Two kinds of celebrities go on Larry King Live on CNN: Those with something to sell and those with something to hide.
Al Gore and Brandon Routh, the young star of the newly released Superman Returns, recently appeared on the show to promote their new movies. The second category includes guests like Star Jones Reynolds, Mary Kay Letourneau, and, right after his indictment in 2004, Kenneth Lay of Enron. Larry King Live is the first stop in any damage control operation -- a chance to explain oneself to the least contentious journalist in the land.
And that is why US President George W. Bush invited the CNN talk show host to the White House on his 60th birthday. The standoff with North Korea over its missile tests, the war in Iraq and ever-sliding ratings in the polls have given the president little reason to celebrate. King gave the president a chance to defend his policies without risk of interruption or follow-up.
At times, King even provided the president with answers.
"You've always had a lot of compassion for the Mexican people," the interviewer interjected in a discussion of the president's immigration bill. Bush seemed a little surprised, but grateful.
"Yes, sir!" he replied.
The hourlong interview was taped Thursday in the Blue Room of the White House with King crouched in the foreground across a small round table from the president and Laura Bush, dressed in his trademark suspenders and cowboy boots.
After a brief, good-humored exchange about how the president felt about turning 60, King asked Bush about North Korea vaguely enough for the president to repeat what he said earlier in the day in an appearance with the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, about the need for a united stand to bring the North Korean president to reason.
Other than the fact that Bush promised not to lecture President Vladimir Putin of Russia before the Group of Eight meeting next week in St. Petersburg, King did not elicit news or curveballs from the president.
Even when he ventured into areas like the war in Iraq, public opinion polls or the president's past friendship with Lay, King looked less like an interrogator than a hotel concierge gently removing lint from a customer's coat. King's questions rarely rile his guests; instead, his cozy, incurious style encourages them to expose themselves.
And just as Liza Minnelli seemed to come unglued all on her own in her appearance on the show last March, Bush at times seemed tense and defensive even without needling from his host.
"I've been popular before, as president," Bush said tightly. "And I've been -- people have accepted what I've been doing."
He added: "Sometimes things go up and down. The best way to lead and the best way to solve problems is to focus on a set of principles. And do what you think is right."
The president appeared on King's show twice before, in 2000 and in 2004, but those were campaign interviews. On Thursday, the president was fighting to improve his battered image.
When he was at a loss for words, Laura Bush stepped in to speak on his behalf, sometimes with more dexterity than her husband.
"Well, sure, you know, we worried about it, obviously," Laura Bush replied when asked whether she was rattled by the North Korean missile tests. "But what I spent the day doing actually was watching our shuttle take off from Florida."
Laura Bush even managed to politely set King straight when he somewhat puzzlingly described Putin as "very Western."
"Well, I don't know if I would say that," she said gently. "I think he's very Russian. But I like him a lot."
It wasn't live, but it was classic Larry King: a warm bath, not a hot seat.
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