If Piers Morgan's autobiography The Insider is to be believed, then Tony Blair has a future as a soothsayer. "You should go into TV full time," the British Prime Minister told the then-just-sacked editor of The Mirror newspaper in 2004, and added, "I think you interview very well." And lo, six years later, it looks like that prophecy might come to pass, as Morgan is now tipped to fill Larry King's chair at CNN. Too bad Blair wasn't as prescient about the Middle East.
Is Morgan, in fact, "very good at interviewing?" Well, that depends on how you feel about Barbara Walters's skills, since Morgan fulfils a similar role in British culture - he's the one who gets celebrity tear ducts flowing. And when he does, the headlines follow.
In February, there was a minor storm when Gordon Brown, about to enter the election campaign that would finish him, choked up on Morgan's chat show Life Stories when talking about the death of his infant daughter, Jennifer. Not long after, Morgan sat down with his Britain's Got Talent boss Simon Cowell (in matching open-necked shirts and fake tans, although Morgan's was marginally less orange, perhaps in deference to his employer). When Cowell began talking about his father's death, he, too, started to weep. The king of mean, crying! It was a coup won with tissues.
It must be said, none of this weeping came as a result of tough questioning. Morgan's interviewing persona is cheeky, but hardly confrontational, unless you consider asking Geri Haliwell "which Spice Girl has the best bottom" to be the height of investigative journalism.
The British excel at the art of the television interview, and if CNN had wanted, it could really have raided the larder. But I'm not sure that North America's quite ready for the undiluted savagery of the British interview, which tend to be either screamingly camp and rude, or, on the political end, the modern equivalent of a bear-baiting.
It seems unlikely that U.S. celebrity interviewers, with their drawers full of cotton gloves, would question Lindsay Lohan about her sexuality, as the chat-show host Alan Carr did: "So, are you Arthur or are you Martha?"' He followed this with an even more pointed question about her preferences that was too rude even for my ears, while Lohan looked at him in horror.
It was the kind of look that politicians routinely reserve for the BBC's star pit bull, Jeremy Paxman, who has various strategies: sighs of disbelief ("I despair!" he said to an obfuscating Boris Johnson, the London mayor); repeating questions until he gets an answer; deadly putdowns ("Your publisher gave me chapter one, Ann Coulter, and I've read it. Does it get any better?").
Political journalists like Paxman and his BBC colleague Andrew Marr give no quarter, asking questions that would seem unspeakably belligerent in a North American interview: "They say you're a poodle," Paxman shot at Blair, and Marr recently raised eyebrows when he asked Gordon Brown on air if he was taking mood-altering drugs. Jon Stewart might be the exception to this American rule, though he undercuts his attacks with humour.
Even at their most brutal, though, interviewers here hide their venom in a cloak of civility: "I'm sorry, I'm going to be frightfully rude," Paxman said during his famous confrontation with Michael Howard, when he asked the former Tory leader the same question 12 times (and still didn't get an answer).
Alas, America's not likely to see Piers Morgan set off these sorts of fireworks. The gossip columnist-turned-editor-turned-talent-show-judge is a softer sort, more in the huggable mould of David Frost, another famous interviewer who fled derision at home to find talk-show success in the United States.
Morgan - dubbed "Piers Moron" by the London chatterati, who perhaps wish they had multimillion-dollar deals in America and unlimited tanning budgets - has been branded a bit of a name-dropping climber, like Frost before him. But Frost rehabilitated his reputation with that famous series of interviews with Richard Nixon, in which the disgraced president admitted he had "let the American people down."
The U.S. is the land of re-invention and redemption, and viewers there will probably warm to Morgan's story of survival: Being fired from The Mirror for publishing doctored photographs of British soldiers "torturing" an Iraqi prisoner; getting punched by Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson at a journalism awards ceremony; working for Simon Cowell.
The British tend to be skeptical about naked ambition, whereas Americans have a warmer attitude toward people who, like Morgan, have no deficit of self-regard. And the man who was once viewed as so anti-American that U.S. investors at his newspaper led a mini-revolt over coverage now seems to have switched opinions entirely. In his latest book, God Bless America, Morgan writes that, "The Yanks have, and I say this with regret more than anything else, more basic respect for each other than we do. And they're a really positive, glass-half-full bunch, devoid of the ludicrous envy that we Brits are so susceptible to."
That sounds like trouble to me. The last thing U.S. prime time needs is another cheery, glass-half-full interviewer. I hope for everyone's sake that if Morgan does take King's job, he comes home first, turns on the television and downs a pint of bitter.