On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights this week, while Keith Olbermann fulfills a contractual obligation to TBS that predates his recent return to ESPN, Olbermann’s eponymous nightly show will be hosted by Larry King. The former CNN personality, who currently hosts two online talk shows for Ora.tv, spoke over the phone to The New Republic Monday about his history in sports journalism, the impending government shutdown (and why the Republicans are to blame), and how he’d advise the male Olympic athletes to hold hands when they arrive in Sochi for the 2014 Games. A Brooklyn native, King said that early fall in New York can’t be beaten—“we used to call it Rosh Hashanah weather.” (To skip the sports talk and get right to politics, click here.)
Marc Tracy: How did you guest–hosting “Olbermann” come about?
Larry King: [ESPN Executive Editor] John Walsh—an old, dear friend of mine—he called me and said, “Olbermann’s gonna be away and we know you love sports and you used to do a sports show in Miami, you did Dolphin football, you’re a baseball fan, how’d you like to do ‘Olbermann’ for a week?” It turned into three nights. So I said, “Sure.” And he said, “Can you come to New York the first week of October?” I said, “The playoffs are starting.” And he said, “Yeah, the best three-of-five is the end of the week, you can get to the see the Dodgers.” We’ve been doing Ora tapes here for my Internet show. We taped Michael Shannon this morning, we’re doing Donald Trump.
MT: I know one place you got your start as a journalist was in sports.
LK: Well I did everything when I started. In Miami I did news, I did weather, I did sports, I did disk-jockeying. And I did a sports talk show every week—every Saturday night. Then when the Dolphins came to town, I broadcast the Dolphins for five years, including the unbeaten season. I did the color.
MT: They’re unbeaten so far this season.
LK: You’re not kidding, but I think they’re going to run into a buzzsaw tonight. New Orleans is unbeaten too—hard to play there.
MT: When did you last cover sports regularly?
LK: Last time I did a regular sports show is—oh my God. It would have to be in Miami probably in 1978 before I started my national radio show. But I always did sports. I’ve intertwined sports all my life.
MT: Which teams are you a fan of?
LK: Well I grew up with the [Brooklyn] Dodgers, and then I left New York the same time the Dodgers did—the Dodgers went west, I went south. And the [Baltimore] Orioles were training in Miami, so I became a fan. I followed the Dodgers, but they were 3000 miles away. Then I moved to Los Angeles in 1996 and had two new children and they grew up Dodgers fans. So my dream wish would be a Dodger-Oriole World Series.
MT: How would you compare New York and L.A. as sports towns?
LK: College football’s much bigger in L.A. New York has Columbia and what else? Nothing. New York, the fans come earlier and stay later, and L.A. the game is much more social. An NBA game in L.A., the Lakers—I’m a Clipper fan—it’s to be seen as much as seeing the game.
MT: Do you feel vindicated being a Clippers fan over the past year or two?
LK: Oh yeah, they’re much better. I love the Clippers. And now I tell you, they got a super team. They’ve got [J.J.] Reddick—they’ve got five three-point shooters. They’re very deep. I think they’re going to be a force in the West.
MT: Which guests are they booking for you?
LK: So far, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is booked. Colin Cowherd. Stephen A. Smith. I think they’re going after a couple of the baseball managers for the playoffs. I think we’ll get [Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don] Mattingly, who I know very well. As I say, I’m rooting for the Dodgers. Although we don’t have [Matt] Kemp, and I don’t think we have [Andre] Ethier. However, we were 50-8 without Kemp. [The remarkable run was actually 42-8.] The shot we’ve got is, we’ve got [Clayton] Kershaw, we’ve got [Zach] Greinke, and we’ve got [Hyun-Jin] Ryu. And if you have three good pitchers—I don’t think any team has quite the match of those three.
MT: Maybe the Detroit Tigers.
LK: Well that would be the World Series—I’ll take that if we can get into the World Series. I like the [Boston] Red Sox though. They’re my idea of a team. A Dodgers-Red Sox World Series would be a classic.
MT: Think of the ratings.
LK: Oh, the ratings would be unbelievable.
MT: This is a huge week in D.C. Do you wish you still had the CNN show on a week like this or are you relieved?
LK: Absolutely. My Internet show is wonderful, but we taped what I taped this morning. I’m taping Donald Trump tomorrow. I’m taping Jesse Ventura. But on a major political story, we’re not on top of the scene, because we tape. And that’s what I miss. I’d love to be in Washington. Although I’d rather be doing ESPN than that. Sports are my favorite. It’s the first thing I turn to every day.
MT: What do you make of what’s going on in D.C.?
LK: I can’t believe it. I just sent out a tweet [Editor’s note: King tweets at @kingsthings] in which I said: “We have a government that doesn’t want to spend money on health, but is willing to spend billions on killing people in Iraq.” Our priorities are out of whack. Government is at a standstill. In all the years I’ve followed politics—I’m a political junkie—this is one of the worst periods I’ve ever seen. If this were the Senate and the House of the ‘60s, it would’ve been a whole different story. There’s no Everett Dirksen on the Republican side. There are no giants anymore. I miss Ted Kennedy. This is a different time. It’s sad.
MT: There’s three schools of thoughts. There’s the school that blames Democrats, the school that blames Republicans, and the school that says, “A pox on both your houses." Which school would you subscribe to?
LK: Well it’s a pox more on the Republicans in this case, because the law is the law. They’ve tried to knock this law [the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare] for years. And I’ll take you back, because I’m not young anymore. In 1962, I moderated a debate between then–Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Ed Annis, the president of the [American Medical Association]. The debate was on Medicare. The feeling in the country was violent. The AMA was totally opposed to Medicare. And Hubert Humphrey argued for it, and Ed Annis argued against it. It was virulent. And now, 99 percent of America loves Medicare. In fact, when the health bill was being proposed, one of the first things even the Tea Party was saying was, “Don’t take away our Medicare.” I’m an independent, but on this issue, I blame the Republicans more.
MT: I know your show is done by Ora and you have editorial oversight, but that it’s distributed by Russia Today. How has that relationship gone?
LK: They’re merely a distributor. I tape shows over there once a week, or sometimes we do them at Ora. They’re nice people to deal with, but they don’t have any control. It’s licensed.
MT: What do you think we should do about the Olympics in Sochi?
LK: I would go to the Olympics and wear a black armband and strongly protest. Have the male athletes come in holding hands. I had Jimmy Carter on in 1982. Former president, right? And we were discussing the fact that we didn’t compete in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, because they invaded Afghanistan. President Carter kept the athletes home. We were taking calls, and a caller called in from Des Moines, Iowa, and said, “Mr. President, I don’t want to be out of line here, but did anyone bring this up? Why didn’t you send the athletes to the Olympics, have them wear black armbands in honor of the people of Afghanistan, and when they win any medal—gold, silver, or bronze—don’t accept any medal? Ask them to mail the medal. You see an American win a race. Now’s the time for him to stand up on the podium. He doesn’t stand up on the podium. That means every time that happens, you have to mention Afghanistan. ‘Why isn’t he doing this? Because the Russians went into Afghanistan.’ The athletes get to go, they get to compete, and you can make the worldwide statement every day and night for two weeks.” And Carter said, “I absolutely would’ve done that. Nobody suggested it.” Wasn’t that a great idea? That came from a citizen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Marc Tract is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow him @marcatracy.