Why business loves Charlie Rose
Over 18 years of broadcasting, the hardest-working man in TV news has made his show a national salon and, as the economic crisis unfolded, the place for business leaders to talk about it.
(Fortune Magazine) -- At Table No. 1 at Michael's, the best seats on the silly power-lunch circuit in Midtown Manhattan, Charlie Rose is holding forth in fabulousness. America's tallest, handsomest, best-connected, most inquisitive, most talkative late-night TV interviewer is greeting media princess Tina Brown and her husband, Sir Harold Evans.
There's Christie Hefner, resplendent in all white, who waves as she arrives, as does Jeff Greenfield of CBS. Charlie barely has time to enjoy his $34 roasted free-range chicken (with natural jus).
As we're finishing our meal, a middle-aged woman with a faux Brit accent comes over and leans into Charlie. "I'm another blond interrupting," she says. "My name's Roberta -- and ... I know, you're Charlie Rose!"
Charlie is flummoxed, which Charlie usually isn't, as America's Interviewer. The woman doesn't notice and presses on: "So the other night my daughter calls me and says, 'You should turn on Charlie Rose! He's interviewing the CEO of Verizon. Mom, that's the man you should be dating!' So, Charlie, do you happen to know if he's married?"
Charlie takes a deep breath and responds, well, yes, he's pretty sure Ivan Seidenberg has a wife. "Okay, then," says Roberta, hopes dashed, exiting quickly in her clackclack heels, "it was so good to meet you!"
Charles Peete Rose Jr. has the most earnest, essential public-affairs show on the air right now. For 18 years and with roughly 6,500 guests, PBS's hourlong Charlie Rose has been a salon for extended, thoughtful, civil conversation about politics, culture, business, science, medicine, technology, literature, media, law, education, and any other topic that the host chooses to explore.
As the economic crisis has unfolded, Rose's iconic oak table and austere black-draped set have been the place to talk about it. From Wall Street and Washington and Silicon Valley, from industry and academe, from Europe and Asia -- the intelligentsia come to share ideas, to partake of Rose's ebullience and preparation, and of course to be eagerly interrupted a lot by sentences with more infinitive clauses than this one.
In recent months Rose has hosted Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary; Larry Summers, the principal economics adviser to President Obama; Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget; Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate in economics and a New York Times columnist; Hank Greenberg, the former head of AIG; and Warren Buffett, the nonpareil investor.
This fall the Charlie Rose brand goes global: Bloomberg Television will rebroadcast it in primetime around the world, the better to compete with CNBC and other financial channels.
Who knew that Charlie Rose -- courtly, sleepy-eyed, golf-obsessed, 6-foot-4 TV newsman; raconteur, networker, and entrepreneur; man about Manhattan; managing editor as well as CEO of a little business empire -- was also a potential matchmaker?
"It seems that my show serves many purposes," Rose deadpans. "Could it be that all over America daughters are watching my show in hopes of finding dates for their mothers?" Charlie Rose is nothing if not ambitious. At 67, he may be the hardest-working man on television.
For most of his career as a TV interviewer -- of everyone from Charles Manson to Bruce Springsteen to Bill Gates -- Rose has aspired to be a latter-day Edward R. Murrow, his kin from North Carolina. And while he travels in Gatsbyesque circles -- does he mean Buffett or Beatty when referring to "Warren"? -- and enjoys bumming rides on the private jets of friends, Rose has sacrificed to reach the media pinnacle.
He turned down a chance to work full-time for 60 Minutes, and he quit a job with Rupert Murdoch. He has missed out on a family life he still aches for. He has little staff, he takes just a few weeks off a year, and he's up at five every morning to watch three TVs at once, scour the web, and clip newspapers; his thousands of carefully trimmed articles fill file cabinets in his office.
"I have five friends who are calling me up to go on their boats in the Mediterranean this week!" Rose says, displaying one of their e-mails. "But I'd rather go to the Middle East and talk to President Assad." He functions only by religiously taking a 20-minute nap every afternoon.
Other talk shows have a squadron of bookers -- Rose calls guests himself. In 2007, when he wanted Bill Clinton on to talk about the presidential campaign, Clinton's staff offered 20 minutes in Clinton's office. Rose held out for an hour -- and the former President came to Rose's studio.
Ever notice on broadcasts that Rose often has no cuff links? Some viewers wonder whether it's an affectation. But it's just Charlie running late, the same reason his mane can look as though he just crossed the North Atlantic in a gale. "He's not capable of not being a workaholic," says New Yorker writer Ken Auletta. "He's on every stage, emceeing conferences, having dinner, attending a book party."
And who he's with is fodder for the gossip pages. It's usually longtime friend and sometime companion Amanda Burden, the planning commissioner for New York City and a fixture in Manhattan society (and the daughter of Babe Paley, who was married to Bill Paley, who built CBS).
That relentlessness has nearly killed him -- he's had two cardiac scares, the last one in 2006 -- but it has also earned him the primacy he's yearned for. When folks in the financial district say, "Did you hear what was on Charlie last night?" everybody knows what they mean.
The show's modest numbers belie its true reach. TV ratings over the past year, calculated city by city by Nielsen for Fortune, indicate his nightly viewership is probably well under a million. Over the past year in Washington, for example, his audience averaged but 7,000 a day. In New York City it was roughly 67,000 (compared, say, with Nightline's 338,000 or Larry King Live's 308,000).
Nonetheless, few would dispute that it's Rose's show that carries the most influence. Nobody watches Charlie Rose except everybody you know.
Last October, when Buffett wanted to reassure markets that the economy wasn't going to hell, he chose to go on Charlie Rose for the hour. When Geithner went on in May -- his second appearance of the spring -- he made news by admitting that global monetary policy had helped produce the financial crisis.
His predecessor at Treasury, Hank Paulson, went on last October to discuss the meltdown; days after 9/11, as the CEO of Goldman Sachs, he went on to soothe the financial community. "You get the time you need," he says. "But he can lure you and hit you right between the eyes -- hard questions in a soft way."
Larry King typically slobbers over his guests; Bill O'Reilly has them for lunch; The View, ring-leadered by Whoopi Goldberg, is more yakfest than rational discourse; and Ted Koppel of Nightline was a gifted cross-examiner more than a conversationalist. Even Joe Scarborough, whose Morning Joe on MSNBC is an emerging hit, has yet to master the rhythm of measured dialogue.
But Rose, with persistent charm and charming persistence, manages to be unique. He can carry on a serious discussion and elicit revealing, unfiltered answers without being either a lapdog or a jerk.
Rose's interview with Buffett's wife, Susie -- three months before her unexpected death in 2004 -- was both authentic and touching. It was the only TV interview of her life; she gave a glimpse of why Warren treasured her and how they made an unconventional marriage work. It was one of Rose's least affected, most nuanced performances; mention it to Gates and you can hear him well up a little.
Rose's most frequent guest -- New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who's been on the show 65 times -- says, "It isn't that he doesn't ask hard questions, but he does it in a way that is designed to give you the best chance to make your case for your point of view." His op-ed page colleague David Brooks adds, "He takes you out of your 'pontification mode' and makes you more conversational."
Friedman makes the rounds on a smorgasbord of other shows. Buffett doesn't. "Charlie's is about the only show I'll go on for an extended discussion," Buffett told me, explaining that he's long turned down the Sunday morning talk shows and 60 Minutes as a vehicle for getting his thoughts out. "Like back in October, which really was Pearl Harbor, when I felt it was important to say something to the American public. You get the time, Charlie is smart, and by the time you've spent an hour, if you haven't got your point across, it's your fault, not the medium's."
Charlie Rose is also one of the few programs Buffett says he always watches, either live or the next morning. "I invest the time. If I had to choose between Charlie Rose and college football, I'd choose Charlie -- unless it was a Nebraska game."
Charlie Rose wasn't always Charlie Rose. He was a lawyer at Bankers Trust in New York City, seemingly destined for a life as an anonymous salaryman in the canyons of Wall Street. But Rose was driven, passionate, opportunistic -- and lucky.
He had grown up an only child in rural central North Carolina. The Roses lived near the railroad depot, above the country store that his father, Charles Rose Sr., owned and in which Charlie worked, beginning at age 7. It was a childhood the son remembers longingly.
The young son didn't see his father for two years when he went off to Europe to fight in World War II. His mother kept a scrapbook of articles about the war, including the Battle of the Bulge, where his dad fought. It fed Charlie's imagination. As he grew up, in a room he shared with a grandmother, he listened to radio and watched TV, read biographies by candlelight, and dreamed of distant places, lulled by the forlorn whistles of trains rumbling by -- places like Manhattan.
Despite his Southern heritage, Rose was a fan of Mickey Mantle, the center fielder of the New York Yankees. A North Carolina boy who roots for the Establishment team of the Northeast is probably not going to stay in the South forever.
A foot taller than his father, Rose starred in basketball for Henderson High and, as the tale goes, was once scouted by Frank McGuire, the famous coach at the University of North Carolina. ("I scored 20 points that night!" Rose says.) But he wasn't good enough and wound up a premed student at nearby Duke.
After an internship for a U.S. senator, he discovered he had more protean interests, especially politics. He switched his major to history and stuck around Durham to get a law degree. Finally, he took the train north, arriving at Bankers Trust. While he would stay at that job for several years, he was bored and on the prowl.
With him was Mary King, whom he met during college and married after law school. She was a researcher at CBS and introduced him to the people of broadcasting, especially during summers on Fire Island. "You're so damn interesting -- you should be a journalist!" a producer told him, as Mary remembers it and Rose surely never forgets. Rose was affable and attractive, well-spoken and plugged in, and the accent didn't hurt.
Not yet 30, he found freelance assignments at the BBC and then was hired as a weekend reporter for WPIX, a local New York station. Covering fires or parades wasn't exactly how he viewed his proper place in television, though. According to Mary, he would record segments of 60 Minutes and the CBS Evening News and transcribe them as a way to study the network form. "I would be his Tele-PrompTer, holding up the transcriptions at the other end of the room for him to read," Mary says.
Rose admired another appealing, empathetic Southerner, Bill Moyers of PBS. In 1974, Mary met Moyers and urged him to talk to her husband.
That serendipity was the pivotal point in Rose's career. He started as a producer on Moyers's shows and became a protégé. Rose emerged from behind the camera as a talented interviewer. "A Conversation With Jimmy Carter," on a new PBS politics series, won a Peabody in 1976.
After two years with Moyers he left for a succession of jobs -- first as a correspondent for NBC News in Washington, then as an interviewer in the local markets of Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth (there was born the first Charlie Rose Show), and back in Washington.
They were micro-budget operations, and Rose assembled the shows himself -- hustling for guests, doing research, getting syndicated. It would be great preparation for the current PBS program, though his pace wound up killing his marriage.
In 1984 he began 6˝ years of anchoring CBS's Nightwatch -- an overnight marathon interview show with a cult following of night creatures who apparently didn't sleep. Five times a week, for two hours beginning at 2 a.m. (and then repeated), he talked to a hodgepodge of guests -- senators, authors, chefs, and truck drivers -- including most notoriously a prison visit to Charles Manson. Watching the two Charlies shake hands and make small talk was surreal. The episode won an Emmy in 1987. Rose also did assignments for the CBS Morning News and Face the Nation.
But he left Nightwatch as it neared the end of its CBS life, moving on disastrously to Los Angeles to host Fox's new half-hour Personalities, which he somehow thought wanted urbane rather than inane. He groused that he couldn't care less if there was a curse on Monaco's royal family or if somebody had a new theory about Marilyn Monroe's death, as if the fluffernutter tastes of Rupert Murdoch's network were in doubt (and as if seeking out Manson didn't reek slightly of sensationalism).
So he quit in late 1990 after just a few weeks, forgoing a reported million-dollar salary and creating a midlife crisis. He headed for a 525-acre North Carolina farm he'd just purchased as a retreat. It was a chance to return home, to mourn his father's recent death, and, he recalls, "to do nothing."
"I started with a horse, then had five," he says. "I started with a dog and wound up with three. I was fortysomething. I had nothing." For almost a year he pondered how to land the talk show he really wanted -- an hour of seriatim interviews with eclectic guests. "I wanted viewers to feel like they were eavesdropping on a conversation each night -- fully engaged if not actually participating," Rose says.
Then, in the fall of 1991, he got lucky again. In the space of a week, two influential media types coincidentally contacted Bill Baker, the president of Thirteen/WNET, to suggest he meet this out-of-work interviewer named Charlie Rose.
Frank Stanton, the former president of CBS, was a mentor of both Rose and Baker. Rosalind Walter was a WNET board member and philanthropist (she came from old money and was also the inspiration for the "Rosie the Riveter" song in 1942, having worked on the night shift building the F4U Corsair fighter); she had been a fan of Nightwatch and thought WNET could use Rose. Based in Manhattan, WNET was, and is, the most watched public-TV channel in the country.
Baker, who in a prior position had launched Oprah Winfrey's career, had long hoped to start a late-night talk program on WNET. "It would be a gathering of the most intelligent, high-powered New Yorkers," he says, "something befitting the flagship public-TV station. And it would be at low cost. Charlie came to my office and described just the program I wanted." A week later they made a deal -- "the beginning of the great journey of my life," as Rose puts it.
Those in the TV business assume he had to agree to do it for substantially less lucre than he was getting at the commercial networks -- under $500,000. Rose, who disdains discussing matters of money, won't. "We got Charlie at a steal," Baker says admiringly of both parties to the transaction. "It was very clear Charlie wanted to do this and that he was taking a considerable cut in pay."
Though the set of the show began with a predictable talk-show sofa, the now-familiar 60-inch circular table appeared within months. Rose bought it himself in SoHo, and it has become well-worn and a symbol of the broadcast; some neophyte guests still wonder if they're allowed to carve initials into it. "Welcome to this table," Rose likes to say to each guest as the conversation begins. He has the notion it will end up in the Smithsonian someday.
Even with the free table and the bargain price for which Baker got Rose, Baker still needed to come up with funding. He called Roz Walter. "Remember that Charlie Rose you wanted me to meet?" he told her. "I did. We want him. Can you help?" She put in several hundred thousand dollars, enough to get Charlie Rose running.
Her underwriting has never ended, and it marked the beginning of the show's perpetual chase for funds. A couple of years later it became obvious that Charlie Rose ought to be available on the entire Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). And at the same time, WNET was so starved for cash that Baker almost had to cancel the program.
Rose soon hit another jackpot. Baker got a call from Michael Bloomberg, a Baker friend and owner of Bloomberg LP. "I've got this TV studio that doesn't get used much," Bloomberg recalls saying. "Maybe I can save you money." Baker leaped at the idea, mentioning Charlie Rose, which Bloomberg knew of, as Rose had become a regular on the Manhattan cocktail circuit -- "society's new darling," as a magazine put it.
Bloomberg (these days the mayor of New York) liked the idea too. "I always thought Charlie was a good interviewer, and his Southern charm made it easy for guests to tell their stories," he told me. But Bloomberg also understood that famous folk coming into his offices gave the growing company more visibility and might give his people the chance "to waylay Charlie's guests."
Under their arrangement, which continues to the present, Bloomberg provided Rose with a free studio and office space; all Rose had to pay Bloomberg was "out-of-pocket expenses," a vague term Rose declines to define but which seems to mean relatively minor sums like postage and bookkeeping. (Under the new Bloomberg Television deal launching in October, Rose will actually receive revenue.)
So Rose separated the program from WNET. He would fund the show himself and therefore own it, and he continued the distribution deal with PBS in which money flowed in neither direction. The show typically taped in the late afternoon -- "live to tape," with little editing -- so guests didn't have to trudge in near the bedtime hour. With rent and technical support covered, Charlie Rose had only to pay for salaries, satellite feeds, and occasional travel -- a meager budget of $3.5 million a year, according to Rose, and remarkable for a show airing five nights a week. Assuming he could raise funds, Rose now had complete control. There would be no detours into tabloid twaddle.
Walter Cronkite never had to ask for money from an underwriter. Neither he nor his colleagues at the commercial networks would even be allowed near sponsors. That separation between church and state doesn't apply in public television. Rose has to scramble to meet his budget. So do his PBS colleagues Jim Lehrer at the primetime NewsHour and Tavis Smiley on his talk show that follows Rose's. (By contrast, Smiley says his budget is about $6.8 million.)
With a roster of well-heeled underwriters that include News Corp. (NWSA) and investment banker Herbert Allen's firm, you would think Charlie Rose would get most of its donations effortlessly. But it doesn't work that way. "People assume we're on automatic pilot. We're not," Rose says. "I've raised all the money myself." Listen in on this revealing, sometimes giggling exchange between Rose and Lehrer on the show in April, on the challenge of raising money:
"I mean," Rose begins, "if I call one more foundation that tells me we're not giving you any more money! The standard response to me is, 'I love your show ... Thank you very much.'"
"Bottom line," says Lehrer, "we've had our problems just like everybody else."
"You know, in the world we live in today, millions and trillions ..." Rose muses.
"It's hard to keep it straight. We're not part of TARP!"
"You're not getting any TARP money?" Rose asks facetiously.
And on goes the colloquy that ostensibly was supposed to be about Lehrer's new novel. Rose gets Lehrer to acknowledge that the NewsHour budget is about $30 million, then teases that "half of that" must be Lehrer's salary, and they conclude that analytical, explanatory shows like theirs are needed in a democracy now more than ever because of the decline of print journalism.
So why does it take so much effort to get donors to pony up? Earlier this year Rose had to call Roz Walter for a new infusion of capital. "He told me, 'I need help,'" she recalls. "I was blown away. It shocked me. So I doubled up my contribution." At Tavis Smiley, the host has a small staff that handles fundraising. Rose has only his iPhone and a limitless roster of contacts.
The effort required to raise money is clearly a source of occasional frustration for Rose. He relishes his independence and the absence of network suits who might meddle in his selection of guests. He hopes his 18-year archive might someday generate revenue, instead of being freely available at charlierose.com and on a special YouTube channel. Still, as he reflected to Lehrer, he's ambivalent about hustling.
Despite counting Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as "good friends" who appreciate the utility of appearing on the program, he has solicited neither. Gates didn't even realize Microsoft wasn't a backer; he says he became an admirer of the show because of Buffett, who sometimes sends him copies of favorite interviews.
Rose offers no explanation why he doesn't ask the two for underwriting. "I just don't know," he says. He also doesn't ask for money from PBS, member stations, or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which, for example, provides the NewsHour with almost half its budget. Rose gets no taxpayer money of any kind.
The fundraising produces a web of peculiar interconnections between Rose and the people he covers. The foundation of media mogul Barry Diller and fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg is a longtime supporter of the program, most recently in the amount of $200,000. Both Diller and von Fürstenberg have been on the show. So has Rupert Murdoch, overlord of News Corp., which is a Charlie Rose underwriter.
Herb Siegel, the former chairman of Chris-Craft Industries -- acquired by News Corp. in 2001 -- gets top billing among individual donors. He has not been on the show, but until recently he was a director of Citadel Broadcasting Corp. (CTDB) Rose also sat on Citadel's board, from 2003 until earlier this year. According to federal filings, he received $50,000 annually as a director's fee and owns 80,000 shares of the company. Teddy Forstmann, the private equity specialist, serves on that board as well and has been on the show four times; he spearheads the Forstmann Little conference held each fall in Aspen, at which Rose is the principal interviewer of special guests.
Rose also appears at other elite business conferences -- Herbert Allen's Sun Valley, Idaho, shindig, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the J.P. Morgan Chase Leadership Conference in Deer Valley, Utah, and the Microsoft CEO Summit. And he's moderated onetime events, like the MSG Entertainment-sponsored "Live & Uncensored" sparring match a few months ago between James Carville and Karl Rove that played to a huge audience at Radio City Music Hall in New York (tickets went for $49.50 to $179.50, the latter for "VIP seats").
Rose gets paid for enough events that they nicely supplement whatever he pays himself for Charlie Rose. What does he take home? He declines to say. Sources in the broadcasting industry guess he's paid between $1 million and $2 million, which would make rough sense given the books of Charlie Rose. He has a staff of about a dozen, along with production and travel expenses -- and that's about it.
With his $3.5 million budget, that presumably leaves a nice chunk for him. "In my dreams!" Rose says, smiling at the idea of $1 million to $2 million. But he concedes that his gigs away from Charlie Rose are rewarding. "I make more from speaking than I make at PBS," he says. His one-off speaking or moderating fee is $50,000 and up (he does conferences like Allen's Sun Valley and the Microsoft Summit for nothing).
If you want to confirm that Rose isn't on a PBS starvation diet, you need only visit his apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan and his splendid six-bedroom, 5,500-square-foot beach house on Long Island; each property is worth a few million dollars. Rose has other goodies: a membership at Long Island's Deepdale Country Club (with other golfers like Bloomberg and Tom Brokaw), a small place in Washington, and a big old house in North Carolina.
Most of the Charlie Rose underwriters make the relationship that much more mysterious by declining to offer any details of their donations. Fortune contacted all of them.
By far the biggest underwriter is Coca-Cola (KO, Fortune 500), which gives just under $1 million annually, according to a source with knowledge of the business. (The company declines to comment.) Coke gets an understated 15-second commercial at the beginning and end of the broadcast -- just as other "major" underwriters do on PBS programs. Bloomberg LP also gets a special mention.
The other 15 Charlie Rose underwriters are briefly listed onscreen, in rough order of the amount of their contribution, as required by PBS disclosure rules. No amounts are listed, nor does PBS explain for how many months a specific donation will yield a donor a mention.
Donors do come and go; the name of the foundation of investment banker Steve Rattner and his wife, for example, disappeared earlier this year. Other disappearees include Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), USA Networks, Sumner Redstone, and the foundations of David Geffen and Mel Karmazin.
Few suggest Rose has genuine conflicts of interest -- and none do so on the record, lest they risk an invitation to be on the show -- but his friends and others in media wonder if Charlie Rose, Journalist, sometimes becomes too much Charlie Rose Inc.
Of course, media outlets can find themselves covering those from whom they take money -- advertisers, and sometimes even owners (as Fortune has done, for example, in writing about the AOL/Time Warner merger). But typically editorial and business staffs are separate.
Wearing both hats, Charlie Rose subscribes to the convention that "full disclosure" should solve any appearance of conflict. So, for example, when Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca-Cola, went on the show in June, Rose disclosed Coke's underwriting tie of "many years" at the outset. He has done similarly with other guests, showing laudable transparency.
And yet the "fullness" of the disclosure can be in the mind of the discloser. Should Rose, for instance, have disclosed that in 2002 he had served as emcee at the Coke shareholders meeting, at which he declared, "It is a privilege to be associated with the Coca-Cola family"? Rose says this is "nitpicking to a fault." "I wouldn't take their money if I didn't want to be associated with them," he says.
Now consider Rose's stake in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the celebrated Silicon Valley venture capital firm that funded the likes of Netscape, Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500), and Google. After politics, high tech may be Rose's favorite topic, and he invites a range of the Valley's stars onto the broadcast.
One such guest is John Doerr, a KP partner. Yet even as Rose has disclosed his connection to KP, the disclosures have sometimes been coy. Once he said he has a "business relationship" with KP. Another time Doerr was a "business friend and colleague." But in fact Rose is a "limited partner" in KP investments, as he admitted on other shows. Why does he have that investment? "Because they are people I care about and respect and admire," he explained in a March 2002 broadcast.
A viewer might wonder if it also might be that KP's home runs during the 1990s were producing returns that doubled each year? Since Rose hasn't disclosed the dollar amount of his investment, is his disclosure sufficient? And since most KP investors are college endowments, corporate pension funds, and extremely loaded individuals, how was it that Rose got into the fund to begin with?
Rose says his "small" KP investment was "post-Google" and produced "little profit." But that's beside the point. Rose insists there's no appearance problem, given his disclosures. And he says that neither the KP partnership, nor his speaking engagements, nor his underwriting, affects who appears or doesn't appear on Charlie Rose. Indeed, he says that his friendships with "many of the people on the show" wind up benefiting the broadcast -- and the viewer. It's a reasonable argument.
In any case, he obviously isn't in it for the money. Rose has owned all the broadcasts of Charlie Rose since leaving WNET in 1994 yet hasn't figured out how to make a penny from them. Late last year he had to lay off a third of his staff because of fundraising woes. When he went to China for a series of interviews, he had to hire a crew there and hold the mike for the guests himself.
"I work harder than anyone, and I don't get fabulously rich doing it," Rose says, adding that Jim Lehrer at the NewsHour "makes a lot more money than I do." Tavis Smiley has not only a PBS talk show but also a multimedia group that includes radio, books, "consumer expos," and a speakers bureau; the business brings in $25 million or more annually.
Smiley, 45, says Rose once told him, "If I had done at 30 what you've done, I'd be a lot more comfortable." It seems to be a recurring element in Rose's ruminations, which may be natural: When he's with the likes of Buffett or Gates or Diller, he's always the poorest guy in the room.
Rose probably could have maximized his salary by joining a network years ago. CBS in 1999 offered him a full-time position at the onetime 60 Minutes II, and he turned it down.
"Nothing has been as intriguing as the possibility of working with you," Rose wrote to Jeff Fager, the executive producer, in a letter that is unusual for its self-awareness and tactical brilliance. (Rose has saved the letter and gave me a copy.) "You can't imagine for a romantic like me what it means to come out of North Carolina, the birthplace of Murrow, and walk in the footsteps of Murrow and Collingwood, Cronkite and Sevareid, Wallace and Safer, and to play on the same team as Rather and Fager."
But Rose resists, quoting Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness. His PBS show is like "the battered, twisted ruined tin pot steamboat ... rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her." The show, like the old vessel, gave Rose "the chance to find 'your own reality -- for yourself, not for others -- what no man can ever know.'"
"In the end," he told Fager, "I have not finished the journey."
Fager found the letter compelling and agreed to have Rose come aboard anyway part-time. 60 Minutes II was canceled in 2005; Rose continues the moonlighting arrangement, doing a few segments a year for the original 60 Minutes. The salary he commanded during six years at 60 Minutes II dwarfs all the other income he's had, Rose says. But it's still a pittance. Others have Gulfstreams; Rose has a Segway and a red Vespa.
One of Rose's individual underwriters -- James B. Lee, the vice chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase -- periodically needles him about being a better entrepreneur. "Charlie's an artist," Lee says. "He likes to paint, but he doesn't care as much about how much the painting sells for. I see a valuable business, and I am constantly on him ... He'll say, 'I don't have three weeks to work on a business plan -- I won't have time to go interview King Abdullah in Amman!'"
In fact, that's where Rose was off to in mid-August, along with Cairo, Damascus, and Jerusalem, giddy about the world leaders he would be interviewing, and poring over stacks of briefing materials, though it meant a weekend of missed golf instruction that he hopes will one day get his score into the 70s, or at least under 100.
Even so, for a talk-show host in his prime, he remains indelibly insecure. It is a trait at once endearing and strange. To interview Charlie Rose the interviewer is to be the beneficiary of more testimonials than you can hear for cellulite cream on cable at three in the morning. One day the Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel calls me out of the blue to sing Charlie's praises. Rose suggests that I also might want to talk to Ari's brother Rahm, who I suggest might be too busy being White House chief of staff. No matter, Rose will arrange it! Same for Warren Beatty!
Rose has also kindly provided canned written endorsements from Jack Welch, Tom Hanks, Jeff Bezos, Meryl Streep, Dolly Parton, Elie Wiesel, Mickey Rourke, E.O. Wilson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Nancy Pelosi. Oh, please, Charlie, make it stop! Yvette Vega, the indefatigable executive producer for Charlie Rose, tells me Marlon Brando used to be a big fan of the show, identifying himself as "Bran Flakes" if someone other than Rose picked up the phone. Brando would call to discuss recent shows and offer suggestions.
Part of Rose's insecurity comes from years of comments from reviewers that he was too soft and too talkative, and that he interrupted too often and asked questions longer than the answers he allowed. The New York Times pelted him with such commendations as "No ego is so bloated that Mr. Rose cannot puff it up further."
In 2003, Saturday Night Live did a hilarious parody in which Rose (played by Jeff Richards) interviewed Donald Rumsfeld (Darrell Hammond); Rose's preamble is so tedious that Rumsfeld pleads, "Stop introducing me, Charlie!" Yet Rose drones on, with Rumsfeld protesting, "I think you just spent 10 minutes asking me a question, but I have no idea what it is!" Finally Rumsfeld walks off the set, with Rose still talking over the exit music.
The New Yorker did a similar bit, with Rose hosting the Angel of Death and so irritating him with drivel that when Rose asks at the end if he'll come back, the Reaper promises to.
Rose does sometimes like to listen to his own exhalations and exploits his country-boy appeal well. But the beef against him is a canard, the product of critics who prefer inquisition to inquiry. His guests get plenty more airtime than he does, and to the extent he does babble, it's because he can't wait to get the next answer. His sin is less show-biz vanity than abiding curiosity. And in the 18 years of doing the show, he's gotten better at holding back.
Since his last valve-replacement surgery in 2006 -- an emergency procedure in Paris, where he'd flown after experiencing discomfort during a trip in Syria -- Rose's meter is less frenetic, and his conversations play with fewer notes. If you go online and randomly pick a Rose interview from a decade ago and then compare it with a segment last month, his introductions are shorter, the questions are crisper, and at times you can see him applying the verbal brakes (even if the hair's still a mess).
His cardiac surgeon in Paris, the pioneering Alain Carpentier, is no shrink and doesn't watch the program enough to offer an opinion about any change in Rose's outlook. What he does say about Rose, with whom he is now close friends, is that Rose was an exceptional patient. "He was in very bad shape," Carpentier says. Without his "self-confidence and courage, Charlie might not have made it." Carpentier says surviving dire surgery can yield a degree of serenity. Rose discounts the notion he's changed all that much -- which may be his way of acknowledging his insecurities.
If Rose harbors laments, they are not about the "battered, twisted ruined tin pot steamboat" he captains, but about the personal choices he's made during the voyage. When I first asked Rose about the show's underwriting, he unexpectedly converted it to an extended discussion about his personal life. More than anything, Rose says, he wishes he had a son or a daughter, a feeling possibly amplified by his graze with mortality. "You want what you don't have," he says, with a poignancy he doesn't display on TV. "I'm an only child, so I don't even have nieces or nephews.
"For a significant portion of my life, I've gotten up every morning excited about what I do. All the other stuff -- the celebrity -- I understand it, but that's not the joy of it. I was an only child of a father who loved me deeply, but we didn't play catch, even though I was an athlete. We didn't go fishing or hunting or any of the things I wanted to do. Why not? He just didn't do that.
"If I was madly in love with someone who offered the opportunity to spend our lives together," Rose says, "I would love to have a child or adopt a child."
He is a godparent to two of the grandchildren of Amanda Burden, with whom he's had an on-and-off relationship for nearly two decades. She's 65 and not likely to be the mother of any of his prospective children. "Maybe," she says bemusedly, "maybe Charlie should get a dog first."
In her teasing way Burden has a point. When the day turns to night and he slips off his shoes and takes his seat at the big oak table, Rose at heart may be what Burden calls, like herself, a "loner." She once described their relationship this way: "I'm sure couples wonder what to talk to each other about at night. But we don't. I say, 'Who was on today?'"
Golf, which Rose loves to play these days, is the most social of games, yet he often plays by himself -- "just you and the course," as he puts it. In his workaholic need to understand what he calls the "power of relationships," in his mastery of diverse subject matter, in building an incomparable professional network, he seems to be compensating for what he doesn't have -- a family, a nest, a son to have a catch with.
"I'm never happier than I am when I'm on the set," he says, making clear he'll never leave his show for another TV job. Television and public discourse are the better for it. But there is the paradox of Charlie Rose. The man with the most excellent roster of guests every night finds himself, ultimately, wistfully, alone.
David A. Kaplan, who's been on Charlie Rose four times, is working on a book about American financial culture.