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.
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.