Is David Letterman The New Washington Post?

[ Posted Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 – 17:07 UTC ]

Three decades ago, the newspaper The Washington Post took down a sitting president. Now, it has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Recently offering to sell access to its reporters and administration bigwigs for the low, low price of $25,000 per "salon" certainly didn't help improve the paper's image. But, little noticed among the mainstream media (but much more so among the zeitgeist), David Letterman has now played a major role not only in determining last year's election, but also in hounding Sarah Palin out of office (at least, according to Palin's close friends). This, if true, is a notable achievement for a late-night comedian... but nobody seems to be noticing.

Of course, now that Senator Al Franken has been sworn into the United States Senate, I guess the bar has been significantly raised for "impressiveness" among late-night comedians in general. Much as Ronald Reagan raised the bar for what could be achieved by ex-actors (to follow in his footsteps: Fred Thompson, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others), Franken reclaiming Paul Wellstone's Minnesota Senate seat for Democrats will forever be a gauntlet to throw down for comics and entertainers who make a career of sniping at politicians from the sidelines (which applies equally to Letterman and people like Rush Limbaugh) -- who all, fairly or unfairly, can now be challenged to "put up or shut up" in the political arena.

But Letterman, even though I don't believe he's ever going to run for any office, still managed to contribute to the fall of both the presidential nominee from last year, and now the vice presidential nominee as well. Some might argue that "fall" isn't really accurate in either John McCain's case (he's still a sitting senator), or Sarah Palin's (if you think she's really just beginning her 2012 presidential run, as I talked about yesterday). And it's certainly debatable how much influence Letterman wielded in either case as well.

But it can safely be said that Letterman's influence was more than zero in both cases. In McCain's case, a lot of things happened on one day, and while his poll numbers took their final dive as a direct result of that day, Letterman was only one of many possibilities that voters took into consideration after that fateful day.

I wrote extensively about this when it happened. John McCain, when faced with an economic crisis in the midst of the presidential campaign, seemed erratic in his response (to put it mildly). In one day late last September, John McCain "suspended" his campaign, announced he was pulling out of the first scheduled presidential debate with Barack Obama, and declared he was "rushing" back to Washington to knock some heads and take single-handed control of the U.S. economy. He followed this up by not rushing back to Washington, but instead taping an interview with Katie Couric in New York on the same day. Then when he did get back to Washington (the next day), his own fellow Republican senators basically ignored him (he reportedly "made some phone calls" from his apartment in Virginia, rather than single-handedly saving the economy as he had promised). Chastened, McCain flip-flopped and decided to go ahead and show up at the debate anyway. Plus, as icing on this cake for McCain's "weekus horribilus" (not quite sure of that Latin, sorry), this was also the week the disastrous series of Katie Couric interviews with Sarah Palin aired.

But McCain also did something else that week, which (in my opinion, at least), had serious consequences as well. Because McCain enraged David Letterman in the midst of it all. And Letterman held this particular grudge for weeks of airtime, during October of an election year.

What happened was that McCain had been scheduled to appear at a taping of Letterman's show, in New York City. The show would be broadcast that evening. McCain -- at the last minute (a cardinal sin in the entertainment world) -- phoned Letterman up and told him there was an economic crisis afoot and therefore McCain's presence in Washington was urgently needed. Letterman started off his show annoyed at McCain, and it showed. Letterman hit McCain for "suspending" his campaign, but he didn't go ballistic until later in the program. Because, being tied in to the CBS television world, someone in Letterman's tech room noticed that Couric was on the air interviewing McCain while Letterman was taping his show. This gave lie to the whole "I'm rushing back to Washington" line McCain had fed Letterman, and David Letterman hit the roof. He cut in to a view of the live feed of Katie's show during his own show (with audio of Letterman's snarky comments such as "Do you need a ride to the airport?!?" instead of the audio from the interview). It was, in a word, brutal, what Letterman did to McCain -- not only that night, but for weeks of constant and far-ranging ridicule afterwards.

McCain eventually realized the depth of his mistake, and re-booked an appearance on Letterman (where, to McCain's credit, he admitted: "I screwed up") weeks later, but by then it was too late. The damage had been done.

Letterman's influence on Palin, from the reports and rumors out there, was of a decidedly different type. Because Letterman apparently got under Palin's skin in a major way. And also, because Letterman's attack this time was just about indefensible. Whether you love him or hate him, what Letterman did to John McCain was due to McCain's actions (he brought it upon himself, in other words). What Letterman did to Palin, however, was on a much more personal level.

Sarah Palin traveled to New York City to attend a Republican get-together. While in the city, she attended a Yankees game with her daughter. Letterman tried to joke about this, after he had already served up some cutting Sarah Palin jokes. He said that Sarah Palin had taken her daughter to a Yankees game, and in the seventh inning stretch, "A-Rod knocked her daughter up."

This was a big problem for Letterman. Because he didn't do his fact-checking (late-night comedy shows are notorious for fudging the details in order to get a bigger laugh, it should be noted). The daughter that came to New York was not (as Letterman later said he assumed -- he never said a name, just the word "daughter") Bristol Palin, but instead Willow Palin. Bristol, when 17 years old, got pregnant. This was a huge news story during Palin's campaign with McCain. Now, Bristol Palin is 18 years old (an adult, in other words), and has become a public advocacy figure herself (in favor of abstinence education, if you can believe that). Meaning, by the rules of politics, she is fair game for the jokesters. Children of politicians are supposed to be off-limits (although politicians do love putting them onstage as props), but when they enter the public sphere as an issues spokesman, they are indeed a fair target for comedians. Just as, when Amy Carter was a minor, she was not fair game -- but when she was in college and protesting apartheid, she most definitely was.

But Willow Palin is only 14 years old. And Sarah Palin went ballistic herself. She, and her followers, made a huge outcry against Letterman. Boycotts were promised, right-wing rage was stoked, and Sarah Palin excoriated Letterman for, in essence, advocating child rape. She even went as far as suggesting her daughter would not be safe in the same room as Letterman.

Letterman, realizing what an enormous error he had made, aired an apology that was (admittedly) more than a tad snarky. This forced him to apologize in a much more sincere way the next night. Letterman looked as if some of the corporate bigwigs at CBS had raked him over the coals, and actually appeared chagrined by the experience (which, it should be noted, Letterman is not generally known for).

But the whole episode reportedly (again, from friends of hers) really got to Sarah Palin. It's hard to fault her for this, since she was a mother protecting her child, and since it's really tough to take Letterman's side in the episode. It was a factor -- one of many, admittedly -- in Palin's decision to step down as governor of Alaska.

Meaning, in some small way or another, Letterman was an influence in both America's rejection of John McCain, and Sarah Palin's rejection of the office she was elected to. Power of this nature is not normally reserved for late-night comedians. In the past, newspapers took down politicians, and they did so by exposing corruption. Now, a late-night comic -- through his own sense of being insulted, and then through being thoroughly insulting himself -- has brought down two national politicians. I'm not sure exactly what this says about America, but I thought it was at least worth pointing out.

Letterman's comment last night on the Sarah Palin situation: "[Was it] something I said?" Could be, Dave, could be....


[Full Disclosure: I'm not a Letterman fan, although I do watch his show occasionally to see what late-night comics are saying about things. In my opinion, the funniest guy on late nights is Craig Ferguson, but that's just one man's opinion, so make of it what you will.]


-- Chris Weigant


One Comment on “Is David Letterman The New Washington Post?”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Talk about words virtually jumping off the page and clear through the computer screen!

    "Now, a late-night comic — through his own sense of being insulted, and then through being thoroughly insulting himself — has brought down two national politicians. I'm not sure exactly what this says about America, but I thought it was at least worth pointing out."

    Well, I can only say that this sort of thing has been happening for years with similar consequences to politicians with far more substance and integrity than McCain and Palin. And, the late night comics, including Craig Ferguson, have lots of company - or, shall I say more culpable co-conspirators in the form of the vast majority of the media, blogosphere and punditocracy who engage in the same sort of ignorant ridicule.

    What does it say about the people - of America, or of Canada, or of any other nation where this sort of behavior occurs?

    It says that our democracy is threatened by an ill-informed citizenry seemingly incapable of critical thought and by the ignorance of the late night comics (ALL of them!) and, far more consequentially, by the ineptitude and incompetence that run rampant through the ranks of the media (new and traditional) and the pundit class (of all political stripes).

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