National Geographic “Explorer” Host Lisa Ling is careful about what she says, but not so careful that she won’t say what she thinks. First Lady Michelle Obama is “strong.” Kitty Kelly (author of the new anti-Oprah tome) is “revolting.” And Ann Coulter? She’s “cold.” (Ling later asks the PR woman if that was too harsh. No, no, comes the response. It’s just fine.)
Just before the “Explorer” bash (hosted by Ling and Capitol File) got underway Tuesday night, Ling sat down with FishbowlDC for what can be described as the variety show interview – a little this, a little that and, unexpectedly, a whole lot of love for NBC “Meet the Press” host David Gregory.
Put the following in a mental parenthesis: The telephone inside the office of the National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium where we spoke had an exquisitely irritating ring. The ring was unrelenting. BLEEP BLEEP… BLEEP BLEEP… Ling gracefully (and comically) sat at the desk, shoulders squared. She hung up on the caller approximately five times. She’d pick up the phone and put it down without a word, adding a note of zany to the interview.
Moving on to Gregory, a shiny beacon of testosterone at California First Lady Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference late last year. Ling became taken with Gregory after he gave a speech that was, by Ling’s account, an exceptional salute to his wife, Beth Wilkinson, a lawyer who formerly worked for the Justice Department.
So moved was Ling by Gregory’s words that she sent him an e-mail on the spot: “You just won over thousands of women,” she wrote.
“He talked about his wife in such a deferential way,” she recalls. “He was so in awe of her strength and he just won me over. He basically told the story of how he went to HR and said he had to pick up his children. He said this wouldn’t have happened a decade ago.
“I wish more men felt secure enough to sometimes let their wives really flourish. He just came across as a real feminist. I was really impressed.”
Later she went on, “He was all the rage at the women’s conference. People were all buzzing about it, how he was a dreamy kind of husband.”
In December, Mediabistro (FishbowlDC’s umbrella network) reported that Ling’s favorite show was HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Ever since Obama’s win, she says, Maher, a well-known lefty, hasn’t quite adjusted to the lack of tension. Her new favorite is Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart. Ling, who is based in L.A., regularly reads WaPo, the NYT, the LAT and USA TODAY. Her favorite journalists anywhere include The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch, NYT columnist Paul Krugman and NYT’s Nick Christoff. (She’s not a huge TMZ reader, though she says the LA online tabloid once “intercepted” her at the airport when a homeless woman wouldn’t let her go to her car. “She had a lot to tell me,” Ling explains.)
Ling’s schedule is a flurry of projects — D.C. is her 14th city since last week. She’s shooting in Ohio for the documentary show she’ll host on OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network). She won’t reveal program topics, but she describes it as “the documentaries I’ve always dreamed of. I think we’re going to take it to another level”. It’s based domestically.
“Explorer”, meanwhile, has taken her around the globe. The episode that has heartened her most was one that took viewers through a couple’s adoption of Chinese infant girls.
Two weeks ago she stepped in as host of CNN’s Larry King Live. She adored the experience. A guest on the show was Lucy Liu, an actress who has long been confused for Ling. “She’s very sweet,” Ling said of Liu, saying people don’t confuse them as much as they used to.
Upcoming are interviews with her sister, Laura, who was held captive in North Korea until 2009 when former President Bill Clinton intervened. Their book is: Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home. Expect to see the pair on ABC’s “Oprah” and NBC’s “Today” show. (A side note: Ling says Liu told her that people sometimes approach and tell her they are so glad she got her sister back. Liu gets so thrilled that she doesn’t always bother to correct them.)
Asked about the dove tattoo on her shin, Ling says it’s in Arabic and stands for “peace” and “love” – two themes that figure prominently in her life. She got the tattoo during the ordeal of the North Korean government sentencing her sister to 12 years in prison.
Does the dove make her think of her sister?
“Everything makes me think of her,” Ling says, explaining that there was a point when she didn’t know if she was ever going to see her again. “There isn’t a day that I’m not grateful to have her back.”
Special Programming Note: On April 19 at 9p.m. ET, Ling hosts a two-hour show honoring Explorer’s 25 years on the air. Topics range from the wreckage of the Titanic, the Afghan woman with the haunting green eyes, to coverage inside Guantanamo.
Read more Ling after the jump. Find out which host of “The View” that she’s “99.9 percent sure” she’d spar with if she was still on the show. Also, her thoughts on Oprah’s decorator guru Nate Berkus and talk show host Dr. Oz. All Photo Credits: Kris Connor, KC PHOTO.