Q: Tell me about the competition.
A: It's very tough. I think it's tougher in Washington than New York because if we have one or two key players in a story, and we have three morning shows, one of those shows won't get a player.
I'm trying to get someone who is newsworthy and therefore the best guest of the day. I never know if I've succeeded or failed until 7 o'clock the next morning when I flip to the other two channels and see who they have. So I've spent some sleepless nights worrying.
Q: You mean you actually lose sleep worrying about who will turn up on a rival show the next morning?
A: Oh, of course. During the Hinkley trial, we were all out trying to get jurors, Jody Foster, a Hinkley, anybody directly related to the trial. I had sent out telegrams to all the jurors asking them not to read my subsequent telegram until the trial was over. The second telegram they received the next day asked them to appear on the "Morning News" as soon as the trial was over. Then, the night the verdict came out, I got in a car with a crew and drove all over Southeast Washington knocking on doors, talking to neighbors, slipping my business card and handwritten notes under the doors of jurors until about 2 in the morning. I had also called some of the witnesses and finally did get a psychiatrist -- who had testified -- to come in from Baltimore. But just in case the foreman of the jury wanted to come on, I sent a car up to his house and had it sit and wait to bring him in.
Q: Did it work?
A: No, but with the psychiatrist we were the only ones who had someone on, the morning after the verdict, who had been directly involved in the trial. I think the "Today Show" had on a juror a couple days after the verdict.
In the case of Mrs. Sadat, when we first learned she was coming into the country, I sent a formal letter to the embassy requesting an interview. No response after a week, so I made a follow-up call and was told someone else in the embassy was handling that. Which often happens -- you get different factions claiming they're handling the itinerary of a visiting dignitary.
But you have to cover your bases. We had our Cairo bureau make an interview request. And the minute she arrived in the country, I got in touch with her personal assistant. He told me she would not do any interviews until she went to New York, which was a week later. I told him I'd read in both TV Guide and USA Today that she was going to be on "The Today Show" the next morning. He promised me it wouldn't happen. New York kept telling me, "But they're promoting it!" I kept saying, "This guy is swearing to me she's not going to be on."
I did deliver a letter to the Embassy Row Hotel confirming my telephone conversation with him, but then I thought I should have gone to the hotel, met the man face-to-face, and shamed him into telling me the truth. I distinctly remember closing my eyes that night and wondering if a stretch limousine with flowers and champagne was sitting over there waiting for her from one of the other networks. But as it turned out, she didn't do "Today," and we did an interview with her in New York that was taped in the afternoon and aired the next morning. But that was one of my sleepless nights.
Q: Any others?
A: During the Iranian hostage crisis, I slept on the floor of the "Tomorrow Show" offices many times because we were up late at night calling family members when they were released. And also after the crash of the Iranian rescue mission, as soon as those guys were put in the hospital in San Antonio -- this sounds really gruesome, making a call like this is very difficult, you have to be really gentle -- but I called and talked with a couple of the guys and said as soon as they felt better, we'd love to talk with them. We wound up getting the chief pilot of the mission exclusively for the "Tomorrow Show."
Q: How do you feel about calling people moments after a tragedy that also happens to be a news event?
A: It's terrible. I've never had any great trauma in my family, but I have a tremendous amount of sympathy and feel bad calling at a time like that. But it's what I have to do. Most of them understand, and in many cases when it involves a death in the family from something that is shocking and sudden like a tornado, they do want to talk about it.
Recently I wanted to do an interview with a guy who had been released from prison after serving about 20 years. The story was that he'd escaped years ago, lived in a community under a pseudonym but was sent back to jail when he was caught. The citizens of the town lobbied to get him out because as far as they were concerned, he was completely rehabilitated.
I wanted to do an interview with him and a couple of townspeople. I called one woman looking for him -- it was a very small community. She said her mother-in-law might know where he was, that he was out of town visiting his mother who was very ill. The mother-in-law said, "Well, the woman who does my ironing will know." Finally I learned he's in Wisconsin visiting his mother and had special dispensation from his parole officer tootravel out of state for one day because his mother was dying. If I had pressed a little further, I could have gotten the number. But he only had one day there, he was going back the next night, and I just didn't want to go that far.
Q: Following the crash of the Air Florida jet here last winter, a talk-show booker received a lot of publicity for allegedly telling one of the rescuers she would be fired if he didn't appear on her network that night. Exhausted, but sympathetic, he did. Have you ever resorted to begging?
A: I think we've all resorted to begging at one time or another, no question about that. When I was at the "Tomorrow Show," I was trying to book a debate between Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and (evangelist) Jerry Falwell. I had promised my boss that I would make the thing work, and it was supposed to be taped on Friday at 5 p.m. Thursday at midnight I was on a pay phone in the back of a restaurant begging Falwell's aide.
Q: Had he given you a committment?
A: A tentative one.
Q: And so you begged?
A: I didn't tell him I'd lose my job, but I did say it was very important to me, and that I'd already told my boss it was going to happen based on his initial confirmation. People will say to me, "He'll do it, I'm sure he'll do it, it's just a question of asking him."
Q: What happened?
A: Falwell showed up, but I never want to go through that again.
Q: How often have guests cancelled at the last minute?
A: Very rarely. It's a funny thing about this job: you're always thinking about tomorrow and once it's past, it's past. It's very future- oriented. So I really can't remember. It's disturbing when it happens, and there's a mad scramble. But in Washington, I'm booking people who are very comfortable with the media and know how important a committment to a network news show is, and so will do everything in their power to live up to it.
Q: How do you cultivate people or gain access to possible guests?
A: I worked in politics in Texas, moved to Washington when Jimmy Carter got elected, worked on the transition team and decided I didn't want to be in politics anymore. But the move to Washington and my subsequent three years here producing "The Larry King Show" for radio, having to convince people to come on at midnight live in Cyrstal City, pay their own cab fare and find their way into that building -- I guess I developed a sales ability. Now, booking someone on the "Morning News" is a piece of cake compared to my first day of "The Larry King Show."
I brought a big, fat Rolodex to this job and continue to keep lines open. I go out quite a bit socially, have two or three business lunches a week, keep up contacts with embassy people so I can keep a line on who is coming into the country because we like to interview foreign leaders. Often I get leads from within the bureau itself -- it's very much a team effort.
Sometimes I feel lke a short-order cook serving up a news-and-information breakfast for Middle America, because although it's a very exciting job, it's a never-ending thing. There are always more sausages to grind, and with a daily show it's particularly difficult because your accomplishments of one day mean nothing by the next morning. You're a hero one day, a failure the next. Success is very ephemeral.
Q: What was the worst moment of your career?
A: I was sent to El Salvador as one of the producers in charge of setting up interviews during the last election there. I speak fluent Spanish, so was able to get to the right people quickly and, in fact, taped an interview with the challanger, Roberto d'Aubuisson, two days before the election and had scheduled a taped interview with President Duarte for sometime after the election. There was no committment from Duarte, but I'd had many conversations with the ambassador in Washington who was close to him and assured me he would do it.
As soon as the polls closed, I got in a van with a courier and drove from the hotel to the president's home and learned from a guard he was at the presidential palace. So we drove there and sat outside the gates. It was about 8 p.m., not a real safe time to be on the streets, but I'd told the guards the president had promised us an interview and we'd sit there until we got a response. They took the message in and sent word out Duarte was ready right now. We were sitting there with no crew or correspondent, so we radioed them to bring Diane (Sawyer) and the crew, taped a wonderful half-hour with him and when it was all over realized we had no audio. It was an equipment malfunction.
Q: You realized that while he was still there?
A: Right. This was election night, he'd obviously lost, he was very upset. We told him we'd had some technical problems and asked him if he'd sit for four or five more questions. He said no. Diane was devastated -- it takes so much emotionally out of you to do an interview like that, a leader of a country who's just been defeated, especially someone like Duarte who, no matter what you want to say about the man's character, obviously loved his country and was deeply affected by his loss.
So we immediately got back in the van and went over to D'Aubuisson's headquarters where he was announcing his victory. I'd lined up an interview with him live for the next morning, and he wanted to see me after everyone had left. I talked to him for about five minutes, then walked out of the building, across the street toward the van. There were no streetlights, no moon. I was about to get in the van when a car pulled up with four shadowy figures. They called out in English with a Spanish accent and said, "We have a message to the press" and pointed a machine gun out a window at us.
I fell to the ground and they just stared at us with that machine gun pointed at us. I remember turning my head around and looking -- they just wouldn't shoot. They wouldn't move and they wouldn't shoot. Finally they just drove away, and all I got out of it was a scraped elbow.
Q: I'm glad youucan be with us today.
A: Thank you.
Q: As a class, are politicians usually good guests?
A: For these morning shows, yes, because we have them on for specific reasons, and they know how to give quick, precise answers. But they're usually difficult on long interviews.
A: Because they're always on guard, always aware that they may be facing an election soon. I think ex-politicians are very interesting for interviews. They're more reflective, they feel like they can take the muzzle off. The exception to that among current politicians is Barry Goldwater. You really get the impression he'll say exactly what's on his mind.
Q: Do you have any ambition to be on the other side of the camera?
A: No, I feel much more in control, more confident as a producer. Being on camera requires you to be an actor in some ways, especially on a live show. People don't realize it, but when Diane and Bill (Kurtis) are up there, they have a little earplug on, and they're being shouted instructions while they're doing an interview. I could never do that. That isn't to say I can't do more than one thing at a time -- I just don't want to do it on camera.