September 06, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

For the second presidential election in a row, Larry King Live is playing as significant a role in national politics as any other arm of the media. I know, I’m as pole-axed about that as you. I mean, Larry King? The on-air kisser of Marlon Brando’s lips and countless other celebrities’ posteriors? Larry King, writer of his-two-cents ponderings in USA Today (”Jane Robelot, the new co-host on CBS’ This Morning, looks just like Paula Zahn… They could be sisters”)?

Yet King’s CNN outlet — the news channel’s highest-rated program — has become the country’s central examination room for spin doctoring. He’s such a ratings draw that the network upped his airtime, giving him two slots for each night of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. But his influence on this election didn’t start there. Back in July, for instance, Republican nominee Bob Dole was hurting in the public perception not only as a cranky guy (Americans don’t like grumpiness in their leaders, unless you count Bill Cosby) but a cranky guy who’d recently been snippy to that sweet Katie Couric on Today. So Dole paid a visit to Dr. Larry, dragging his unnervingly ebullient wife, Elizabeth, along, and a great healing ensued. King’s chummy approach made Dole look like a nice, regular guy. Even better, a henpecked regular guy, since he and King graciously permitted Liddy to reveal her control-freak side, correcting and cutting off Bob right and left, so to speak.

King brought a fresh set of suspenders to San Diego and Chicago — although television coverage of the San Diego convention was so low-rated (over on Comedy Central, Bill Maher scoffed, ”The Tony Awards do better than this!”) and so controlled by the Republican National Committee that Nightline‘s Ted Koppel packed his bags after two nights and began making noises about cutting back on coverage of the Democratic shindig. (Personally, I think Ted was just dreading any more interviews with The Skull That Squints, James Carville.) This stuff never deterred King, however. ”It’s a helluva TV show you’ve got here!” he bellowed to RNC chairman Haley Barbour. ”Thanks, buddy,” said Barbour, and you know Barbour meant it. That’s one big reason King gets all the political and showbiz pooh-bahs he does: He’s everybody’s buddy.

He’s also, there’s no denying it, an effective TV personality of a rather unlikely sort. In contrast to most radio stars who try to make the television transition, King hasn’t just relied on his distinctive gravelly voice. The suspenders, the rolled-up sleeves, the big glasses, the intense way he leans over that big microphone, all give King some telegenic oomph, and his sycophancy and eagerness to seem in-crowdy have rendered him a cartoon. (King to Jeb Bush, son of the former President: ”We’re on the same speaker circuit, so I run into your parents a lot.”)

Such toadying hems in King, who offers virtually nothing in the way of ideas or opinions — which undoubtedly helps him with some viewers. The best remark I heard about the shotgun marriage of Dole and Jack Kemp, in fact, came from Charles Grodin, who during one of his nightly CNBC therapy sessions compared the duo to Jay Leno and his ex-bandleader Branford Marsalis. ”Kemp will be giving Dole lots of these [Grodin did a disgusted deadpan] just like Marsalis used to do to Leno.” King would never make such a remark. It’s not that he can’t be mean — one night he introduced commentator Mary Matalin as ”Mrs. James Carville, [whose husband] paid for that ring and those earrings.” He just avoids being mean to anyone whose influence is greater than his own. At CNN, he occupies an awkward position — more serious than Showbiz Today, less ridiculous than Crossfire — but he’s parlayed it into the kind of power he relishes most: King-making. C-

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