Should Presidents Go Late Night?

President Barack Obama wrapped up his recent barnstorming tour of network TV talk shows (including Univision – but notably not Fox) with an appearance last Monday on the “Late Show” with David Letterman. Most observers applauded the strategy of the orator-in-chief, even at the risk of over-exposure.


The president is that effective a spokesman for his Administration’s priorities, especially health care. And such forums seem customized for the articulate and charismatic.

But an in-studio, one-on-one with David Gregory or Bob Schieffer on Sunday morning is not, arguably, the same thing as a late-night quip exchange with Letterman.


I know the president got exposure to a key demographic that wasn’t the MSNBC or even Conan O’Brien crowd. And ultimately he gets predictable questions lobbed up in non-confrontational style. And there are no filters.


But here’s my objection, however old school. Context matters. Even if some members of Congress don’t think so.


John F. Kennedy went on the “Tonight Show” with Jack Paar – before he was president. Witty and telegenic played well. And candidate Richard Nixon went on “Tonight” with Steve Allen – and played the piano. It was humanizing. Now it’s de rigueur for all candidates to hit the late-night, comedy-and-chat circuit. It reaches a substantial market. It’s a savvy campaign move. It’s what contemporary CANDIDATES should do.


But wherever the president goes, so goes the presidency. The office transcends its occupant. It should never be diminished. Richard Nixon didn’t do his “Laugh In” turn after he became president.


But back to Letterman. “We’ll be right back with tonight’s Top 10 List and President Barack Obama” sounded a bit belittling. As if it could just as easily have been Joan Rivers or Sarah Palin.


Talking about unemployment and the loss of $5 trillion in wealth immediately upon returning from commercial break — Miller Genuine Draft, Cialis, Showtime’s “Californication” and network promos — seemed more petty than presidential.


Frankly, I like my presidents with a ready wit, a captivating presence and an articulate command of the issues. That’s what prime time press conferences are for. That’s why Jack Kennedy never returned to the “Tonight Show.”

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