12/28/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
Larry. Larry. Larry. The name runs in a reverent buzz through the lunch crowd at the Washington power restaurant Duke Zeibert's. Natty to a fault with his carefully tended, retreating-at-the-temples coiffure, his signature suspenders and his glasses shaped like small TV screens, this year's most-talked-about talk show host acknowledges the praise with demure waves of a matzo cracker. Says Larry King, in his reassuringly resonant purr: "I've had a hell of a year. It's been so, so...weird."
Although he has had a national TV gab show for seven years and a radio call-in gig for 14, 1992 was indeed the prime time of Larry King. "A talk show host who has had a hell of a career, now in his 59th year, who suddenly finds himself on the front pages day after day, just for doing what he's always done," is how the expansive King puts it. With some luck and some savvy, by asking the questions Everyman would and rounding up the people to ask them of, King almost single-handedly transformed American political campaigning by turning CNN's weeknight Larry King Live into a sort of national town meeting. Perhaps the most seismic moment of this new Dial-a-Candidate era came on Feb. 20, when H. Ross Perot, prompted by King, proclaimed that he was willing to be drafted for the presidency. Using King's show as his forum, and King as his interlocutor, Perot bypassed the traditional political media hierarchy with electrifying results. As Election Day approached, almost every major candidate for President and Vice President made the King pilgrimage, looking to make contact with millions in a comfortable setting.
Detractors charged that the setting was just a bit too comfortable, and that King was tossing the candidates lollipop questions. King wasn't having any of that. "I couldn't get well-known being namby-pamby," he says. "I ask the questions people on the street would ask. In my heart, I'm still the kid from Brooklyn."
Lately he has had to subdue some of the restless impulses honed on those streets. The son of immigrant Russian Jews who owned a saloon, King grew up tough with his widowed mother and brother in an attic apartment. He has survived bankruptcy (in part, from a predilection for betting on the ponies in his youth), six marriages to five wives and a major heart attack in 1987.
A fountain of energy, King, who brings in more than $2 million per year from broadcasting, books, lectures and his column in USA Today% claims he wants to slow his hectic 9 A.M.-to-2 A.M. pace, to spend more time at his comfortable Arlington, Va., apartment and fire up his fabled romantic life. (The most recent of his marriages, in 1989 to executive headhunter Julie Alexander, lasted just six months.) Is it lonely at the top? The solid gold Cartier friendship bracelet King wears came from his best friend—himself. Not that he's lacking for company on-air, of course. There's hardly a guest he hasn't brought back alive, and he's hunting for more: Fidel Castro, Al Pacino, even (why not?) J.D. Salinger. "With everything I've had this year," he says, "everybody is going to return my calls."