Larry King, a champ left behind as talk shows sank into vitriol

Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2010

Larry King is leaving the cable world of professional 'rasslin.'

His departure reminds me of the Living Legend, Bruno Sammartino, and the heyday of the World Wide Wrestling Federation. On Saturday mornings in the early 1970s, televised (pretaped) matches from the old Philadelphia Arena were a staple in our rec room. My brother and I would yell at the TV when the Grand Wizard of Wrestling, Captain Lou Albano, or Classy Freddie Blassie held court. They were the heel managers, and everything they said was negative and predictable.

Sammartino was the ultimate good guy who lived up to his billing. He was the longest-running WWWF champion, holding onto the belt for 12 years. Of the 211 times he headlined at Madison Square Garden, 187 were sellouts. His match against Pedro Morales at Shea Stadium in 1972 was one of the all-time great bouts.

Sammartino should have been feted in his twilight years as a hero of wrestling's golden age. Instead, after four decades, he tapped out.

He once explained to me his decision, saying that wrestling used to be legitimate entertainment for fathers and sons to attend together. "Later, when this guy took over, Vince McMahon Jr., you started seeing all this nudity and all kinds of vulgarity, profanity galore - really bizarre - and things that really hurt me deeply that they would bring into the game," he said.

Indeed, the "sport" that had welcomed guys like the Living Legend, and that he in turn had helped define as mainstream entertainment, ultimately left him behind.

The same is true of Larry King.

Twenty-five years ago, King's CNN show was the pioneer of prime-time political discourse. He popularized the long interview format and could lure any guest to the hot seat. He wore the ratings crown for the better part of two decades. Now, he's retiring as an afterthought.

Why? Because the cable television and talk radio game he's leaving is just like 'rasslin.' Divisive. Boorish. And fake.

In a May editorial, the Washington Post initiated an open, running dialogue on today's political paralysis.

"The world is complicated," the editorial read, "and an electorate so diverse in geography, race, class and beliefs can't be shoehorned into two fixed templates. There is no particular reason why all advocates of fiscal restraint should also oppose abortion rights, or why supporters of a progressive tax code should necessarily favor restrictions on gun ownership."

That's true, and the inanity goes much further. Many conservatives are predictably pro-life, antiabortion, supportive of troop surges, and skeptical of global warming. But what do any of those have to do with another?

Similarly, many liberals oppose the death penalty, favor government regulation of markets, support same-sex relationships, and resist the NRA. Again, where is the connection?

Yet TV and radio hosts ingrain those associations in viewers for the sake of some ideological purity. Those are the political rigors Americans see and hear every day. They're the hoops that elected officials and their challengers are all too willing to jump through. And the message spun to the masses is this: Pass the litmus test to play the game.

Unfortunately, the cable world is giving Americans what a small but loyal group of viewers appear to want. They seek reinforcement of their views, rather than an equal presentation of competing thought.

Where McMahon's WWE (the former WWWF) boils down to the faces and heels, cable TV and talk radio has devolved into Democrats vs. Republicans, liberals vs. conservatives, left vs. right. (The identity of the face and the heel depend on what channel you're watching.) The only thing missing is the masked man! Where wrestling's superstars toil in brutishness and vulgarity, political discourse traffics in vitriol and incivility.

Sammartino once told me that steroids were so widespread in wrestling that "the mentality is to any would-be wrestler that you have to get on the juice, otherwise there's no way you can get in and become any kind of headliner."


In Larry King's world, only the most doctrinaire messages and the most bombastic messengers are heard over the airwaves and seen under the klieg lights.

The result? In the same way that wrestling is staged and scripted, today's cable world sticks to predictable talking points and litmus tests. The only things missing are the foreign objects. You always knew what Lou Albano would say before he said it. Same with your favorite cable host or pundit. They simply line up on their usual side of the political aisle and slug away.

On Saturday mornings, wrestling was a weekend fix for kids. Nobody got hurt, especially the wrestlers. The stakes are higher in Larry King's ring. Today's incarnation is political poison for the country. Elected officials and would-be politicians now take their behavioral cues from TV and radio hosts.

Larry King no longer fit into that equation. His outdated sense of civility and relatively nonpartisan approach made him a dinosaur bound for extinction. Like the Living Legend, the game he helped create has left him behind.

• Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via

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