweeted to the world: “In the house: Charlie Rose and Gillian Tett!” Those electronic sound bites have a way of intruding; even for a man who is trying to take the old-fashioned art of conversation to a new extreme.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.