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McCain trial by Letterman's fire

October 18, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

Thursday was comedy night in the 2008 presidential race. John McCain made a much-delayed appearance on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman," then moved on to the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, where he shared a dais and alternated monologues with opponent Barack Obama. Sen. Joe Biden was a guest on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." Sarah Palin was nowhere to be seen, but she was certainly talked about and is scheduled to appear -- as Tina Fey, perhaps? -- on "Saturday Night Live" this weekend.

"The road to the White House runs right through here," Letterman has been saying of his show, and he has a point. The late-night talk circuit, of which Letterman is king -- in terms of authority, if not ratings -- became a necessary destination for presidential candidates during this extremely long election cycle. And not just because that's where the young people supposedly get their news nowadays. Just by showing up, the candidate signals that he or she can take a joke. And Americans find it hard to take seriously people who take themselves too seriously.

Among all this cycle's candidates, Sen. McCain seems the most willing to roll up his sleeves for comedy, to play along with the joke. ("I ask you what should we be looking for in our next president," he said on "SNL" early in the campaign. "Certainly someone who is very, very, very old.") He actually hosted the show in 2002 -- seriously hosted it, delivering the opening monologue and acting in several sketches. If he wants people to think of him as a maverick, this is the reel he should be showing.

His "Letterman" makeup test was more troubled. Letterman is as cool as Sen. Obama, and funnier of course, but he makes pique work for him as well. Owing his audience nothing but entertainment, he asks whatever questions he likes and asks them again and again if the answer doesn't satisfy him.

Letterman had barely let up on McCain in the weeks since the Republican senator from Arizona canceled an appearance, supposedly as part of suspending his campaign on account of the economic crisis. And McCain was, perhaps unfairly, already the candidate easiest to mock, because of his age -- comedy writers pen those jokes in their sleep -- and because he has often looked unhappy, annoyed or just strange in the debates. (I have to wonder, though, after watching him on "Letterman," whether some of those looks weren't attempts at facial humor.)

"Can you stay?" Letterman asked.

"Depends on how bad it gets," answered McCain, who had greeted the CBS talk-show host with a "don't hit me" gesture. "I have a son in the Marine Corps, and I asked him to FedEx me his helmet and flak jacket. But it didn't get here in time."

"I think you'll be all right," Letterman answered. But in fact the host had a lot on his mind. He became a father four years ago, and it's made him serious about the future. Though the interview never completely strayed from comedy, McCain was pushed back onto the issues again and again. "I haven't had so much fun since my last interrogation," he sighed.

Subjects included Osama bin Laden ("Buddy of mine saw him in Trenton," Letterman joked), McCain's rowdy crowds of supporters, negative campaigning ("There's millions of words said in the campaign -- come on!" said McCain, edging toward frustration) and how he chose his vice presidential running mate ("Well, we have this dartboard"). Letterman kept pressing him on Alaska Gov. Palin; it was clear he couldn't square the choice with the McCain he has often claimed to admire.

"Let me ask you a question," Letterman said. "In your guts, in your stomach -- you're a smart, tough, savvy guy -- if I were to run upstairs, wake you up in the middle of the night and say, 'John, is Sarah Palin really the woman to lead us through the next four, eight years? Through the next 9/11 attack?' "

"Absolutely," said McCain, who made his usual claims for her competence. "Have we pretty well exhausted this topic?"

"No, no," Letterman replied. "I'm just getting started."

As seen on cable news (and all across the Internet), McCain looked and sounded much happier at the white-tie Al Smith dinner. It was a kind of parallel reality: a place of amity, not enmity, where imprecations were transformed into punch lines. And it allowed McCain to be gracious to his Democratic rival, whom he called "a great man," and thoughtful about the importance of his candidacy in a way that more adversarial forums have not.

The debates have not worked out well for McCain, and "Letterman" was a mixed bag. But here he had the better jokes and the better delivery. If we chose presidents like we choose the "Last Comic Standing," this might have been the legendary game-changer McCain has been looking for. But we do not.


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