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EVEN WITH CLINTON, LETTERMAN IS ROWDY AND PROUD OF IT

Such drama. Such timing. Such bad karma for CBS. At the precise moment David Letterman was poised to bounce off his Hillary Clinton interview into what could have been the February sweeps of his career, a little weekend angioplasty turned into quintuple bypass surgery.

So much for the Nielsens. Life will trump ratings any day. In one of the most important rating periods of the year, the network is forced into showing reruns while its late-night kingpin, for at least half that period, recuperates at home from open heart surgery.

The initial shock of it, the subsequent outpouring of affection and the certain concern and countdown to his re-entry may yet do what many besides CBS have long wanted to see done: unseat Jay Leno from the late-night talk throne. While CBS' numbers-crunchers will, no doubt, curse the bad timing of a couple very soft Nielsen weeks, their February patience is liable to be rewarded.

Anyone who worries that the post-op Letterman simply won't have the, well, heart to wade into his usual cranky midnight combat is simply paying attention to clinical reality. All his gangly, free-swinging, deep knee-bending aggression may not be possible for a man who is, still, after all, on the mend from some of the most serious surgery a man can have. It may be unrealistic to expect him to roar out of the chute.

The revealing beauty of his interview with Clinton is that, despite Walter Cronkite's wonderful mock-warning not to "act like a jackass" at the beginning of Letterman's most-watched show, he was every bit his usual jackass self interviewing the first lady. Who of us would have it any other way?

As he himself promised he would, Letterman not only declined to chase her around the studio, he "folded up like a cheap tent" and did as much fawning as he seems capable of.

But a strenuous effort was clearly made to make sure that the show surrounding his Hillary interview was a wee bit funkier than usual. The Turkish ping pong player with the blue dot on his pants was still in evidence. His stage manager, Biff Henderson, mocked the president's appetites by eating a very sloppy egg salad sandwich, whose remnants on his cheek and chin were lovingly displayed for a few extra seconds. The joke in the comedy bit right before the first lady's spot ended with a carton of milk dribbling all over Letterman's desk, thereby making it distinctly possible that she might have to dodge spilt milk as she sat down to her chat/lovefest.

And scheduled for the interview right after was Art Donovan, the former Baltimore Colt bruiser whom Letterman cherishes for his ability to embody the smash-mouth mentality of old football and his penchant for extolling the virtues of beer, bratwurst and the resultant gaseous conditions caused by the two in combination. After the elegance of the first lady, old Art was clearly intended as a bit of a grossout chaser.

As it turned out, Clinton's spot went so swimmingly and was such a love-in that she went long and Donovan didn't get any chance to do his act. He had to wait until the next night. But the intention of the show was clearly to surround the first lady with even more fratboy funk and grossness than usual. The message was clear: "This is our yard. We won't rough you up, but we won't clean up the yard either. Everything else on the same show will show you the tough league you're in. This isn't tea at the White House."

The first lady, predictably, was about as charming and good-humored (and coached) as a first lady could be talking to a man who had spent many weeks taunting her every night on his show.

That's the important thing to understand about the largely unprecedented thing Letterman has been doing. In his comically strident "Campaign 2000" crusade to shame Clinton into doing his show, he was reaching back to the techniques of shock radio or early TV for a comedy bit. It's funny precisely because it's so unfair and impudent. We know that you don't hector the first lady and act "like a jackass" on your show every night about her. It just isn't done. That's why it was so funny -- and so effective -- when he did.

He was acting, in a way, like a PG-rated Howard Stern or Don Imus when they get on a tear.

Leno, remember, won't even go near politicians, aside from shredding them in jokes and comedy bits. He thinks spots with pols are phony and hypocritical, thereby overturning one of the better traditions started by Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, wherein the people who want and need our votes are humanized for us and revealed as either humorless, clueless (Dan Quayle) or funny and graceful (Clinton or her husband when he used to go on Carson's "Tonight Show"). It tells us something if a pol knows how to laugh. It tells us a lot more if they know what to laugh at.

Everyone but Leno has always known that. So he continues, every night, spraying grindingly mean-spirited and ungainly gags around and, for all his skywriting ratings, desecrating the altogether wonderful "Tonight Show" tradition he and his former obnoxious manager wrested from Carson.

In a political year, Letterman is poised to continue his exhibition of dumbguy grace while Leno keeps doing bullyboy Hollywood twaddle.

There's a lot -- maybe even too much -- riding on the recuperative strength of Letterman's revamped heart. But if Clinton proved anything about Letterman, his will isn't just strong, it's downright stubborn.

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