Photographs by RUBY WALLAU | Staff Photographer
A dark room, two chairs and a table he bought himself. That’s all journalist Charlie Rose needs to conduct his legendary interviews.
Time managing editor Nancy Gibbs sat with Rose Monday night in the Amphitheater to pick his brain on his long career and the state of the world.
But she also had to ask: “What’s the deal with the set?” Rose’s eponymous PBS show consists of a black background, two chairs and a table, nothing more.
Rose’s answer was succinct: “The deal was poverty.”
But, he said, the simplicity serves a higher purpose than cheapness. He wanted to create an environment where the focus was entirely on his subject and the topics they discussed.
“It’s like eavesdropping,” he said. “I want to make [the audience] feel like they’re at the table.”
Interviewing, Rose said, is at the core of dialogue and drama.
“What you want is for others to feel in the moment,” he said.
Rose said he often does live shows for this reason. He doesn’t meet with his subjects prior to their interview to preserve the spontaneity of the conversation they will have, a similar tone to the evening’s interview itself.
The conversation began with the many transformative current events. Rose called the same-sex marriage ruling “an epic civil rights achievement” and the one most likely to reverberate for the years to come. He contrasted it with the tragic Charleston church shooting, which showed the progress yet to be made in America.
Rose spoke with measured tones in his familiar voice, and the interview moved at a clip. Interspersed were four videos of Rose’s interviews with Cate Blanchett, Robin Williams, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (an interview that won him a Peabody Award) and his most recent “get,” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Rose said it was one of his hardest interviews, and not solely because the crowd was less than friendly.
“You don’t get [an interview with Putin] through normal channels,” he said. “You find people and hope they hear your name so much they say ‘Fine, I’ll sit down with him.’ ”
Rose said the challenge of interviewing such prominent political leaders as Putin and al-Assad is “to get them to engage, and not just rhetorically.”
In the same way his PBS set is made, Rose said he wants to create a sense of intimacy between himself and his interviewees.
Gibbs asked Rose about other difficult interviews. He noted politicians and business executives tend to be the hardest to get through to because of their canned responses and cautious behavior. He said film directors were similar.
“The trick is to let them make their point and then follow the curiosity in the moment,” he said.
When listing his toughest subjects, Charles Manson was not one of them. The interview with the convicted mass murderer won Rose an Emmy Award in 1987.
Gibbs asked if Rose had been scared.
“It wasn’t scary; it was exhilarating,” Rose said. “I wanted to understand him.”
Real fear, and the courage to overcome it, he reserved for his colleagues on the ground in places like Syria and Africa, where trouble could arise with little warning.
The clip of his interview with Robin Williams drew the biggest reaction from the crowd, a mixture of joy and sorrow for the famous, late comedian. Williams was a friend of Rose and one of his favorites to interview.
Even a consummate interviewer like Rose keeps what he calls “mega-questions” handy if the worst should occur.
“If all else fails, I have a list in the back of my mind,” he said. “I can ask about their obsessions, achievements, fears, and conflicts. My obsession is with the pursuit of excellence in whatever endeavor I extend myself to and feel passionate about.”
Among Rose’s interests is architecture; he said he was fascinated by the idea of places in relation to location and lighting. When Gibbs asked what other careers interested him, Rose said film director and politician, though he said his lack of love for meetings could be a wet blanket if he were to run for public office. Current politics, he said, frustrate him.
“I’ve spoken to three or four people who said the greatest threat to this country is in a 3- to 4-mile radius in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
He cited the congressional gridlock and partisanship that has engulfed the capital in the last few years. “[Obama] came thinking he could fix it,” Rose said. “But unlike Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton — people who just love politics and will stay to talk to every person at a campaign stop and love persuading others — Obama is different. If he was a different person, he might have been able to break through.”
As for where Obama will fall in the pantheon of American presidents, Rose said it was too early to tell.
“I think his popularity will rise,” he said. “His signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was upheld by the Supreme Court. He got us out of two wars. But his foreign policy is mixed.”
Rose said he is most concerned with the rise of ISIS, particularly its effective use of social media.
“There are some so moved by the Internet they go out and commit terrorist acts,” he said. “These are vulnerable people looking for belonging, someone to blame but they go out and do it.”
When Gibbs asked how liberal he though the mainstream media was, Rose answered it was reasonably liberal, “but the more important question is: does it affect reporting? I think career, confidence, jockeying for a higher job affect it more.”
For Rose, the most interesting question is and always has been: “Who are we, and where do we want to be?” He is proud his audience is unfamiliar with his personal politics.
“I’m not an advocacy journalist,” he said. “My role is to engage interesting people with new ideas that address the human condition at the time.”