I don’t have a lot to say about Barack Obama’s appearance on Letterman the other night. He did okay. He had a few moments of genuine, off-the-cuff wittiness, and managed to deliver some planned zingers (like the one about Sarah Palin’s actually being the lipstick in the pig/lipstick metaphor) with elan. Most important, he didn’t embarrass himself: no gaffes, and he didn’t seem to be trying too hard. Sometimes politicians–and newsfolk, who in spite of the fact that they’re on camera for a living, can be surprisingly dumb about this–try way too hard to be funny when they appear on late-night shows.
With Letterman, though, there’s an added danger. Though he shares the anti-political, pseudo-satirical, “equal-opportunity offender” approach to comedy with Leno, Conan, Craig, Kimmel, and Carson before them, he’s capable of giving a guest–even an “important” one–a good grilling, when he feels like it.
Whether he feels like it is completely dependent on whether he likes you–he, the “real” David Letterman, from Indiana. Which is why, even though in some respects he’s been coasting for years, he’s still worth watching. He’s gotten to the point where he can fake it pretty well with movie and TV celebs he doesn’t care for, but when he’s talking to a “serious” guest, he can’t hide his respect or lack thereof.
He likes Obama: the interview was substantive (consider it’s a late-night comedy show, I mean), but not very tough. When they returned from the post-interview commercial break (which is often where you really find out how Dave feels), he called Obama “smart” (Paul pronounced him “smooth”–which may or may not be strictly a compliment, coming from him).
This doesn’t mean a whole lot; Dave likes McCain, too–though I wouldn’t be surprised if he joined the ranks of erstwhile McCainiacs turned off by the senator’s less-than-honorable campaign tactics. But if you remember George W. Bush’s 2000 Late Show appearance, you witnessed a candidate Dave had some serious reservations about getting probably the toughest grilling he had throughout that campaign season.
Letterman’s no Jon Stewart. He’s not as well-informed (though not as “dumb” as he says he is), and is too easily impressed by tough guys (he’s still praising Rudy Giuliani, even after most of the country figured out the guy’s a self-serving loon). But he respects intelligence and competence, and if he figures you for a fool, he won’t suffer you gladly.
All of which leads me to this thought: Dave would utterly destroy Sarah Palin. He’d hate himself for it, and squirm all the way through–but he’d destroy her. He’d be polite–even creepily over-chivalrous, as he usually is with attractive female guests. But I think his respect for those who do “important” jobs (as opposed to what he does, which he thinks has little value), and his lack of respect for people who pretend to be worthy of those jobs (but who are really no better than him) would win out, even if he tried to keep those tendencies in check.
I think he’d destroy her. And I’ll be very surprised if the McCain campaign gives him the chance to. Leno, she can handle.