Sen. John McCain, suitably chastened for having lied to David Letterman — a man you shouldn’t lie to — returned to late-night TV last night, coming back on “The Late Show” after weeks of being comedically bitch-slapped by the late-night host. All was forgiven, more or less. But even with McCain’s appearance, Letterman didn’t let McCain off the hook. It was priceless: in some ways the best interview with a presidential candidate this year.
The back story: On Sept. 24, McCain begged off an appearance on the program, pleading a need to return to Washington in order to bigfoot the folks on Capitol Hill trying to hammer out a solution to the financial crisis roiling Washington and Wall Street. Turned out that McCain not only didn’t go back to Washington; at about the time he was expected to appear for the “Late Show” taping, he was really across town prepping for an interview with CBS News. An internal CBS News feed revealed the lie for what it was. Letterman was not happy.
Fast forward to last night. McCain rented a helicopter to get to Manhattan after a weather delay grounded his campaign airplane in Philadelphia.
Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra caught the mood in a pitch-perfect way, playing the Who's "I Can't Explain" as McCain walked onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Letterman asked, "Can you stay?"
“Depends on how bad it gets,” McCain said. “I have a son in the Marine Corps and I asked him to Fed Ex me his helmet and flack jacket. But it didn’t get here in time.”
“I think you’ll be alright,” Letterman said.
But not really.
Although Letterman said he was "willing to put this behind us," he came after McCain with his ears back. He asked whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was his first choice as vice president.
“Absolutely,” McCain answered.
Cue the transcript —
DL: If I were to run upstairs, wake you up in the middle of the night, and say, “John, is Sarah Palin really the woman to lead us through the next four, eight years? Through the next 9/11 attack?”
JM: Absolutely. She has inspired Americans. That’s the thing we need. We need inspiration now. We need courage. We need to know that we’re the greatest nation in the world. And we can come through this. I agree with your assessment of the way the world and this country is. And they need somebody they say – this, this is a person who is an inspiration to us. This is a person who has done so many things that are very unusual. So all I can tell you is that if you are looking for somebody, someone who is in the old boy network of Washington, many of whom have gotten us into this ditch to start with, then that’s fine. But I think America is crying out for change. And she represents the kind of change that we need.
McCain asked, "Have we pretty well exhausted this?"
"No, no," Letterman said. "I'm just getting started."
Indeed. Next, Letterman pressed McCain on the hypothetical relationship between Obama and one-time Weather Underground bomber William Ayers, whom Palin has accused Obama of affiliating with.
DL: Who did he pal around with?
JM: William Ayers who said on 9/11 that he wished that he’d bombed more. OK? His wife was on the Top 10 of FBI’s Most Wanted.
DL: But this all took place…when he was active, Barack Obama was eight years old.
JM: Eight years old. And Mr. Ayers in 2001, September 11, 2001, said, “I wished I had bombed more.” It’s an unrep—
DL: But what is that relationship?
JM: It’s all we need to know. Senator Clinton said, “We need to know about the relationship.” First he said he was just a guy in the neighborhood. And so it’s a matter of trusting the word of someone.
DL: I know. I know.
JM: That’s all.
DL: But you will also admit that we cannot really control who we interact with in our lives 100 percent.
JM: How long we interact with them and how we interact with them … But the point in this campaign is the economy, the economy and the economy.
DL: But did you not have a relationship with Gordon Liddy?
JM: I met him, you know, I mean —
DL: Didn’t you attend a fundraiser at his house?
JM: Gordon Liddy’s?
Letterman laughs, and the network breaks away to pay some bills. McCain: Saved by the commercial.
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For all its attempts at damage control, the McCain appearance on Letterman may have done as much damage as it tried to control. With a few questions delivered in the context of a conversation, David Letterman did as much to undercut the “palling around with terrorists” accusation as anyone in the Washington/New York punditburo axis.
And McCain did his part. When he went on about how “the point in this campaign is the economy, the economy and the economy,” McCain contradicted his own campaign manager, Rick Davis, who said not long ago that the campaign wasn’t about issues but about personalities and character. More evidence of improvisations, more proof of a disconnect somewhere — everywhere — in the McCain campaign.
Thursday night’s “Late Show” broadcast was seen by 6.5 million viewers, the largest audience for the program since December 2005, when Oprah Winfrey made an appearance, according to James Hibbert, blogging at The Live Feed.
What was probably McCain’s last late-night appearance before the vote on November 4 had more than a whiff of failure around it. We didn’t see him exit, but when McCain left the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater last night, no doubt to polite applause, there must have been a sense of his appearance as a kind of cartoon valedictory, a goodbye to someone who stayed on the stage too long, missing (or ignoring) the cues offstage to make a timely and dignified exit. That exit is expected to be more final, more resoundingly emphatic, on election night.
Image credit: McCain copter party: AP/Carolyn Kaster