John J. Mack, Jan. 21, 2011: Charlie’s Doppelganger

January 28, 2011

By the New York Bureau Chief


John J. Mack, Morgan Stanley’s ex-CEO and current chairman, has gone on Charlie Rose only three times: a brief post-9/11 sit-down to talk about Wall Street after the attacks, a long 2009 interview about the financial crisis, and last week’s discussion of China. This relatively small number of appearances is a little surprising—not only have “Mack the Knife” (his nickname as CEO, you can figure it out) and Charlie known each other for many years, they have lived uncannily parallel lives. They’re like fun-house reflections of one another—embodiments of what each man, with slightly different choices, could have become.

A quick run-down of the similarities:

Charlie was born in North Carolina in 1942.
Mack was born in North Carolina in 1944.

Charlie’s father owned a grocery store in Henderson, North Carolina.
Mack’s father owned a grocery store in Moorseville, North Carolina.

Both of their fathers were named Charles.

In high school, Charlie was a basketball star.
In high school, Mack was a football star.

For college, Charlie went to Duke.
For college, Mack went to Duke.

During college, Charlie met Mary King. They were married for twelve years.
Later, Mack met Mary’s younger sister Christy. They’re still married*.

Introducing Mack in 2009, Charlie acknowledged these parallels (and then some) in what must rank very high among his greatest openings:

In a point of full-disclosure, I note that he’s been a friend for some 40 years; we went to the same school; our fathers, at different ends of the state, were in the same business; I occasionally do things with Morgan Stanley; and we were married to sisters. All of that and a long-term relationship with a man I admire and consider a friend.

Tabling the very worthy question of what it means exactly to “occasionally do things with Morgan Stanley,” let’s focus on how Mack and CR’s remarkable commonalities affect the broadcast or, at least, how they express themselves on it. Mack, in the tradition of modern Wall Street bankers, is a studiously dull interview—entertaining only in the contortions he undertakes to avoid expressing an opinion. “You can argue the pros and cons” of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Mack tells CR, coming down neutrally on an event that’s widely considered an act of mass-murder. A good businessman doesn’t want to offend a potential client, even (or especially) when he’s the Devil.

But more notable than Mack’s commitment to appeasement is his embrace of a very Rose-ian belief in the power of conversation. For much of the episode, Mack gripes about American politicians telling the Chinese what to do on issues like the economy and human rights. Live with them! Read about them! And goddammit talk to them! Only after you’ve built serious relationships, Mack tells us, can you begin to really do business. Sure, you’re granting the Chinese a free-pass to do things you know are bad, but it’s in the service of a farther-reaching goal of mutual harmony and understanding. It might sound wishy-washy, but wait a minute, could Mack’s position toward China be any more similar to Charlie’s approach to his guests? Don’t confront, inquire! Don’t stake out a position, let your guests feel comfortable discussing theirs! Gain their trust, whatever their faults! And from such respect and patience, great rewards will come.

This North Carolina good ol’ boy diplomacy is music to Charlie’s ears. About midway through the interview, our man pounces on Mack, trying to hammer home their shared values: “Are you saying to me that all the trips you’ve took [sic] to China, many of them were not about making a deal, most of them were about building a relationship so there’d be the possibility…” Charlie’s brain is salivating; but Mack, a step ahead, knows better than to throw himself unequivocally behind anything. “Well, Charlie, you’ve known me for a long time. I can multi-task.” It’s the kind of coy response that we’ve come to expect from Charlie’s powerful guests, and one that—in an inverted world—we’d expect our man to make himself.

 


Note:
*A CR episode with the King sisters ranks pretty high on my top fantasy broadcasts list.

 


What does Charlie Rose think of us?

January 13, 2011

By the New York Bureau Chief

Among the ranks of professional interviewers, Charlie—or CR, as your correspondents like to call him—has earned television’s most resolutely loyal viewers while rarely, if ever, acknowledging their presence. Jon Stewart takes down the likes of Jim Cramer while hamming it up for a studio full of fans; Larry King looks into the camera often, desperately seeking our approval; Charlie doesn’t even gives us a wink. His is the most naturalistic of performances—there’s no sign of self-consciousness, down to his perpetually unlinked cuffs (a habit he claims is a matter of hasty dressing rather than deliberate style), and the fourth wall remains intact. It’s almost as if he’s unaware that he’s being watched, ignorant to the fact that his conversations are being broadcast on television*.

Modern TV is all about shouting, laughing, and crying at the viewer, so how can Charlie pull off such detachment? Who exactly does he think wants to watch him not perform? Since Charlie rarely talks to the audience, we have only scant clues. There was his recent interview with Simon Rattle, in which he opened with “Sir Simon Rattle is here. He is, as you know, the artistic director and chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.” As we know? Really? Granted Charlie is flattering Rattle (who wouldn’t know such an august figure as you, Simon?), but in an era when classical music is very far removed from mainstream culture, how many people in Charlie’s highly educated, public-television-tote-bag–wielding audience really know off the top of their heads who Simon Rattle is? Many, I suspect; but I also suspect “many” makes up less than half the viewership.

Charlie doesn’t want to hear it. Charlie’s audience—if not the audience that watches Charlie Rose—knows Simon Rattle. It’s a mythical group rendered with rose-tinged nostalgia (pun intended) for a sort of 1950s bourgeois middlebrow, and you can see its impact all over “the broadcast.” Charlie books few genuinely pop-culture figures—the Jay-Z interview being a notable exception—and his guests skew older and very white. And then there’s his treatment of politicians and businessmen, whom Rose fetes as public servants and captains of industry when much of the country regards them as the worst kind of thieves, pirates, and hucksters.

More than that, Charlie wants us to know that these bigwigs are his friends. Charlie loves to let drop that he and Morgan Stanley chairman John Mack had dinner the other night; or that he’s buddies with Steve Rattner; or that every year, he sings carols at Simpson Thacher head Dick Beattie’s Christmas party. Charlie is both an adviser to the powerful and their shameless sycophant. If almost any other journalist acted like this, it would be time to get out the pitchforks; but Charlie’s show is so defiantly old-school that his admiration for the powerful comes across as somehow hopeful. When Charlie told Fortune‘s David Kaplan, “You can’t admire anyone more than I admire Warren Buffet,” he sounded like a 7th grader who had just gotten an A in his civics class. Charlie Rose believes in America.

This earnestness, this absence of cynicism is a large part of what’s so damn attractive about Charlie Rose. There are plenty of places, from Rachel Maddow to Bill O’Reilly, where we can watch an interview subject get grilled, blackened, and tossed out. Charlie seems to genuinely respect all of his guests. How could anyone in this era be so open-minded? Is it naivety? Moral cowardice? Or a considered position that the world needs more sober discourse? Whatever the answer, Charlie makes us want to believe—not just in that day’s guest but, most fundamentally, in him.


Notes:

* David Foster Wallace picked up on this during his infamous 1997 interview with Rose. The relevant transcript:

DFW: I’m just going to look pretentious talking about this?

CR: Quit worrying about how you’re going to look and just be!

DFW: I have got news for you: coming on a television show stimulates your ‘what am I going to look like’ gland more than any other experience. You may now be such a veteran you don’t notice it anymore.

More sub.


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