This may have been the worst year in memory, but there was one bright spot at the tail end of 2020: Connie Chung’s long-overdue return to public life. In this interview for The Originals podcast, Chung dumps out a Gatorade cooler full of tea about her news colleagues Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, and Diane Sawyer, not to mention “insufferable” interviewee Donald Trump, her grumpy scene partner in The Undoing, and onetime Late Night flirt-mate David Letterman.
While these revelations may have spawned international headlines when the episode first dropped on December 17, here, exclusively, bask in a whole new set of Chung’s confessions: how the 74-year-old network news legend felt about frequent Today show cohost Bryant Gumbel, what to expect when sampling her eponymous weed strain, as well as tales from her sexy L.A. days, before her 1984 marriage to Maury Povich, when she was staying busy coanchoring KNXT (now KCBS) news and getting busy with at least one A-list movie star.
A few years ago Matthew McConaughey had a kind of McConaissance. I think we’re now in the midst of your Connie—ssance. You disappeared for years and then all of a sudden you’re inescapable.
Yes, it’s true. I’ve been underground for a long, long time. So, I took a peek out of my bunker and then I jumped out and I did all sorts of things that emerged, coincidentally, at the same time. But I’m returning to the bunker right after I talk to you.
What first brought you back to the public eye recently was the re-airing of a famous 1990 interview you did with Donald Trump for CBS. Looking back, it should have been a template for the reporters that followed you. You owned the guy, challenged him on all the absurd things he was saying, like, “I don’t like publicity.” And then he says, “I’m the biggest developer in New York.” And you pointed out, “You’ve got two buildings.” Everybody who lived in New York at the time knew that he was a laughable, ridiculous person. And you called him on his bullshit. What do you remember about that encounter?
When the executive producer of that particular program told me that we were doing an interview with Trump and I said, “I don’t see why. He is insufferable and I don’t see the purpose.” But I was the anchor and only correspondent on the program and I had to fill an hour every week. So I reluctantly did it. And he sat down and he began to carry on the way he did. And I just couldn’t stomach it. I interviewed politicians in the ’70s for five years covering Capitol Hill and the White House and Pentagon. And I was accustomed to this bloviating behavior and knew how to combat it. So, I just went back to my old experience and just said exactly what I was thinking at the time, which was, “Are you kidding me?” He wasn’t very happy about it, so much so that my husband and I would see him at these celebrity golf tournaments, at the pre-cocktail party, he would say hello to my husband, Maury [Povich]. But he would completely ignore me as if I wasn’t even there, that I was invisible. It was quite shocking that I suddenly became invisible. He was very childish.
It was as though he were reading the Megyn Kelly script 20 years before the Megyn Kelly interview. He went on Joan Rivers’s show after and said you were nasty, called you a lightweight. He said that you had sent him roses and that he cut off the heads of the roses and sent the stems back to you.
I don’t remember that. I do remember I sent him roses because we wanted to do a follow-up because right after I did the interview, the very next day, Trump announced his divorce from Ivana. But during our interview, he told me Ivana was his best friend.
Oh, that’s right. You asked him, “Donald, who’s your best friend?” That was the moment I thought you really got him in a way that none of the press in 2016 got him. Because he had so much trouble with that question. You could tell, he was a man without a friend in the world, that he didn’t understand friendship. Do you remember this?
Yes, I do. You’re so right. You know how sometimes you can tell when people are not telling the truth? And also television doesn’t lie. The charm of television is that you can look at the person’s face and I think you can pass judgment. When it, Henry Kissinger said, “Peace is at hand,” I think everyone looked at him and went, “Really? Is the end of the Vietnam War really close at hand?” It was not.
When you were watching [Trump’s] rise in 2016, were you thinking that the media just didn’t handle this guy right? That there should’ve been more Connie Chung in the response to him?
I hate to tell you, but I would scream at the television. You’re not supposed to talk to a square box but I was really into yelling at the television. “Ask him this! Ask him that.” But I can’t blame reporters wholesale because I think there were a lot of reporters who did question him unmercifully and what they were doing was, they weren’t taking him seriously. But unfortunately they allowed him the time on television and the space to bloviate.
And then there was your cameo on The Undoing interviewing Hugh Grant. You were great in it, but it was very odd. They didn’t show your face in close up. Every time you spoke, they cut away to reaction shots of people watching you and Hugh Grant on TV. What happened?
Damned if I know! [laughs] I mean, when I did it, it was a whole new experience for me because I don’t do walk-ons or cameos in movies or whatever. So, I was asked last year by Ellen Chenoweth, this wonderful casting director, who’s a friend of my friend Vicki Gordon. And I said, sure. What it amounted to was going on the set, asking Hugh Grant questions with the presence of his lawyer. The questions that were written by David E. Kelley and his writing partner, Matthew Tinker, who happens to be the grandson of Grant Tinker. So, I asked them, can I kind of change the words a little bit so that it’ll sound more like questions I would ask?
Yeah. That’s not ballsy or anything! “David E. Kelley, do you mind if I rewrite you?”
[Laughs] Exactly. I had some audacity, right? And here’s the crazy thing. [The Undoing co-producer] Matthew Tinker got back to me after I rewrote and he says, “David’s fine with it.” I was blown away. I’m rewriting David E. Kelley. Are you kidding me? So, I show up at the shoot and [Susanne Bier] the Danish director says, “what happened to the other script?” And I said, “David E. Kelley let me rewrite it.” She said, “Oh, no, we’re going back to the original.” And I thought, oh shit. Now I have to memorize a whole new set of questions that don’t sound like me.” So, I think that either I look so old and so dreadful that she decided to save me from myself, or more likely, I just annoyed her. Because when Hugh Grant sat down, he was looking all rumpled. His tie was askew and I am very OCD. So I said, “Hugh, straighten up your tie.” And he fixes it. And then one collar was outside of his suit. And I went, “Hugh, fix that.” He was looking like Rodney Dangerfield. Like in Broadcast News, I thought he should sit on the back of [his] jacket so that it’s nice and tidy and he doesn’t look like Rodney Dangerfield.
You told him this as well?
Yes. I was about to. That’s the chutzpah again. I was about to do that. And he goes, “Now what?” And the Danish director gives me an evil eye as if what the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m the director.
All right. You know Hugh Grant’s reputation, correct? Jon Stewart called him the worst guest that he’d ever had on The Daily Show. He’d made everybody’s life miserable.
Oh, really? Well, he was not very friendly! I had interviewed him for his next movie after Four Weddings and a Funeral. So when I saw him on set, I said, “Oh, hi. I interviewed you right after Four Weddings and a Funeral. Do you remember?” And he said, “No.” [laughs] So, I went, “OK.”
So when the big night comes, you and Maury sit down in front of the TV to watch your star turn on The Undoing. What was your reaction, and who did you call to chew out?
Maury was so captivated he fell asleep. I didn’t call anybody. I just looked at the TV and thought, “Oh, I think I pissed her off or something.”
I found the whole ending of The Undoing terribly disappointing.
Couldn’t agree with you more. I was underwhelmed. I thought it had such great buildup and then it fell off the cliff and was a nothing ending.
Did you have a theory of who did it? I thought it was going to be the pretty blonde lawyer, the friend.
I thought it was Donald Sutherland, the father. May I give you what I think they should have done?
It should have been Nicole Kidman who did it to set him up. She set him up with her testimony, which was rather brilliant of her to do that, but she should have also been the killer.
I love it. Not only did you fix your own lines, you fixed David E. Kelly’s plot. If they ever reissue it, they’re going to take that whole scene out just for that, I think. We’re not even going to be able to hear you in it.
No, you’re right! I’m dead. I am such a dead man.
You’ve been in the news business since the ’70s, but I’m sure many people know you best from your appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in the ’80s. You were one of his favorite guests. What you had going with David Letterman was very hot. You cannot invent that kind of chemistry that you two had.
I agree. I mean, I had this thing for him and he had a thing for me and I really think it was inexplicable in that respect, and yet I really didn’t have a thing for him. Do you know what I mean?
Well, I love people who have a sense of humor and who are charming and he was that when he was on the air. Off the air, he’s dark. He is a kvetch, a goyishe kvetch.
But was he with you? Because I felt like when you took him shopping, and to a dentist appointment with you, I felt like he had a real thing for you. And he was so jealous of Maury that he’d only call him “Murray.”
That’s exactly true. And I would say, “Do you want to go out for pizza sometime?” And he’d say, “Maybe,” and I’d say, “I’ll bring Maury.” And he’d say, “No.”
Was this on camera or off?
Let me think. The pizza part may have been on camera, but I think off camera I said, “Why don’t we get together?” And basically his answer was, “Only if Maury isn’t coming, too.”
On Letterman, you would often make suggestive remarks about Maury’s size 12 shoes. You seemed to believe that there is an, ah…
Yes. So is there a correlation?
Let me think back when I was dating. You know, actually I don’t, because I’ve seen… the phenomenon in reverse.
So…small feet, large member?
Or vice versa.
You and Maury met when you were both anchoring at KNXT, now KCBS in Los Angeles and ended up dating after he got fired. There was a period where you stayed in L.A. and dated other people while he was working in San Francisco and Philadelphia. He’s referenced the movie stars you dated. Who were they?
Here’s where you’ve really got to wait for my book.
Really? OK. When I read it in this book, is it going to be satisfying or is it going to be like third lead in some terrible made for TV movie? Is it a big one?
It’s a big one?
Well, you mean…
No! The star. No, not the shoe or the correlation. Is it a big star?
Like Warren Beatty’s level?
I am not talking! [Laughs]
Being married as long as I have been, I sometimes have these moments of reverie where I think of romantic paths not taken. Do you think anything could have happened had you pursued something with Letterman?
No. No, because he is a completely different person off screen. And I can’t embrace dark people.
All I recall was him coming alive when you were around. When did you see that he was dark?
When I asked him to not do any more jokes about my having a baby. Back in the ’90s, late in my career, my husband and I decided, actually it was my husband who said, “You’re going to be 40 in 30 seconds and if we don’t do something about that now …” But it wasn’t so easy.
You and Maury trying to have a baby was big news at the time. You turned up in a lot of late-night monologues, right?
Yeah. It was a big, fun topic for everyone! And it went on one year, two years. But after a while, everybody else abandoned the jokes. So when it went into three years or four years and Dave was still doing jokes about it, I went to his office and another time I wrote him a nice note saying, “Can you please stop with the jokes?” And he wouldn’t do it. He just continued with the jokes. And the difference was very clear to me when Jay Leno called me. Leno said, “I was thinking of doing a joke about your wanting to have a baby. Would that be OK?” And I paused and then I said, “Yeah, sure, go ahead. No problem.” And he said, “I heard your pause. I won’t do it.” I thought, “What a mensch.”
When you were hired at CBS in 1989, you were a huge star at NBC, and CBS reportedly signed you for $2 million a year. Even after you took the job at CBS, you still went on Late Night. One of the things that Dave kept saying, was, “How soon can we look for Dan Rather to start sweating?” You were going over to a network and you were bringing an off-the-charts Q rating and Dan Rather was known for having some of the lowest Q ratings in TV news. Did CBS executives ever tell you that anchoring the CBS Evening News could be in your future?
In ’90, at that time, no. But in ’92 I signed a new three-year contract, and in it I had them guarantee that if the nightly news went to a co-anchor format I’d be the one.
You ended up becoming Dan Rather’s co-anchor in 1994. You knew Barbara Walters. She had co-anchored with Harry Reasoner and it was considered a huge disaster. Partnerships in show business and news don’t often work out. Laurel and Hardy. Martin and Lewis. Matt Lauer and Ann Curry. Rather had been doing the news solo for ten years. You had to expect that he’d be pissed off, right?
In retrospect. But for being such a wizened old news person, even today, there’s this incredible naivete about me. At the time I thought, “Oh, this is great. This is going to work just fine.”
It didn’t. Was your relationship with Rather chilly from the get go?
In person, Rather is a Texas friendly kind of guy, he’s very Texas gentlemanly and everything is always just fine, [drawling] “How are you?” and “You’re looking very good today.” There was a lot of that going on.
For all that folksiness he’s been described as somebody with very sharp elbows.
If I turned my back, I felt like I might be in a scene of Psycho in the shower.
You mean sandbagging you in the media? There had been talk that Rather had been planting negative stories.
Apparently so, but I’m not sure. [Former CBS News reporter] Bernard Goldberg said that he was once next to Dan Rather and heard Dan Rather spreading inaccurate information regarding me to a radio station. So I don’t know if that’s true.
In 1995, after two years on the job, CBS fired you from the CBS Evening News. Did this feel like a career ender to you?
Yes. I was the first woman to co-anchor the CBS Evening News. It was a big deal for me, my dream job. I always wanted to be Walter Cronkite and I was able to sit in half of Uncle Walter’s chair, but that was good enough for me. But I was never that kind of person who would sit there and woe is me and cry, cry, cry. I would get angry. And then there was this whole Chinese thing, of losing face, which is not cool. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s a little more than just embarrassing.
Afterwards there was a kind of a war between you and CBS in the media. And one of the knocks that CBS sources said about you was that you were too tabloid because you were going after the Tonya Harding and OJ Simpson stories. Did you want to be running after those kinds of stories?
When the OJ Simpson story came up and they said, “You must go.” I think Dan Rather was going to Haiti for an interview with [Haiti’s then de facto leader Raoul] Cédras I believe. And I wanted to go to Haiti to do another interview. I thought it would be a great one-two punch that we were both doing interviews. But they insisted that I do an OJ interview. And I really do regret doing so many tabloid stories under duress, frankly.
And at this point did you say to them, “Not my job. I am the host of the CBS Evening News! Get out of my office!”
If I resisted they’d put the squeeze on me. It’s probably the biggest thing I regret, that I didn’t say exactly what you just said. Here’s the remarkable thing, Andrew. Maury and I had been going through this long journey of trying to have a baby. I was dumped at CBS in 1995, but about two years earlier, we started the process of trying to adopt a baby. So, here I was, I had lost my dream job on a Friday night and the very next morning, we got a call from our adoption lawyer who said, “I have a baby for you.” And it was our son. It was serendipity. Isn’t that remarkable?
But with all that love in your life, were you still able to really experience of all your feelings of loathing and hate and desire for revenge while you had all this love concentrated on this little baby?
Oh, I probably still hold a deep grudge.
When you were at CBS, your husband’s show Maury was ascendant. Do you feel like there was any bleed over, that his tabloid TV career had any effect on you?
I don’t think so. He always said that he was Mr. Chung, and he was always boosting me. I can tell you that, honestly, I would not have survived my career ups and downs had it not been for him. I would come home and he would interpret some of the things that a boss would do to me that he thought was a typical male mind effing. He’d go, “Connie he is mind effing you.” And I, said, really? I had this incredible ability to be naïve. I wouldn’t quite get it.
You talk a lot about competing for the so-called “gets” like Tonya Harding. Why do we always associate gets with women Barbara Walters and the Diane Sawyer? Why is this considered a female arena?
It’s pretty simple. The men refuse to grovel. “We’re too good. We’re above groveling. My name is Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace and Morley Safer, and we don’t grovel, we don’t beg people for interviews. We don’t try to endear ourselves to them. We officially ask presidents for interviews through the network but we don’t go after the flimflam out there who have just happened to have made some news.”
OK, so you left CBS but Dan Rather never got out of third place and then in 2005, he had a kind of frog march out of CBS headquarters. Did you go out and fire a rifle in the air in celebration? Did you feel vindicated?
“Schadenfreude” would put it in a nutshell. I didn’t have a very good experience with a lot of male co-anchors, because they suffer from something called bigshot-itis, and it’s sort of delusions of grandeur and sort of narcissistic behavior and a feeling of inability to stop talking.
At NBC, you often subbed on Today for Jane Pauley alongside Bryant Gumble. Did he suffer from bigshot-itis?
I would say so. I’d be sitting beside him, but I was invisible, and we would see him at those same celebrity golf tournaments [as Trump.] And oftentimes I was invisible to him as well. But you know, in recent years he’s become a different guy.
He married a wonderful woman [Hilary Quinlan]. She said, “Whatever it is between the two of you, we’re not doing that anymore.”
After you left CBS, you adopted a son, Matthew, and stayed home with him for two years. Then Roone Arledge called and you joined ABC News, which was dominated by Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. What was it like having to compete with those two women?
I was naïve again. When I went to ABC, I joined with both Barbara and Diane and I thought, “Oh, this is going to be great. It’ll be three women who get along.” I was just so stupid. I was always playing a game of whack-a-mole. I popped my head up and one of them would have a hammer and go whack, and put me down back in my little hole.
What does it feel like to be kneecapped by Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer?
Well, it’s not unlike what Tonya Harding did to Nancy Kerrigan.
As far as I know, nobody actually came into your office and hit you with an aluminum baseball bat. What happened?
There was always this intense competition to get the hot story du jour, whatever it was. Whoever was in the news was inundated with requests to do interviews. When I was at NBC I would do it for NBC and when I was at CBS I would do it for CBS. But when I got to ABC, both Diane and Barbara were in the same sort of arena—trying to land these huge interviews. But when I tried to go after them, I was told I could not. That Barbara and Diane were the only ones who could compete for the interview and I had to stand down. Barbara and Diane would bounce back and forth as to who would get the interviews and I was always out of the ballgame.
For six months in 2006, you and your husband had a show called Weekends with Maury and Connie. The premise was that you two were playing against type. He was showing that he was smarter than his show and you that you were more fun. His show’s very successful but not high-toned. Does he have any kind of insecurity or chip on his shoulder about that?
He’s extremely well-read, he’s a history buff, a political buff, and he knows so much. He is extremely thoughtful. He’s actually erudite. I’ve said to him a million times, “You could do an intellectual talk interview program and run circles around some of the dodos out there.” When Charlie Rose was doing his program he was carrying on about himself so much. I said, “You could do such a good interview program, because you’re so smart.” And he said, “As long as you know that, I’m fine.” I thought, isn’t that interesting?
On the final show, you sang Bob Hope’s “Thanks For The Memories” seated on top of a grand piano in a really beautiful dress and long gloves. It was much discussed at the time and one of Youtube’s most watched videos. You must have had a couple of glasses of champagne to get the nerve up to do that, no?
You know what? There was a crazy person on one of my shoulders, and there was a good, solid citizen on the other. Throughout my career, the good, solid citizen was always telling me, “Don’t do it. Whatever you’re thinking, don’t do it. You’re going to ruin your career.” And the crazy one on the other shoulder was saying, “Come on, what the heck? You want to have fun, you want to do something a little different, go ahead. What the heck.” So the so-called good guy. Once I left the network and took the straight jacket off, I went a little nuts. It was like, they can’t make me do this. They can’t make me do that. They can’t say you got to go cover Tonya Harding or OJ Simpson. You can do whatever you want. I have this crazy stand-up comic screaming to get out of me. I really can’t sing. It was not an effort to sing on key. I was sliding off the piano in a goofy way. Everything I did was supposed to be a mess. And obviously I wasn’t pulling it off, and everyone took it seriously and thought I had gone off my rocker. [Laughs]
Whenever I see you and Maury together, I can say the nicest thing that I can say about anybody who’s been married as long as you. It’s quite obvious that you don’t fucking hate each other. There seems to be a real, genuine affection between you two.
Well, during the coronavirus quarantining, we were prone to cannibalize each other. I could not believe how many things that he did not know how to do.
It’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? You plug it in and then you move it with your arm.
Yes. But you move it forward and backward. Well, he was doing it like he was mowing a lawn. He was going from right to left, turn, left to right, turn. The cord was getting all tangled, and he was going to fall. And I said, “Are you kidding me? You don’t know how to vacuum?”
The man has had a show since ’91. I can’t even imagine how much wealth he must’ve accumulated from it. Presumably when you get to the status in entertainment as much as he has, you don’t need to use a vacuum.
He has done well. I think his parents never thought he would be able to survive his teenage years, nor did they ever think that he could support himself. But I think at one point his father [famed Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich] finally said, “I think you’re going to be OK.” And it was a sentimental moment for Maury, because he’d always been the bad boy.
I remember you once said you interviewed OJ’s mom
Yes. And she has no teeth. I called my husband and I said, “Maury, I’m about to do this interview with OJ’s mother, and she’s got no teeth.” And he said, “Gosh, on my show, we give them teeth.”
Is that true? I have been to downtown Stamford, Connecticut, before and I looked around at the people and I wondered if I was in the zombie apocalypse. But then I realized they were there to be on your husband’s show.
The Maury show, yeah.
So, if you are dentally challenged, Maury will give you teeth? Are these just teeth for the broadcast or can you bring them home with you? Maybe there’s just one set of teeth for everybody?
This was many years ago, so I don’t know if they still do teeth, but I’m not sure if they’d give them just a bite plate of some sort or really take the person to the dentist and fix him up. I don’t know.
It was a little surprising to me. I hope Maury doesn’t take this the wrong way, but I feel like when I go to that show, I’m going specifically for the sort of no teeth vibe.
Well, I understand. But I think maybe in this particular case, they could articulate a little better with teeth.
I hardly knew that he was a humanitarian. It’s like Toys for Tots, but Teeth for…
Teeth for Talk!
Teeth for Talk, yes. There you go! I was surprised to learn there’s a strain of marijuana called “Connie Chung.”
You know, Andrew, there is nothing I am more proud of, nothing. I mean, you can take your Pulitzers, you can take your Emmys, whatever. This is arriving.
Presumably you’ve tried it. Tell me about the weed. Why’s it called Connie Chung? And what’s the high like?
I’m not answering that. But it’s easy to grow. I’m easy to grow. I am low maintenance, which I think is fantastic. I have a pretty flower. And I am good under stress. In other words, if you have a deadline I can ease your feelings of stress.
Maury’s said he tried it and I can’t imagine you’re going to let Maury try the weed and not try the weed. I started thinking about it and wondering if you might be one of those secret potheads.
Oh, no. No, no, good heavens. I tried it in college, but only with this one guy who I trusted and he was so great and we laughed a lot.
OK Last thing. Finish this line. ‘The loveliest man that I ever encountered in the news business was…..’
For co-anchoring, it was [KNXT/KCBS Los Angeles’] Jess Marlow. Working with him was a joy. Walter Cronkite was the best. He was so nice.
Cronkite seemed to have a great affection for you. How about the most despicable man that you ever encountered in news was?
You know what, I’d rather not.
You’re saving it for your book?
No, I’d Rather not. Rather not say! [Laughs]
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