I don’t have a lot to say about President Obama’s Tonight Show appearance, but there’ll never be a better excuse for taking this blog out of mothballs.
Clearly, this is an attempt by Obama to get around what his predecessor infamously referred to as the “filter”–that is, the mainstream news media–in order to speak directly to “the people.” Given how awful the news media has become, I think this is perfectly defensible. Leno let Obama speak at some length, and his questions, while not especially insightful, were no more trivial than those typically heard in The Situation Room, or from the other side of the Meet the Press desk. Leno’s no great shakes as an interviewer, but he knew to keep the focus on his interviewee, and to stay on topic. Until the last, light-hearted segment, it was a relatively substantive interview.
It was not, however, a challenging one (though Jay deserves credit for poking the Pres. when he appeared to be overselling Geithner’s responsibility for the AIG mess). It would be interesting to see how Obama would do with Jon Stewart or David Letterman. But that, of course, would defeat the other, less legitimate reason for “reaching out” via late-night TV: it’s not much of a risk. Obama going on Leno is hardly the same as Bush appearing on FOX News, but the probability of tough questioning is about the same–albeit for different reasons. (I’m not suggesting Leno’s “in the tank” for Obama, as Rupert’s crew was for Bush–just that Leno can be counted on to defer to Big Stars, whether from showbiz or politics, in a way that neither Stewart nor Letterman can.)
On the “Special Olympics” gaffe: Jaime Wieman has a good take (I love how he calls ABC jackass Jake Tapper the network’s “senior trivia correspondent”). It was unclear to me whether the joke was merely a self-deprecating comment on that still-low 129 score, or a characterization of Leno’s condescending applause (watch again, and see what you think). If it was the latter, that’s a little more impressive demonstration of quick-wittedness, and wickedness, in the sense of betraying a darker sensibility.
In any event, it was pretty inexcusable. I support Obama, and think he has used humor well, for the most part, but you just don’t do jokes about the Special Olympics on The Tonight Show. Especially if you’re President of the United States.