As the CBS Morning News Withers, Nightwatch's Charlie Rose Gets the Thorny Job of Keeping It Alive

UPDATED 10/06/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/06/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

For the past two and a half years the only people who got to enjoy Charlie Rose (besides—just ask him—Charlie Rose) were those hard-core insomniacs and lobster shifters still awake after David Letterman. Bored by sermonette? Flip on over to CBS Nightwatch, the taped two-hour interview show (broadcast twice between 2 and 6 a.m.) where the cleft-chinned, honey-voiced Rose was holding forth impressively.

Despite having the worst time slot on TV and a program plagued by budget cuts, Charlie picked up an enthusiastic, dedicated audience; nearly 2.5 million sets were tuned in to him each weekday night. Those numbers caught the attention even of a CBS management that lately seems to have turned Black Rock, the company's headquarters building in Manhattan, over to the Three Stooges. So, as a reward for his ability to squeeze lemonade from a lemon, Rose has been given a promotion—sort of. Since Aug. 18 he has been co-hosting the ill-starred CBS Morning News as it limps through its final months. While the show will die at the end of the year (and Charlie will return to Nightwatch), CBS is hoping that at least the Morning News will go out in a Rose-colored haze.

No anchor in the 32-year history of the CBS Morning News has been able to get breakfasters to switch the dials, but Rose, 44, will attempt the feat with two standout qualities: (1) The Duke-educated lawyer gives quality conversation, dropping in erudite facts when he's interviewing as often as he drops erudite names when he's being interviewed; (2) Rose's ego, even by TV standards, is huge. "His desire to hear himself talk makes him an engaging interviewer," says a former Nightwatch staffer. "He's the most frightening combination of insecurity and egotism I've ever come across."

Rose wouldn't necessarily disagree with that assessment. "I'm not falsely modest," he says. "My energy, enthusiasm, caring and sensitivity is the engine that made Nightwatch work. My role is to be a catalyst for the conversation, to come into the arena prepared, informed and spontaneous. I have a commitment to my own self."

Fulfilling that commitment is a demanding job, allowing Rose only about four or five hours of sleep a day. "Sure I'm a workaholic," he says. "I can't escape that. There's always a nervousness about wanting to be good. It's like it is for a boxer before he gets into the ring—it's that adrenaline rush. I'm sure when they come to get the Type A's, they'll be rounding me up at my TV studio. As they said about Lincoln, 'There's a fire that burns inside of him.' "

About the only thing that can dampen Rose's fire is the suggestion that his ego might be a bit too healthy. "I don't think of myself as having an enormous ego," he says, wounded. "I have confidence, but I'm not going to the nearest mountaintop and saying, 'Here I am, world, love me!' I'm just a kid from a small town in North Carolina who's never lacked the passion or courage or willingness to take a risk."

That small town is Henderson, where Charlie's parents, Charles Sr., 70, and Margaret, 68, own three small tobacco farms and a country store, the Rose Gin and Supply Company. An only child, Charlie switched from law to TV journalism after three years of practice "to watch history being made." His résumé is a testament to ambition: Free-lance interviewer, WPIX, New York, 1972. Managing editor of Bill Moyers' International Report, PBS, 1974. Executive producer of Bill Moyers' Journal, 1975. Political correspondent, NBC News, 1976. Co-host of ABC's A.M. Chicago, 1978. Host of NBC's The Charlie Rose Show, Dallas/ Fort Worth edition, 1979. Host of NBC's The Charlie Rose Show, Washington edition, 1981.

His personal résumé also attests to his drive: His 12-year marriage to former Atlanta TV journalist Mary King ended in 1980. "Workaholism had everything to do with it," Rose admits. "It's the saddest thing—I lost track of the marriage. I consider it the biggest failure of my life, allowing my marriage to be a casualty of my own desire for a place in the sun."

After the divorce Rose earned a reputation as a womanizer, but those stories have since died down. He's now involved in a relationship, and although he won't talk about the woman ("I don't want to embarrass her"), he will talk in the abstract. "Having a passionate, caring relationship is a major goal. As I think Freud discussed, the two most important things are love and work."

On weekends Charlie shuttles from a Manhattan apartment to his four-story Washington house and the half-size basketball court in his backyard. Sports freak Rose (6'4", 190 lbs.) keeps fit, but the place can seem empty. "I look forward to having a family, sharing," he says. "A great disappointment in my life is not having children. The second disappointment is, although I'm a lawyer, I never argued a case before a jury."

So much for regrets; when it comes to his career, Rose will not slow down. Although he's serving a lame duck term on CBS Morning News, he believes the show will be "every bit as creative, aggressive and compelling as Today and Good Morning, America." He throws his arms in the air, exclaiming, "I grab life and go with it, because"—he snaps his fingers—"it can be extinguished like that! This is the kind of life I want to live. 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,' as Emerson or Thoreau said. I don't want life to pass me by."

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