Will Letterman and Saturday Night Live Help Defeat McCain? | The Nation


Will Letterman and Saturday Night Live Help Defeat McCain?

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The only event called off during McCain's so-called campaign suspension was an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. It's a decision that may come back to haunt him even more than Sarah Palin's train-wreck interview with Katie Couric.

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Adam Howard
Adam Howard is the former Assistant Web Editor of The Nation and currently the News Editor of The Grio.

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With the revelation last night/this morning that veteran Democratic Senators Christopher Dodd(CT) and Byron Dorgan (ND) are not seeking re-electionthis year, the mainstream press is going wild with speculation that theseretirements herald doom for the Democrats in this year's midtermelections. This is despite that fact that they are almost a year awayand that six, count 'em (Bunning, Brownback, LeMieux, Bond,Gregg, and Voinovich) six, GOP senators are retiring this year as well asseveral other Republicans in the House.Still, a narrative is forming (and we all know how powerful politicalnarratives can be) and if Obama and the Democrats don'tget in front of this soon it could become a self-fulfillingprophesy--the pundits have decided it's 1994 all over again.

For those youngsters out there who may not remember, in November of '94Congressional approval was at an all-time low and President Clinton's approval numbers weremired in the low 40s after his failure to pass healthcare reform. The result was a Republican landslide that dominated Congress until 2006. But2010 can be different and in some ways it already is. The public clearlyhas a lot more good will in the bank for Obama, he remains close to orat 50 percent approval in most public opinion polls--despite roughly six months of consistently bad press. Healthcare reform will likely be passed by the end of this month, albeit a comprised bill, but a political and strategic victory nonetheless. In addition if the Democrats get aggressive on immigration, education and climate change (which are all on the legislative agenda for this year) and continue to rack up victories it'll be easier to contrast themselves with "TheParty of No". Naturally there needs to be significant movement on jobstoo by the White House and Democrats in Congress, my hunch is that 10percent number hovers like a shadow over anything the party in powerdoes.

True, losing Dorgan (as JohnNichols writes) is a significant blow. He was a strong progressivein an undeniably right-leaning state and it will be exceedingly difficultfor any other Democrat to replace him. ChrisDodd, on the other hand, despite having many virtues, was totally tainted by scandal(even Michael Moore went after him in Capitalism: A LoveStory) and was likely to lose his re-election campaign. Hisdeparture, while perhaps bittersweet, clears theway for Connecticut's popular Democratic attorney general, RichardBlumenthal, to capture his seat. It seems unlikely to me that aprogressive state like Connecticut would send a Republican to representtheir state alongside nominal Independent Joe Lieberman.


Permit me to borrow one our president's most famous turns ofphrase--Carrie Prejean's story could "only happen in America." Most ofus who don't consume a daily diet of shows like Access Hollywoodand TMZ would normally not have heard of Miss Prejean, but now that she'sbecome a regular on Fox News, an author and poster child for "Palinized" conservative women everywhere--she's almost unavoidable. Most recently she appeared on Larry King Live, where she repeatedly snapped at the septuagenarian host for being "inappropriate."



For the uninitiated, a quick recap:



Carrie Prejean was competing the Donald Trump-funded Miss USA pageant, and was representing California. Apparently she was well ahead in points when she reached the question-and-answer segment. Openly gay blogger Perez Hilton, serving as a judge, asked her about her position on same-sex marriage. To which she replied (emphasis mine):


In the world of late night TV, canceling a booking at the last minute is a cardinal sin. McCain had been a more frequent guest on the show than virtually any other politician and had developed the same friendly rapport with Letterman that he has cultivated with many of America's mainstream media pundits. Not anymore. On the night McCain failed to appear, Letterman could barely contain his disgust , and he ended up being funnier than he's been in months.

"You don't suspend your campaign," Letterman said. "No, because that makes me think, well, you know, maybe there will be other things down the road--if he's in the White House, he might just suspend being president. I mean, we've got a guy like that now!"

But he didn't stop there. "We're suspending the campaign," he said. "Suspending it because there's an economic crisis, or because the poll numbers are sliding?"

Apparently McCain had called Letterman directly to cancel and told him he had to immediately fly to Washington to "save the country." But Letterman found out that McCain was actually across town in another CBS studio having makeup applied for his interview with Couric. Letterman cut to the live feed exposing McCain for what he is--a liar.

It was more than great television, it managed to show what comedians can do best--cut through the bullshit.

Perhaps Letterman was just having a hissy fit. Or maybe he thought he'd seized onto a new bit he could exploit like his faux feud with Oprah a few years back. Whatever his motives, he tapped into a narrative that pundits have been skirting around for weeks. "This smells," Letterman said, suggesting that McCain was simply not putting "country first." He continued to rip into the Republican the next night, too. McCain's "maverick" moves had grown so erratic by week's end that McCain was becoming a comedic gift that kept on giving.

Letterman's ire drew so much coverage that the McCain campaign was forced to address it, claiming they canceled the Letterman interview because they felt an appearance on a comedy show was inappropriate in light of the economic crisis. But that excuse raises more questions than it answers. The crisis was occurring long before the Letterman show was booked, so why agree to it at all? And why did McCain lie to Letterman about his whereabouts?

What McCain and his handlers may have failed to see is that there is a danger in allowing yourself to become the dominant source of joke fodder for America's clown princes. The early digs at McCain were not unlike the prevailing comedic tone leveled at Bush. They were light and insubstantial. McCain was treated much like Bob Dole was in 1996, with easy jokes about his age and grumpiness. But after The View took him to task, a new angle emerged--that of McCain as the shameless politician who will say or do almost anything to keep up with Barack Obama.

Good comedians know when they've found a rich source of material. With the pressures of producing a fresh program five days a week, they may mine a successful joke until it grows stale. This is dangerous for McCain. Post-debate polls show that even if mainstream pundits are divided on who won the first presidential debate, the public believes Obama did. Before the debate, Obama was beginning to open up a significant lead and post-debate tracking polls seem to indicate that lead is growing and getting close to double digits. A weekly assault of jokes from Letterman--not to mention Craig Ferguson, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno--could feed that trend.

Then there's Saturday Night Live, another show that has had a longstanding affection for John McCain. The show has had rocky reviews and ratings in recent years and yet now seems to have regained much of its stature and popularity through the strength of Tina Fey's brilliant impersonation of Sarah Palin. Her most recent appearance, which essentially recreated Palin's bizarre, incoherent interview with Couric, was just as biting as Letterman's critique of McCain. It not only touched on Palin's inexperience; it emphasized her odd demeanor, beliefs and overconfidence.

These comedy skits are especially effective given their ability to gratify the public's need to see politicians exposed in a brutally honest way that is avoided by cable news analysts. Viewers trust Letterman, SNL and others to be non-partisan but also to be top-shelf lie detectors. Jon Stewart and the writers at The Daily Show have turned this kind of work into an art form, but they still reach a relatively small audience that is much more unabashedly liberal compared to the viewers of traditional network comedy offerings.

If Letterman, SNL and others continue to hammer Palin as an extremist airhead and John McCain as a desperate madman, those images could start to solidify in the heads of voters more accustomed to listening to these entertainers night after night than to politicians. (Letterman has built up a loyal audience for over twenty-five years and SNL has been on the air now for close to thirty-five. That's impressive longevity by any standard.)

We now know that McCain's trip to Washington was little more than a distraction, and by some accounts may have even slowed down the process of closing a bailout deal. Later it was revealed that when an agreement was finally reached, McCain had been holed up in his office and at his expensive DC hotel. Some traditional media pundits have dared to point this out, albeit subtly. Does anyone think Letterman will handle McCain with kid gloves on this matter? Don't count on it.

These are crucial final weeks for both campaigns, but McCain has a lot more to be nervous about. The foreign policy debate was supposed to be his to lose, and by most accounts he lost it. The next debates are going to focus primarily on domestic policy, and Sarah Palin's recent appearances should be a serious cause for concern. Just as jokes about "inventing the Internet" and windsurfing seemed to caricature Al Gore and John Kerry, a similar fate as a punch line could await McCain. Better that than the presidency.

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