Share this article

print logo

Obama will have his moment on 'The Tonight Show'

President Obama is on with Jay Leno tonight.

That's been the plan for many weeks now -- subject, of course, to those rare but commanding upheavals in presidential life that can't be ignored.

I don't know that the president's timing for any talk show appearance could be better. He couldn't possibly have known (or could he?) it was going to be this good when the appearance was planned as part of a coastal campaign swing.

Put yourself in the position of Leno and his writers. Think of the questions that have to be asked of Obama in his second appearance on "The Tonight Show" as president: 1) about the death of the hated Moammar Gadhafi in Libya; 2) about the Republican presidential debates, whose squabbling and quarreling haven't exactly escaped rueful public commentary, even among other Republicans; 3) about the popular announcement of the pullout date of all troops from Iraq and 4) the Occupy Wall Streeters.

It's true that asking Obama about the demonstrations around the country in a toothless talk show interview gives a sitting president every opportunity he needs to express public sympathy with demonstrators and defend his record at the same time. But it's the biggest and freshest political movement out there right now. The subject isn't exactly an elephant in the room, but it's certainly a noisy and scrappy chimp on the couch and just as hard to ignore.

Whatever Leno and his writers might intend -- and they, after all, are only after "good television," not journalism -- the timing makes this the kind of appearance in a campaign year that presidents and their advisers can only dream about.

And, best of all for them, it's with Leno, who has triumphantly occupied the Great American Middle in late-night television with such a bland vengeance that his fellow post-prime-time comics have been publicly scornful of him.

Leno is where pols go to take a victory lap. Or to soak up some predictable love (remember that Leno's "Tonight Show" is where Arnold Schwarzenegger first announced that he wasn't kidding about oiling himself up for the gubernatorial race in California).

Leno can ask semi-tough questions, to be sure, but never to the point where he stops being a "host" and the pol stops being an honored "guest." It's how the primal American late-night talk show -- "The Tonight Show" -- works.

Letterman is a different matter. Letterman can kiss up to a president or any other pol as much as Leno, but he's also everyone's favorite loose cannon. And no matter how much he pretends to be a goof, his brainpower can't be entirely hidden. He's a genuinely thoughtful man who clearly spends a lot of time informing himself and thinking about what's going on in his country. You know that every time he's got a Brian Williams, a Tom Brokaw or a Scott Pelley in his interview chair, as well as any time he's got a card-carrying pol there.

Leno, though, is where American viewers can go "Jaywalking," i.e., where they can have the eminently American pleasure of laughing derisively at all the simple things that other Americans don't know, thereby reassuring themselves of their smartness. It's the essential paradoxical anti-democratic pleasure you find in late-night TV's most democratic audience. And that's what makes Leno's chair the perfect place for a president who, for sure, knows more than Leno and the rest of us on a lot of subjects and can smarten us up accordingly. (We always love people who smarten us up and reassure us, while pretending they're doing neither.)

Remember Obama on "The View"? For all the fawning, some of those questions were real beanballs aimed right at the presidential head and thrown at maximum velocity.

When Elizabeth Hasselbeck -- the show's resident conservative -- announced on the show that she was from Pittsburgh and asked Obama about the visible economic devastation in her Rust Belt hometown, the question was a lot more plaintive and tough to answer than 80 percent of the "Inside Washington" fungo pitches he gets at regular news conferences.

Its very rawness could only make Obama's habitual smoothness look dubious. "The View" is a great place for a president to ply his charmer's trade, to be sure, but it's like a summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard -- plush and lush and upper crust, but just when you get too cocky, a flying insect will find you and sting you.

Ah, but tonight, the prez has a ballroom to dance in -- and an audience to play to -- that other pols could only dream of.

Listen carefully. You can practically hear the judges looking for their "9" and "10" paddles.