The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Larry King has a special way of tweeting: The broadcast legend who just can’t retire

Larry King adjusts his tie before taking the stage at the Newseum for “A Life in Broadcasting: A Conversation With Larry King” on March 18. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Each weekday morning, legendary broadcaster Larry King, 81, wakes up and takes his 14-year-old son to school. Then he drives to a Beverly Hills salon to have his hair washed and combed before heading to a bagel shop, where he and a regular crew of old Brooklyn friends sit around and solve the world’s most pressing problems.

“Last week we solved Iraq,” he says proudly.

Later he’ll read five or six newspapers and have lunch with an associate. There might be a nap, perhaps dinner at a nice restaurant. And interspersed throughout the day, there will be stints of “work,” though he doesn’t call it that, because it’s never felt like that.

He’ll tape an edition of one of his two online talk shows or call in for a guest spot on a sports radio program. He’ll record his monthly L.A. Dodgers radio show or draft a speech for an upcoming event. And he’ll definitely tweet — just not the way anyone else in the world does it.

“I Twitter everyday,” he says in his hotel room at a Ritz-Carlton in Washington, where he was staying in advance of a Wednesday night appearance at the Newseum.

When Larry King wants to tweet, he doesn’t log onto the Internet. He pops open the flip phone stored in the shirt pocket between his suspender straps and calls the number for a voicemail set up specifically for this purpose. Then he dictates a thought that will be picked up by an assistant and transcribed onto his @KingsThings Twitter account. And nearly 2.6 million followers are there to receive it.

King tried to retire, but it didn’t work out. He left CNN after 25 years in December 2010 and kicked around for a few months, presumably driving his seventh wife, Shawn, the mother of their two teenage sons, a little bonkers. (They had filed for divorce earlier that year but have since reconciled.)

It was May 1, 2011, when King knew he had to get back in the game. He was watching television with friends and the news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed. “I literally jumped up and wanted some place to go. And I had no place to go to talk about that story,” he recalls. “And that really hit me. I was sad. I missed communicating. I missed doing what I do.”

So when billionaire financier Carlos Slim suggested that they team up to work together on a new venture, King immediately agreed — even before it was entirely clear what that venture would be. He credits his wife with the idea for an Internet television network. They named it Ora TV, in honor of Shawn’s middle name.

CNN estimates that at its peak, each edition of his network program, “Larry King Live,” reached 1 billion people in 212 countries. By comparison, Ora TV’s “Larry King Now” attracts just 8 million viewers each month.

But frankly, Larry King couldn’t care less. “I’m still doing the same thing,” he says. “I’m delivered differently, but I don’t treat it any differently. There’s a guest. There’s a camera.”

And there is Larry King’s unmistakable voice. It was always going to be this way. As a Jewish kid in Brooklyn, his fellow elementary school students dubbed him “Larry the Mouthpiece.” He’d imitate radio announcers in his bedroom and sit in the rafters at Brooklyn Dodgers’ games, calling the plays into a rolled-up scorecard.

After high school he took odd jobs — selling milk delivery services and driving a UPS truck — and that, he says, “was the last time I worked.”

Everything since — a Miami radio career that led to local television and then a national radio show and then CNN has been fun. “Basically what it comes down to is I love what I do. I don’t do it for fame. I don’t do it for money. I just love it,” he says. “I just love asking questions. I love people. It’s in my DNA. I’m cursed — and blessed.”

Over the course of a 58-year career, he’s conducted nearly 60,000 interviews. When he was 23, he interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt. He sat down with Nelson Mandela and seven U.S. presidents. Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino. When he interviewed Oprah, he asked what it was like to be one of the most successful women in the world. She told him about the time she was on safari in Africa and asked the bushman serving as her guide if he knew who she was. He did not. And then he responded, “Do you know Larry King?”

“That’s all fantastic to me,” says King. “I don’t know how to describe it. Like, what am I doing here?”

After six decades in the business, his head still spins at all that’s come his way.

“I pinch myself every day. That’s the real truth,” he says. “I was a kid who was on relief. My father died. New York City bought my first pair of glasses. I never forgot being poor and I never stopped thinking how fortunate I am.”

He’s survived a heart attack, quintuple bypass surgery and prostate cancer. He has Type 2 diabetes and swallows a collection of daily pills, but is still sharp and engaging. In a morning visit with a clean face, he looks just as he does on camera with studio lighting and a schmear of pancake makeup, just perhaps a few more sunspots.  “I don’t feel 81,” he says. “I don’t act 81.”

Jerry Seinfeld has remarked that King more or less invented Twitter with the stream-of-consciousness columns he wrote for USA Today through the ’80s and ’90s. These days, King phones his tweets into that designated voicemail as they occur to him during the week. But on Sunday nights, he just speaks them aloud as they come to mind, and Shawn handles the transcription duties directly, typing up his thoughts and blasting them out with his trademark Twitter hashtag, #itsmy2cents. This week’s reflections included, “I love watching penguins walk,” and “How did Noah know there were only two flies on the Arc [sic]?”

Though his mind works in short sentences, he hates a short interview — something King feels there’s far too much of these days. “I like getting to the meat of things,” he says. “You can’t get it in a five-minute interview. I like to hone a person. I like to make eye contact.”

So “Larry King Now” and his political show, “PoliticKING,” are both long-form shows built on King’s trademark interviewing style. Which, despite his celebrity, King says is really not about him. He believes that on television, “the interviewer should rarely be seen. You should see the guest. The guest is what counts.”

The lineup is as eclectic as in his prime-time heyday. An interview with Patricia Arquette during her sweep of the movie-awards season. Al Roker on climate change. Robert Reich on wage disparity. Rumer Willis on feminism and “Dancing With the Stars.” Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Clinton e-mail controversy. A Reader’s Digest editor on the benefits of kale.

It looks like regular TV, just on your computer, even if the pacing feels different than most cable news these days. In a segment posted Wednesday, King teed up James Baker with a brief, open question — “What did you make of those 47 Republican senators signing that open letter to Iranian leaders?” — and then let the former secretary of state hold forth for a luxurious two minutes.

“I ask short questions. And I don’t use the word ‘I,’ ” King explains. “I never learned anything when I was talking. That was always my motto.”

Those terse questions, though, still have a distinct imprint of Larry King. In a recent interview with Big Sean, he glanced at notes for a second before commencing to interrogate the rapper on his love life. “Ariana Grande, the 21-year-old pop star, how’d you hook up with her? . . . Gonna get married? . . . Come on. This way you can get a Little Sean someday.”

And so, five years into his supposed retirement, King says he’s “as busy as I’ve ever been.” And, now that he’s back at it, every bit as happy.

“There’s nothing I don’t like about the business,” he says. “When that light goes on, I love it.”