Talk show offers a gall-star guest

While watching the Larry King show, I found myself grabbing the phone and dialing the number that would allow me to talk to King’s guest.

That’s the first time I ever tried to call a radio or TV show. But it is seldom that I see a creature such as King’s guest being given a national forum.

He looked OK—a handsome, articulate man in his early 50s, but with a much younger appearance.

But as King said in his introduction:

“Ten years ago, the crime shocked the nation. Tonight, the explanation. In 1983, 6-year-old David Rothenberg was a pawn in a bitter divorce battle.

“His father, Charles, at that time am unemployed waiter, flew him from New York to California, supposedly to visit Disneyland.

“Instead, as David slept in a motel room, Rothenberg doused his bed with kerosine and set him on fire. Nearby guests saved the boy’s life, but David had third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body.

“He since had more that 100 skin grafts. His father served 6 1/2 years in prison …

“Now a man who admits to a horrifying crime against his own flesh and blood faces the public for the first time since his release. Charles Rothenberg joins me in Washington.”

While King talked, we were shown a picture of a normal-looking boy before he was burned. Then we were shown a grotesque child after the burns and years of surgery.

King asked Charles Rothenberg: “Why, Charles, did you decide to come forward and talk about this tonight?”

Rothenberg: “Well, my son has been exploited for the last 10 years by his surroundings and by many of the press, and I am tired of it. And it also puts me in a position where I’m being exploited. So I had a long talk with a friend of mine … and we decided that you (the King show) would be the best for this.”

King: “Why did you do it, Charles? How could you do this to your own son?”

Rothenberg: “It’s terrible. I don’t want another parent to do what I did under stress. Or if they have problems.”

King: “And the stress was what?”

Rothenberg: “I had a lot of problems, you know. With my marriage. Worked a lot. Marie and I were divorced … .”

My jaw dropped. Stress? Millions of Americans are under stress, form divorce, poor health, poverty and thousands of other problems.

But they don’t give their kid a sleeping pill, douse him with kerosene, set him afire, then run away while others save his life.

He went on talking in so calm a tone you might have thought he was discussing the Dow Jones or the price of pork bellies.

And it appeared that what bothered him was that he didn’t like the way his case had been presented on some TV shows and in the tabloid press.

He said: “The media, as you know, Larry, they’re only interested in ratings and money. They don’t care about my son. And they don’t care about me, they don’t care about his mother.”

I couldn’t believe my own ears.

Here was a guy who committed a monstrous crime against his own child. His motive: If he couldn’t have his son, he wasn’t going to let his wife have him.

But because of California’s parole laws, he served only half of his 13-year sentence.

And his own son had said that he would never feel safe until his father was dead.

Yet, there Rothenberg was on TV—with an audience of millions—grousing about how “the media” treated him.

Not wishing to offend his media host, he turned into a TV critic, saying: “A lot of talk shows—I wanted to exclude you, Oprah Winfrey, Koppel, and Barbara Walters—they’re only interested in ratings.”

That’s when I grabbed the phone. But I couldn’t get through and in a few minutes, the show ended. On an incongruous note, incidentally, with King saying: “Tomorrow night—Jimmy Carter.” From a monster to an ex-president. That’s show biz.

What I had intended to say to Rothenberg, which King couldn’t say because he is polite to everyone, was this:

“In some countries, you would not be on TV. You would be rotting in prison for the rest of your life. Or you would have been dangled by the neck long ago. But because of our frequently ridiculous criminal justice system, you are a free man.

“Now your ex-wife fears you, and your mutilated son fears you. And they will live in fear as long as you are on the loose.

“So serving six years in prison and saying you are sorry in a calm and unemotional way really isn’t an adequate expression of remorse for your actions.

“You should do the right thing. And that, I suggest, would be to get a bucket of kerosene, pour it on your head and light up.

“Do that and I assure you that many of us in the media will have nothing but kind words for you. Such as: ‘Way to go, Charlie.'”

So maybe Charlie will read this. And if you do, Charlie, you don’t have to bother with the kerosene. A high bridge or rooftop will do.

And you won’t have to worry about any more stress.

A native Chicagoan, Mike Royko attended Wright Junior College, the University of Illinois and Northwestern University. The home base of his syndicated column is the Chicago Tribune media services.