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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Master of the Mic Plans “Different” Speech

By Lauren A.E. Schuker, Crimson Staff Writer

Larry King never went to college, and he barely graduated from high school. But King says that if it weren’t for his nationally acclaimed show, CNN’s “Larry King Live”, he would have gone back to school—law school, to be specific.

King, whose penchant for asking questions led him to his current career, says he could have also seen himself as a criminal defender, but never as a prosecutor.

“Criminal law is the most investigative kind of law—and I am the kind of guy who could argue to save a guy’s life, but never to send someone to jail—that runs against my grain. I would like to argue a case to a jury—there is something very similar about the two careers...you’re just trying to get someone to tell a story,” he says.

“I’ve always had a burning curiosity,” says King. “My mother would take me to the dentist, and I would ask him why he did his job, I would ask plumbers who came to the house about why they liked pipes, and when I went to baseball games, most kids wanted autographs, but all I wanted was to ask questions.” King says that he would trail after players when games ended, asking them why they bunted or why they stole a certain base.

“I am a why person,” he says. “And I am the kind of person that you don’t want to have sitting next to you on an airplane,” he quips.

“Of course, I am doing today exactly what I had always dreamed about doing, but had I not been a broadcaster, and had I gone into a different career, it would have been law,” he says.

While King says he has always admired broadcasters, he lists celebrity lawyer Edward Bennett Williams as one of his role models.

It seems fitting, therefore, that King, whose show is the first worldwide phone-in television talk show and CNN’s highest-rated program, will be speaking to some of the best of America’s future lawyers today. In his speech to HLS’s graduating class, King says he will focus on taking risks, a theme that has defined his journey from a rough-and-tumble childhood in Brooklyn to broadcasting superstardom.

The Early Years

Born and raised in Brooklyn as Larry Zeiger, King knew he wanted to be a broadcaster from age five, but his prospects did not look good. By the time he was nine, his father, a bar owner, had died, and his mother went on welfare to support Larry and his brother.

Larry graduated from high school with less-than-stellar grades, but with the dream of being on radio. Instead of going to college, he took a job as a mail clerk with the United Parcel Service, delivering packages to radio studios in New York. By chance, he met a broadcaster who encouraged him to go down to Miami, where the radio industry was flourishing and looking for new talent.

King quit his job and hopped on a bus to Miami, where he slept on his uncle’s sofa.

“I had odd jobs around New York City, but in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to be a broadcaster, and I knew this was my chance,” says King. “I’ve always been a risk-taker.”

Despite the hopes of success, he had a hard time finding a job, and ended up working as a janitor at a small radio station. But eventually, King landed a job as a disc jockey at a Miami station, and took off from there. In Miami, King became a popular media personality, hosting interview programs for WIOD-Radio and WTVJ-TV and writing a column for a Miami newspaper.

“The Larry King Show” went national in 1978, becoming the first nationwide call-in show. Then in 1985, “Larry King Live” debuted on CNN, and King became among the best-known broadcasting personalities in the world.

In front of an audience of millions, King interviews writers, actors, athletes and most notably, politicians. In the 1992 presidential election, Ross Perot and Al Gore ’69 used the show as a forum for debate, with Perot even announcing his bid for the presidency while on the air with King.

Often referred to as the “master of the mic,” King is known for the softball questions he throws his guests, a diverse set of celebrities, world leaders, and outcasts, including Princess Diana, Frank Sinatra and Yassar Arafat.

The Speech

King’s rise to success has been accompanied by the awarding of honorary degrees from many institutions, including George Washington University, the New England Institute of Technology, Brooklyn College and the Pratt Institute. “Every time I get one, it just flips me,” says King, who was also a recent commencement speaker at Columbia University Medical School.

In 2000, King won Harvard’s Mahoney Award for increasing public awareness about neuroscience.

With a talent for public speaking and improvisation, King, who has been on the air for 46 years now, does not like to rehearse speeches just as he does not rehearse for his show.

“I like to speak extemporaneously, off-the-cuff,” he reports. “I do not have a planned, prepared speech for [HLS], in fact, I probably won’t think too much about it until that morning.”

“The way I’m introduced might affect the way I speak,” he adds. “Who knows—but it will definitely be a different speech—it will not be your typical ‘we are going to rise together, folks . . .’ deal.”

Richard Coe, a third-year HLS student and one of the four class marshals who invited King to speak, will introduce him today.

“Since the O. J. Simpson trial, the public perception of the law has been increasingly influenced by the media,” Coe says. “Larry King shapes what issues the public cares about, and in that sense, we were very interested in him as a speaker.”

“And the skills that one uses in an interview and as a lawyer are very similar as well,” Coe adds.

King, whose passion for broadcasting extends far back into his childhood, says he hopes to convey this sense of passion, as well as humor, in his speech.

“I always wanted to be on the radio, always,” he says. “And as a broadcaster, you have the chance to make those whom you are interviewing and those who are watching you laugh—and there is no bigger joy than that.”

In his speech King says he wants to convey that risk taking was central to his career, which was jumpstarted when he hopped on a bus for Miami.

“I learned the hard way,” he says. “I learned by doing. I never had a teacher, but the thing I always had was fortitude and the ability to take risks.”

King says he hopes to convey the sentiment that “he who hesitates is lost” to HLS students.

“In my life, I always went to the moment—and that always worked,” says King. “If you want to be the best lawyer you can be, and you want to do the best you can, everyday, then let the chips fall.”

“I’ve always trusted my instincts,” he adds. King says that this sentiment was inspired by a sign that hung in the first radio station he worked at, which read “If in doubt, leave it out.”

—Staff writer Lauren A.E. Schuker can be reached at schuker@fas.harvard.edu.

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