By the New York Bureau Chief
My friend was incredulous: “I can’t quite tell where the performance ends and where [the New York Bureau Chief] begins.” I was explaining my fascination with Charlie Rose, telling him why I’ve dedicated my time (albeit a small amount of it) to Back At This Table. People in the bureau chiefs’ age bracket are supposed to thrill to Stephen Colbert. Was my embrace of the Rose show a kind of ironic rejection of the ironic? The next phase in the meta-meta-meta evolution of hipster taste?
It’s not, and last week’s episode with Amy Chua (which I predicted would occur over a month ago) reminded me of all the very genuine reasons why I love watching Charlie Rose. At his best—and he was at his best in this interview—CR is both a dazzling performer and a master accompanist, the talking-head-show equivalent of Max Roach or Steve Nash—a virtuoso who enhances the abilities of those around him.
Charlie’s interview with Amy Chua rockets through its first round. Chua chatters away her very-talked-over points about how Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir (her models were Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Dave Eggers—uh, huh) and not a parenting how-to guide. Charlie parries with her and throws the occasional counter-punch: “That seems mild compared to what you did!” Six minutes and thirty seconds into this 37 minute interview, all of possible subjects seem to have been covered. “What are they going to talk about for another 30 minutes?” I wrote in my notes. Charlie looks to have more than met his match.
It was all a classic rope-a-dope. Once Chua talks herself out, Charlie controls the interview. He challenges her: “Where does happiness come through in this book?” Then asks, haughtily, “You’re saying, read it properly to find the happiness?!?” Chua responds by going on the defensive, spinning the kind of answer-on-the-fly one gets good at bullshitting during law school. Charlie cuts Chua off, his voice rising from below, “I don’t think you would have written it if it weren’t a love story.”
This flurry of hard and soft, confrontation and affirmation, comes in the space of just a few seconds. It’s a brilliant tactic. Charlie forces Chua to answer tough questions but doesn’t repel her in the way that “gotcha!” interviewers like Deborah Solomon often do their subjects. Chua is—at her core—a student who wants nothing more than to please her teachers. Charlie quickly occupies this role and then presses Chua like a Harvard law prof. “How did you convey love?” Charlie asks his pupil. “”There haven’t been that many Nobel laureates from China,” he states, getting little Amy to concede that there’s something off about Chinese culture. (Couldn’t decades of autocratic rule and an aggressively anti-intellectual policy have had something to do with it? Charlie wins a point that should have been easy for Chua to challenge. He’s dominating this shit.) Then he makes his most teacherly declaration. When Chua admits that her daughter Lulu was a rebel from birth, Charlie says “Exactly right! That’s my point!” Does Charlie have the answer sheet to the secrets of human behavior? By the end of the interview, both he and Amy Chua seem to think so.
Charlie is so confident that he closes by confiding in Chua (and in us) that “probably this table has been the subject of more conversations with more people—five nights a week, twenty years—with more people of achievement than anywhere.” (It’s hard not to love the idea that the table itself is “the subject” of these conversations. Certainly, your bureau chiefs are rejoicing.) And what have these people of accomplishment told Charlie? That success is all about…wait for it…hard work! The revelation is probably not worthy of the buildup, but by that point Chua is just swooning. She ends the interview with a morning-after giggle that we’d have to second: “Thank you so much, Charlie, it was really fun.”