Larry King's two television encounters with George Bush last week were remarkable for a number of reasons.
As engagements between entertainer and politician, their like has not been seen since 1972, when Sammy Davis Jr., at the Republican convention, hugged Richard M. Nixon. As examples of the art of innuendo, they broke exciting new ground; the president used the incomplete sentence to suggest something sinister _ much the same effect that quotation marks have on the printed word. A word, say, like "trust."
Unlike the late Sammy Davis, though, King had questions. On the Wednesday program, he got Bush to tell him about the "truck" Bush drives when he "goes hunting" in Texas.
At one point, Bush produced his Texas driver's license for King, a document that suggested an odd discrepancy or so: King, reading from the license, said that Bush's eyes were "brown," while the Bush in most photographs appears to have blue eyes. The "Bush" on the license was 6-foot-1, unlike the official story, which has him as 6-foot-2. King did not follow up on these anomalies.
Then King asked, "What do you make of the Clinton Moscow-trip thing?" The talk show host was curiously drawn to this topic. When King on Monday asked Clinton about his "Moscow trip," Clinton said he had visited the city in the course of a 40-day "European" excursion when he was a student at Oxford.
Some have suggested that Clinton may have met "KGB" agents. Rep. Bob Dornan recently told the Washington Post's Lloyd Grove that that Clinton was "worked, he was massaged there by the KGB," while conceding that this assertion was something he felt in his "gut" and wholly made up.
The KGB accusation did not come from the curiously brown-eyed Bush, who said to King, "I don't want to tell you what I really think." Bush then brought up the "trust" thing: "To go to Moscow, one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia, and not remember who you saw there .
." The incomplete sentence dangled, ominously.
King had had a busy night. Not only did he deal with the past of the "Oxford-educated" Clinton and intensely study Bush's driver's license. He also scrutinized Bush's green American Express card (the card in fact uses the word "president") and went on to offer Bush a hearty handshake.
The program ended, but many viewers could have been left wondering how history might have changed if King had gotten the chance to bring his keen interrogation skills and "listener" phone calls to other political figures of modern times.
In 1952, for example, King could have asked Sen. Joseph McCarthy about "those guys in striped pants at the State Department." Or he might have asked the "old" Nixon, "What about that Dean Acheson College of Cowardly Containment thing?" (Nixon would have had the grace to add "others may say.")
Had King only had his talk show 20 years ago, he might have asked Spiro Agnew to elaborate on that "nattering nabobs of negativism thing," and George Wallace to dilate on the "pointy-heads" problem facing America. What about that "race-prejudice thing?" he might have asked David Duke.
The "what about?" technique would let Sen. Edward Kennedy give all the particulars about "Robert Bork's America" and would have permitted Louis Farrakhan to tell Larry who really controlled Hollywood. With proper prodding, a hearty handshake and a quick peek at their credit cards, Larry probably could have gotten any guest to open up.
It is easy to sneer at King and Bush, of course; to talk about the "bootlicking thing" and the "mud thing," but that would be wrong. Sometimes it is wiser, in print as well as on the air, not to tell anyone what you really think.
Jeffrey A. Frank is an editor of the Washington Post's Outlook section.