For such a great week with Joe Biden becoming our president, it sure ended on a doubly sad note. First came the death of Hank Aaron, one of my favorite baseball players and arguably one of the greatest ever. The racism he overcame to overcome Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs was mind-boggling. Aaron did it with such dignity, less of a firebrand, more of a listener.
That’s what Larry King was. An intent listener. And when he died, we lost perhaps one of America’s last great listeners in an era of bloviators. King, hunched over, with large bifocals and a dyed auburn widow’s peak, gazing down at a table with just a few notes before him. He appeared strapped in his chair by resplendent suspenders, with his only ammunition being his long ears.
King used those ears, as host of Larry King Live on CNN for 25 years, to listen to over 5,000 guests. He listened to, among others, presidents, celebrities, newsmakers, those who had their 15 minutes, others who craved their 15 minutes, journalists, and athletes. King interviewed Aaron almost 20 years ago. Two listeners talking. The irony.
I vividly recall his interviews with Ross Perot, and those interviews mattered for two reasons. First, I could do an impression of both of them, so seeing them conversing provided fodder for me to entertain people with my take on their conversations. Second, I actually rode in a car with Ross Perot shortly after he lost the presidential election in 1992. It’s a long story how I ended up in Perot’s car, but one thing I noticed about him was that he had big ears too.
King got the most out of his large ears, since being a raptured listener is what set King apart from all the rest. He let his guests speak uninterrupted. Some called his questions “softball,” as if King was sitting there letting guests answer his questions from a script of prepared remarks. But that was not what happened. People felt comfortable in his presence to speak their truths. And King listened, not so much to try to figure out what the next question was going to be, but because he wanted to know more. His curiosity and those high-powered ears were his vehicles to open-mindedness.
They were his way of informing himself about subjects that were unfamiliar to him, and one of those was his feeling toward the LGBTQ+ community. He gave a hint of his tolerance when he kissed Marlon Brando on the lips during a 1994 interview. Sure, it was for show, but it illustrated that King wasn’t afraid to be provocative or go down a challenging path.
I remember his wonderful interview with Lady Gaga over 10 years ago. They seemed an odd pairing — a man in his late 70s man coming to the close of his career, and this young, bisexual, wildly progressive, outrageous pop star on the rise. But King and Lady Gaga were both convincing when they shared the importance of their mutual support of the LGBTQ+ community. Looking back on that interview now, I still get the sense that King was trying to learn all he could, from Lady Gaga, about what it really meant to be an ally of our community. I think King always felt like he had a lot to learn.
King no doubt evolved over his long career. I’m sure that when he was a kid in Brooklyn in the 1940 and 1950s, being gay was something antithetical to him and his contemporaries. But my guess is that King began to listen to other voices as he started and progressed in the broadcasting industry and took his program into unchartered territory that would enlighten not only him but his listeners and viewers.
In 2000, King did a groundbreaking show with Howard Dean, then Vermont’s governor, about whether or not same-sex couples should have the right to marry. It was easy to see what side King was on. He was probably one of the first television hosts to provide a forum about the legalization of gay marriage, giving proponents a place to state their case. King was married eight times, so it might have looked a little hypocritical for him to be opposed, but regardless, when we needed a voice — a rich, deep, crisp voice — and one that talked to so many powerful people, it was reassuring to know that King listened for us and provided airtime for our side.
And to be sure, King might have been a bit awkward about his lingo and his familiarity with LGBTQ+ issues, but he was nevertheless emboldened by his guests. Years ago, when he brought the ridiculousness of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the forefront on his show, he introduced an out soldier this way: “Lieutenant Dan Choi is a gay.” But he could be forgiven, because he gave Choi an unbroken chance to provide his point of view, and King listened, as well as millions of others of his middle-America audience who might have been equally unfamiliar and obdurate.
That same audience had the opportunity to meet a Christian lesbian singer, Jennifer Knapp, who came out on King’s show. The topic was whether you could be gay and Christian, and as always, King listened to Knapp, and so did his audience, which likely included many Christian conservatives. King was not confrontational; he was more sympathetic, and that sensitivity no doubt resonated with his audience, who might have thought that gayness and Christianity could not be intertwined.
King featured dozens of LGBTQ+ people and allies on his show throughout the years. Comedian Wanda Sykes confided in King about the moment she realized she was gay. King gave Latin heartthrob Ricky Martin the opening to explain why he came out and why he wanted to get married in America, and years ago he let future Vice President Kamala Harris talk about the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which temporarily rescinded marriage equality in the state. King of course thought it was unreasonable.
Even after he left CNN, and as he aged into his 80s, King continued to let LGBTQ+ people speak while he listened. He interviewed gay YouTube star and activist Tyler Oakley about LGBTQ equality and the Trump administration’s revocation of President Obama’s guidance for schools on treatment of transgender students. King’s questions didn’t seem to change over the years, and at first glance they seem almost simplistic, such as“Why are people so bothered by someone’s sexuality?” But that wasn’t the point. It was giving someone young, new, and fresh the opportunity to talk about it from their perspective and from this generation. King eavesdropped intently, with his hand on his chin.
George Takei was one of several LGBTQ+ activists and allies to comment on King’s death. Takei, who also appeared on King’s show many times and talked with King about his coming-out process late in life, offered a thank-you to King for his “countless interviews.” “You understood human triumph and frailty equally well, and that is no easy feat,” Takei tweeted. “There was no one else like you, and you shall be missed. Rest with the heavens now.”
He’s right. There was no one else like Larry King, and no one like him now. In an era of billions of tweets, posts, shares, comments, 24/7 cable news, talking heads, overload of opinions, testy and loud television interviews, bombastic and headline-grabbing hosts, and an audience incapable of listening to all of that overwhelming noise, there’s no one like King around to filter it out. He was alone at this desk, with his ubiquitous microphone, and he listened quietly so the rest of us could easily listen too.
John Casey is The Advocate’s editor at large.