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 him...it 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 Couric...it'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.