Tuned In

The Morning After: Letterman's Campaign

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President Obama shows off his heart-shaped potato. / CBS

President Obama shows off his heart-shaped potato. / CBS

President Barack Obama appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show last night. My colleague on the politics side, Michael Scherer, has a summary of the appearance over at Swampland. Also at Swampland, Karen Tumulty has a post up about Tom DeLay’s performance on Dancing with the Stars.

If I can work out a trade, I’ll be blogging later today about the U.S.’s military strategy in Afghanistan, while Joe Klein will be reviewing Christian Slater’s The Forgotten.

In any case, Scherer has ably gone over Obama’s performance and what he accomplished, or tried to accomplish. But I suspect David Letterman had a strategic goal with the interview too.

That simple goal: with Jay Leno out of the Tonight Show and Late Show beating Conan in viewership (even gaining ground some weeks in Conan’s young-viewer demographic), Letterman wants to establish himself as The Man in late night. The guy with the gravitas (which is hopefully not the same as “boring”). The premiere late-night host for the big events and the big appearances. The go-to guy when someone of the stature of, oh, a President has a message to get out.

Letterman has long joked that “the road to the White House runs through” the Late Show, but that’s kind of what he’s getting at here—and the road from the White House too. With Letterman feeling comfortable in the ratings now is the time to try to cement himself the position of the Chief Executive of Late Night.

It’s hard to imagine, after all, the President choosing to do Conan before Dave right now. And I don’t mean that to say that Conan is a lightweight; not only is he doing a strong comedy show night in and night out, but when I’ve interviewed him, his intelligence and thoughtfulness have been quickly apparent. I don’t doubt he has the depth to be the guy the President comes to talk to—some day. But I don’t think Conan is interested in being that guy right now; he’s focusing on establishing the comedy and entertainment sides of his Tonight show.

(This is not about whether Conan or Dave is better, by the way—or whether either of them is better than Jon Stewart, Craig Ferguson, etc. Late night is not a zero-sum game, for viewers anyway; I think we’re lucky that we have two good hosts at once in Conan and Dave. But I suspect that Conan doesn’t want too much gravitas at this stage in his career, and he’s probably right to feel that way.)

Which leaves it to Letterman, who seemed well up to the challenge with Obama. Letterman has become a much better interviewer over the years, and by the time Leno left Tonight, it was really no contest between them. And while this wasn’t 60 Minutes, both the silly and the substantive sides of the Obama interview went better than Jay’s. Obama’s not a comedian, but his dry sense of humor (sometimes too dry, which can get him in trouble) is closer to Letterman’s than to Leno’s; you could see that in how Obama ran with the heart-shaped potato episode that Letterman set up and, in turn, how Letterman pivoted off Obama’s quip that “I was black before the election.” (“How long have you been a black man?”)

It was not exactly a challenging interview, compared with the hard times Dave gave John McCain on the show (and, famously, Sarah Palin off the show), but Letterman was much more at ease segueing into completely straight questions about the economy than I would have imagined a decade or so ago. (While, at the same time, using a reference to the environment to joke about the refrigerator-like temperature he keeps the Ed Sullivan Theater at.)

I’m sure David Letterman would have liked to have been The Man of late night 17 years ago—and his producers might argue that he always was. But he’s The Man now in any case, and I hope he’s enjoying it.