The Bloom Is On The Rose

His style is a mix of uptown and down home, black-tie charm with a North Carolina drawl. For 15 months, these opposites have attracted the A list-viewers and guests-to Charlie Rose's eponymous late-night interview show on New York's public-television station, WNET. One recent week's lineup: Tom Brokaw, writer Oriana Fallaci, boxer Riddick Bowe, columnist Jimmy Breslin, Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, film directors Richard Attenborough and Louis Malle. On Jan. 4, PBS is taking Rose national, with PBS stations around the country carrying the show. Rose doesn't know yet who his guests will be that night ("I'd love to get Clinton, at least for a few minutes") but he says a bigger audience won't change the basic concept of providing "a place where people can come home at night and just eavesdrop on good conversation."

If other late-night shows seem to be permanently set at fast forward, Rose is in slow motion. The set is bare bones: a black background and a round table. No monologue, no bands, no skits, no audience. Talk is the only attraction. Rose, 50, calls it "high-energy conversation," an hour of politics, the arts, science, journalism, medicine-any subject that Rose thinks makes a good story. That may mean Bowe on working his way out of poverty, Mike Nichols on the craft of directing, New York Times reporter Jeffrey Schmalz on being a reporter with AIDS or Clinton campaign strategist James Carville on Democratic politics. Rose tries to give his viewers more than the usual sound bites. "There are people out there who have something to say," he explains, "and have to be given more than four or five minutes to say it."

Rose gravitated to journalism after earning history and law degrees at Duke University. His first major broadcasting job was working with Bill Moyers on several PBS shows in the mid-'70s. He still considers Moyers a role model. After that apprenticeship, Rose moved out on his own in 1976, working first at NBC and then hosting interview shows in Chicago, Dallas and Washington. In 1984, he went national, anchoring "Nightwatch," CBS's now defunct overnight program. The show had a small but loyal following. After six years and an Emmy, Rose left when Fox offered him a show in Los Angeles called "Personalities."

Big mistake. Rose quit after only six weeks because, he says, the show was too tabloid for his taste, and he retreated to the 524-acre soybean farm he owns near Oxford, N.C. Rose bought the farm three years ago to be close to his parents' home. "My dad found it for me," Rose says. "He loved it so I bought it." They had only a few months together there before his father died of a heart attack in 1990. Even now, Rose is tearful when he talks about his father: "The last time I saw him was on that farm." After he left "Personalities," Rose spent a lot of time at the farm thinking about his future. He was then 48-and he didn't know what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Finally, he decided to go for what he loved best-serious interviewing, not the fluffy, showbiz profiles that turned him off in L.A. "You ought to do in broadcasting that thing that's an extension of who you are and what you care about," he says. He approached several broadcasting organizations, including CNN, before WNET gave him a shot.

Although "Charlie Rose," the show and the man, has earned good reviews, criticism that he's soft on his subjects clearly rankles. A recent GQ magazine profile described him as "less pit bull than lap dog." "Anybody who would write that doesn't understand interviewing," Rose argues. "Interviewing is about the craft of trying to have a guest justify an action, reveal themselves. It's not the posture of the interviewer that makes a difference. It's the intelligence of the question and the thoroughness of the follow-up that makes the difference." As an example of his toughness, he points to his interview of Bill Clinton just before the New York primary in April. Rose spent nearly 10 minutes questioning the candidate on why he played golf at an all-white country club in Little Rock until Clinton finally admitted that it was "a lapse."

But that same interview includes another classic Charlie Rose moment. At the very end, Clinton seemed to want to talk more about the intrusions into his personal life, but Rose stopped him with a quiet reminder about running out of time. Then, he abruptly asked: "Do you remember every line of every Elvis song?" Clinton, a little nonplused, said he only knew some by heart. Rose pushed on: "Would you just hum one to give us a little sense of your favorite?" Clinton, hoarse from politicking, tried to get out of it, but finally gave in:

You know I can be found sitting home all alone If you can't come around at least please telephone. Don't be cruel. . .

Rose isn't.