Swallowed up in the baggy academic robes of Georgetown University, Charlie Rose stood before the school’s graduating class of 2015, shifting into the final moments of a commencement speech on lessons learned from one of the most celebrated careers in broadcast journalism.
“Think ahead to the end of your life,” he told the graduates. “And think about what you would like to be remembered for at the end of your life. It’s not honor. It’s not prestige. It is character. It is integrity. It is truth. It is doing the right thing. It’s hard to imagine or think about that when you’re 22. It’s easy when you’re 73.”
Two years later, exactly what Rose will be “remembered for” is now an open question.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported on a string of sexual assault allegations against the 75-year-old television host, including unwanted advances, groping, lewd phone calls and other improprieties. Eight women, both former employees on Rose’s eponymous talk show and aspiring journalists, told The Post about their experiences with him, as well as their fears that speaking out against the famed host could ruin their careers.
Having ascended so high, to the status of “journalistic icon,” he now faces the possibility of a rapid descent.
On Monday, hours after the report hit the Internet, CBS News announced Rose was suspended from “CBS This Morning.” PBS and Bloomberg have also halted the distribution of the hour-long talk show Rose has hosted since the early 1990s.
The loftiness of Rose’s career can be measured in part by his many honors, some of which could now be at risk: honorary degrees from Duke, Georgetown and Montclair State, to name a few; a Peabody Award and Emmy Award; the Walter Cronkite Excellence in Journalism Award; the Vincent Scully Prize; the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award; his induction as a “knight” in the French Legion of Honor.
There was considerable irony in his apology after Monday’s story broke.
On Nov. 10, while interviewing New York Times columnist David Brooks in the wake of reports of sexual predation by Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Brooks had said he was struck by the nature of the mea culpas coming from many of the accused.
“The first thing they say,” Brooks noted, ” . . . is ‘I had no idea the women were thinking this way.’”
If Rose was listening closely, it was not reflected when it was his turn to apologize.
“It is essential that these women know I hear them and that I deeply apologize for my inappropriate behavior,” Rose said in a statement to The Post. “I am greatly embarrassed. I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate.
“I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings, even though I now realize I was mistaken.”
Brooks had described that sort of expression in harsh terms.
It reflects, he said, “an inability to put your mind in the mind of the person your pushing yourself all over. It’s sort of a moral, and a humanist blindness, to another person’s experience,” Brooks said.
Rose responded: “It’s a significant societal change for sure.”
Brooks agreed, adding that, in the past, he said, such stories of sexual harassment caused just “a little ruckus.” Now, he said “we’re going to code red.”
Rose is the latest in a series of high-profile personalities toppled by similar allegations. Unlike Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly or comedian Louis C.K., Rose was not known for cultivating controversy or exuding an edgy personality. If anything, the broadcaster’s career had been marked by on-screen gentility and middle-of-the-road calm.
The rise of Charlie Rose began with a little boy reading biographies of powerful figures by candlelight in the North Carolina bedroom he shared with his grandmother.
By his own account, Rose never set out to be a talk-show host or television journalist. “There was no great plan,” Rose told New York Magazine in 1992. “I wasn’t smart enough to have a plan.”
Rose, born in a town of less than a hundred people, grew up as an only child in rural Henderson, North Carolina. His father owned an agriculture supply store near the train depot, Fortune reported in 2009. Although he kindled ideas about leaving his home state, Rose went to Duke University, just an hour’s drive from Henderson. He initially enrolled in pre-med, then jumped to history after a summer interning for then-Sen. B. Everett Jordan, a North Carolina Democrat. “I became a political junkie in a serious way that summer,” Rose told New York Magazine.
After graduation, he entered Duke’s law school. There, he met Mary King. The two married and moved to New York where she worked as a researcher for CBS. Rose worked as an attorney on Wall Street while moonlighting freelance television assignments.
Eventually, he was pulled into the orbit of Bill Moyers, working as a producer for the commentator’s PBS show International Report in 1974. Soon Rose stepped onto the other side of the camera, picking up his first Peabody in 1976 for an interview special with Jimmy Carter, according to Fortune.
Rose hopped around the country with various television gigs. Career ambitions, he later told People Magazine in 1986, split apart his marriage in 1980. “Workaholism had everything to do with it,” Rose told the magazine. “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.”
He found his niche in 1983, when CBS hired him to helm “Nightwatch.” A lobster shift weeknight show from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., Rose turned the interview-based format into a popular forum for high-profile guests, from George H.W. Bush to Woody Allen, New York Magazine reported. In one 1986 segment, Rose interviewed cult leader-turned-murderer Charles Manson. The segment went on to win an Emmy, but it also exposed Rose to a criticism that would follow him for the rest of his career – that he had little interest in pressing guests with hardball questions.
The host’s increasing profile thanks to “Nightwatch” also sparked rumors of womanizing and outsized ego, People reported. “His desire to hear himself talk makes him an engaging interviewer,” a former Nightwatch staffer told People. “He’s the most frightening combination of insecurity and egotism I’ve ever come across.”
Rose was undaunted by the criticism at the time. “I grab life and go with it, because it can be extinguished like that!” he told the magazine in 1986. “This is the kind of life I want to live.”
Rose’s star rose nationally in the early 1990s, when he launched his late-night interview show on New York’s public television station, WNET. By the time his show was syndicated nationwide in 1993, he could be seen rubbing elbows with New York’s social elite, his name cropping up in headlines in Esquire, GQ, and Vanity Fair – as well as in the gossip columns.
Rose dated Amanda Burden, a socialite and city-planning advocate, daughter of style icon Barbara “Babe” Paley and stepdaughter of William Paley, founder of CBS.
“He’s all around town,” Rose’s friend John Scanlon, then a public relations executive, told The Post in 1993. “I think he goes out virtually every night of the month . . . I say, ‘How’d you get so-and-so (to appear on the show)?’ ‘Oh, met her at a party.’ ”
Rose told Washington Post reporter Paula Span that he was comfortable walking up to shake a stranger’s hand and extending an invite to his broadcast.
“What will happen is, people will talk about the program at dinner and they develop a sense of who I am and that this is a show they’d like to be on,” Rose told Span.
Indeed, critics wrote at length in the early 1990s about Rose’s charm, his ability to schmooze just about anyone into an interview and to lure them into opening up. Span wrote that his definition of a good conversation is almost mystical, “questions that try to get at and reveal who this person is, what makes them tick,” as Rose said. “Have these people take us on a journey of exploration of who they are, what they’ve done and hope to do, what passion beats in their hearts.”
Yet this same penchant for easy-flowing conversation prompted a barrage of renewed criticism that Rose was soft on his interview subjects. A GQ magazine profile described him as “less pit bull than lap dog.” Spy Magazine labeled the host a “middlebrow sycophant.” New York Magazine noted Rose’s show was a “safe harbor for politicians, pundits, and newsmakers to present themselves to the public . . . Henry Kissinger chose the show as the place to explain why he was refusing to be interviewed by 60 Minutes.”
In a New York Times 1993 review, critic Walter Goodman wrote that no guest could ask for a “more attentive, less threatening interrogator” than Rose.
“Can Mr. Rose really find every guest that admirable and that fascinating?” he wrote. “Isn’t it wearing to come on so enthusiastically night after night? Doesn’t the relentless puffery strain the spirit or dampen the brain? Doesn’t anyone who accepts his invitation ever bore or annoy him?”
“No ego is so bloated that Mr. Rose cannot puff it up further,” Goodman added.
Rose responded to this criticism in his 1993 interview with The Post, saying there’s “never been a tough question I didn’t ask or wasn’t prepared to ask,” he retorts.
But, he confessed, “I am by nature civil . . . You can’t squeeze people into places they don’t want to be.”
Rose’s southern charm and his effusive flattery appears to have carried over beyond his dark trademark studio – including when he is on the other end of the interview.
In a 2011 Financial Times column, Gillian Tett recounted interviewing Rose over lunch. She described how Rose arrived at her table and casually tossed his coat on a chair “with a supremely confident, easy air.”
“I was going to ask you to have dinner – it would be much more fun than lunch, quieter,” he said to Tett, “oozing seductive charm,” she wrote.