NEW YORK — John McCain tried to make amends with David Letterman on Thursday, telling the late-night comedian that he "screwed up" when he stood him up last month to focus on the economic crisis.
McCain's appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" -- his 13th time on the CBS program -- came after Letterman mocked him for three weeks and suggested his decision to suspend his campaign because of the Wall Street meltdown was merely a political maneuver.
The Republican presidential nominee took extra precautions to ensure that he made Thursday's long-awaited visit, traveling from Philadelphia by helicopter to skirt a weather delay.
When the candidate walked onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater, he pretended to cower as Letterman strode over to greet him.
"Can you stay?" the comedian asked as McCain settled into his chair.
"Yes, sir," responded McCain. He then added with a grin, "Depends on how bad it gets."
The Arizona senator said he had asked his son, who is in the Marine Corps, to FedEx him his helmet and flak jacket for the occasion, "but it didn't get here on time."
McCain was supposed to make an appearance on the show Sept. 24 but canceled at the last minute.
At the time, he told Letterman that he was catching a plane to return to Washington to deal with the burgeoning financial crisis. But Letterman was steamed to discover that McCain in fact remained in New York another day. Instead of visiting the "Late Show" studio that afternoon, the candidate made a stop at CBS News several blocks away to give an interview to anchor Katie Couric.
The incident ruptured a long-amiable relationship between the two men, who had been so friendly that McCain chose Letterman's show as the forum to announce his 2008 presidential bid.
Letterman appeared offended by McCain's behavior. The day after the senator stood him up, Letterman told his audience that when McCain first told him he had to cancel to deal with the economic meltdown, "I felt like a patriot."
"And now I'm just feeling like an ugly date," he said.
At Friday's taping, Letterman wasted no time in confronting his guest.
"Now what exactly happened?" he asked McCain. "I got to think, well, maybe I'm just not important enough."
"I screwed up," responded the senator. He shrugged and opened his arms apologetically, adding, "But look at all the conversation I gave you."
"Well, I'm willing to put this behind us," Letterman said.
The candidate appeared visibly relieved. "Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you," he said.
Still, Letterman wasn't ready to let him off the hook.
"I want your friend Sarah Palin here," he said. "And if you're in the White House, I want to be the guy who sits in the outer office, reading magazines."
"Is this a shakedown or a ransom?" asked McCain with a chuckle.
The tone quickly turned serious.
Letterman spent most of the 20-minute conversation pressing McCain about his choice of a running mate, the tone of his campaign and his attacks on Democratic rival Barack Obama.
He questioned efforts to link Obama to former Weather Underground leader William Ayers, noting McCain's relationship with Watergate operative G. Gordon Liddy.
The GOP candidate strove to maintain a calm, even-keeled demeanor throughout the questioning, though he forcefully rejected Letterman's suggestion that Alaska Gov. Palin was not qualified to assume the presidency or handle a Sept. 11-type terrorist attack.
"She's been the governor of a state with 24,000 employees," he said, adding a few minutes later: "She has inspired Americans. That's the thing we need."
It remains to be seen whether Thursday's encounter was enough to persuade Letterman to let up his barrage of jabs at McCain and Palin.
Before McCain came onstage, Letterman opened his monologue by noting that "the entire balcony is filled with state troopers fired by Sarah Palin."
For all the buzz that Letterman's stinging rebukes have attracted, the attention doesn't seem to have lifted his ratings.
From Sept. 22 through Oct. 5, the most recent data available, "Late Show" averaged 3.79 million viewers, down 1% from the same period last year.
And during the week of Sept. 29, the second week of Letterman's tirade against McCain, the program's average viewership was 3.63 million, down from 3.94 million the week before.
Despite the pounding McCain received from Letterman in recent weeks, he appeared determined to return to his TV program and smooth things over. When McCain's campaign plane was delayed for two hours at the Philadelphia airport, an aide announced that the senator had chartered a helicopter to get to New York for the show, saying it was important for him to be there on time.
Steve Duprey, McCain's close friend and frequent traveling companion, said McCain wanted to keep his commitment.