Patricia Nell Warren

Nominating David Letterman for...

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | September 27, 2008 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics, Politics
Tags: Bill Maher, John McCain, Late Show, Letterman, McCain campaign, ride to the airport

Remember when Letterman laid an egg as MC at the 1995 Oscars? I was watching that night, and thought he was funny as hell, because I lived in New York long enough to appreciate the city's cocktail mix of irony and edge for humor. But David Letterman's approach didn't amuse the stuffed tuxedos of the entertainment industry. They asked for it, too...they should have known what they were getting when they invited made you wonder if they ever watched his show. Anyway, the Oscars fiasco was chalked up as proof that Letterman was a lightweight, along with the "Late Show's" lower-than-Leno ratings for years and years.

In recent years Letterman started getting more political -- edging into what Ken Tucker's 1999 biopiece in Salon called "comedic guerrilla warfare." In turn, politicians and candidates started looking at talk-show gigs -- especially the "Late Show" -- as convenient stops on the campaign trail. Evidently they weren't paying attention to how dangerous Letterman was getting.

Especially McCain, when he booked with the "Late Show" for the other night, only to cancel on the excuse that he was "racing to the airport," heading for Washington so he could help save the economy.

Surely there was one lone lightbulb on McCain's team...somebody with a clipboard and a brain, who looked at the scheduling logistics and said, "Uh, Senator, this is not a good idea. Letterman is going to find out you're really interviewing with's the same network, for chrissake."

Whatever happened to produce their fatal decision, the McCain campaign got caught in one of the biggest pants-downs in American election history. They made it possible for Letterman to sit there at his desk and punch up the feed from elsewhere in CBS, where the Senator was just going live in his interview with Katie Couric. Letterman's line, "Hey, John...need a ride to the airport?" will go down in history along with "You won't have Nixon to kick around any more."

In recent years, other comics have moved to the fore in politics as well. Goddess knows, we need them desperately -- they pop the hot-air balloons that are more and more what keep American politics afloat. As native American traditions have known for thousands of years, the Heyokah (sacred clown) has a gift for making points with humor that nobody else can make with a straight face. Bill Maher says things that talking heads on the news shows simply don't have the balls or the insight to say.

But marry the Heyokah imperative with New York wit, and you get Letterman. You get Letterman's ambush of McCain -- which went on and on that night. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, who sat in as a sub for the Senator and managed to contain himself, just nodded and smiled and looked like a cat getting ready to swallow canaries. Next day, on his own show, Olbermann delivered the details on how McCain had lied to Letterman -- the candidate was still in New York City the next morning.

The whole thing occupied a new beachhead for talk shows in political warfare.

Looking at the utterances of some media pundits, and hundreds of online comments about this incident, I see that some Americans are not getting it about what really happened. One commenter at YouTube was indignant on McCain's behalf. He said, "Letterman was being a little facetious when he said 'the road to the White House runs through me.' He is, after all, a comedian. I don't think anyone thinks Letterman is more important then a national financial crisis."

Well, when it comes to politics, a comedian isn't just a comedian. At that moment in American history, for John McCain, the road to the White House did run through Letterman. Like the Oscars producers in '95, McCain should have known what he was risking -- especially since he's been on the show before and even tried to trade barbs with the barbmeister himself. Now McCain has a big fat bullet hole in his forehead, put there by the "comedic guerrilla." And his campaign may be KIA because of it.

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I don't know that it will have so much impact on the campaign. The Republican base tends to be an older crowd, not so appreciative of Letterman's humour anyway. It will help galvanize the youth vote for the Dems, that "slacker uprising" that Michael Moore is hoping to re-energize.

I'm not so impressed by Letterman, particularily by his continued treatment of transfolk as freaks, recently witnessed by barbs levelled against Thomas Beattie, Isis and his perennial favorite, Michael Jackson -- who might not be trans, we don't know, but it's moreso his gender presentation that Letterman and the like focus on, and less so the specific allegations (consequently, Jackson will always be that relative we're embarassed by and never talk about).

My personal favorite comedians, who we can never hear enough from, are Lewis Black, Wanda Sykes, Maher and the late, great George Carlin. It would be nice to see them given the same level of clout as Letterman -- although once again, this would still only affect a largely youth and/or liberal population.

Love it, Patiricia! And I love Letterman. I love that he let McCain have it full throttle.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 27, 2008 12:29 PM

No one did it better since Johnny Carson went after Nixon. I don't get the full show here, but what I have seen shows how disingenuous McCain is when he could have scheduled around to make both gigs.

But there was a crisis, and Washington needed him!

Until the majority leader of the Senate told him to get out of town.

Everybody's taste in comedians is very personal, of course. And I like Eddie Izzard too, BTW. The point is, McCain gave Letterman an opening to do a job on him, politically, on prime time.

And according to Keith Olberman, McCain didn't even go to Washington till the next day. So much for being needed.

Last night, in the post-debate post mortem, I noticed that CNN was careful not to mention the whole Late Show brouhana, and the lie to Letterman. So maybe the major media are going to give McCain a pass on his lie. If McCain is allowed to get away with this, there will be more and bigger and more brazen lies.

John R. Selig | September 27, 2008 1:20 PM

Great post Patricia.

It doesn't really matter whether one likes David Letterman or not. He has a large and loyal audience of over 4 million viewers who adore David Letterman. McCain made a huge tactical error by dissing Dave. He lied and said he needed to rush back to D.C. and he got caught (not with his pants down but with make up being applied to his face just a few blocks away at another CBS studio). Can anybody spell "Stupid?"

Not only does Letterman have a loyal audience but a slight against Dave is something they won't like. McCain was caught in a lie, Dave was pissed enough to spend 9 1/2 minutes on the topic on Wednesday night and again on Thursday. What is even worse is that millions have seen Letterman's comments on YouTube and it has made it into the news cycle in both broadcast and print.

McCain's decision to lie to Letterman and cancel his appearance just one hour prior to "The Lat Show" taping for the night will definitely hurt McCain. When a politician is caught in a lie and is caught red handed it causes voters to question the integrity of the politician. The McCain people realized their mistake afterwards by substantially increasing their ad budget in David Letterman's home state (Indiana) which has been comfortably in the "Red" column.

Keith Olbermann, who was the replacement for McCain" on Wednesday night later stated on his MSNBC show "Countdown," some were saying that Letterman's comments were being compared with Walter Cronkite telling his audience in 1968 that the U.S. should start negotiating with North Vietnam to end the war. Cronkite's comments were credited with helping influence Lyndon B. Johnson to decide not tyo run for re-election.

As much as I dislike John MCain's stand on issues, I am even more fearful of his bad judgement.

The Letterman "rants" were terrific!

I think Dave Letterman is a comic genuis and I love how he and his musical director, Paul Shaffer, interact. Schaffer is a musician's musician and has been with Letterman since 1982, but I digress. Back to the nearly senile, liar John McCain and the totally unqualified, liar Sarah Palin; Patricia, I hope your Goddess will protect us from this evil pair.

Well I have vented enough. Robert, Serena and John, I thought your comments were spot on too!

like Letterman, but give me Chris Rock any day.

Surely there was one lone lightbulb on McCain's team...somebody with a clipboard and a brain, who looked at the scheduling logistics and said, "Uh, Senator, this is not a good idea. Letterman is going to find out you're really interviewing with's the same network, for chrissake."

That paragraph made me laugh out loud. I even read it to a couple of friends who were hanging out when I read it. :)

Letterman was great that night. I think we all could have done without his "He's a POW!" sycophancy, but that's par for the course when it comes to traditional media outlets and McCain. Other than that, it really hammered home the dishonesty.