Friday, September 26, 2008

The Late No-Show

The landscape of late-night television is a wild place to be. Sometimes unpredictable, sometimes unwatchable, late-night TV offers a cavalcade of content for millions of Americans, some of it serious, much of it utterly frivolous. But the carnival barkers that are the hosts of the late-night programs understand something about the after-hours personality of their medium: In many ways, theirs is an intimate relationship with America, they reliably have the captive conversation with the country that political candidates would kill for.

So it makes sense: When politicians have a chance to be part of that conversation, they damn well better show up.

Sen. John McCain violated that cardinal rule of modern American politics on Wednesday, stiffing David Letterman for a scheduled appearance on CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman,” as bully a pulpit as a failing presidential contender could hope for. That was bad enough. But the details of McCain’s no-show on Letterman made a bad situation even worse.

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McCain apparently called Letterman personally early on Wednesday to beg off from appearing on the show, claiming that his work in Washington on the bailout package would prevent him from taping the program. It all sounded principled enough: The Maverick® of the Senate couldn’t take time out to sit and chat with Dave — he had Work to Do on behalf of the nation. Duty called.

It might have worked if not for someone at CBS who alerted Letterman to an internal news feed that revealed McCain had actually done an interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric at about the time he was scheduled to tape the Letterman show. McCain wasn’t going to Washington to Do the People’s Business; he was actually nearby at the CBS Studios on West 57th Street, doing a sitdown with Couric, as an internal CBS news feed showed.

There's particular salt in the wound for Letterman. It was on the "Late Show" that McCain announced his candidacy for the presidency on Feb. 28, 2007.

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At least six million people watched Letterman on Wednesday as the veteran TV host, more emotional that usual, tore into the Arizona senator. More than once. More than twice.

"This is not the John McCain I know, by God," Letterman said. "It makes me believe something is going haywire with the campaign."

"I'm more than a little disappointed by this behavior," Letterman said. "This doesn't smell right. This is not the way a tested hero behaves. Somebody's putting something in his Metamucil."

Letterman made the internal feed of the Couric interview part of the show. "Doesn't seem to be racing to the airport, does he?" Letterman said as he watched. “This just gets uglier and uglier.”

He later said: “We’re told now that the senator has concluded his interview with Katie Couric and he's now on Rachael Ray's show making veal piccata. ... What are you going to do?"

Letterman kept it up on Thursday night’s program. “Good news: Paris Hilton is on the program tonight … unless she needs to rush to Washington to fix the economy.” We can expect this to be a running gag for Letterman — and a continuing populist complication for McCain — until the end of the campaign.

For all the experience John McCain would have the country believe he has, His Maverickness has overlooked a number of basic rules of politics and modern life in a 24/7 era — one in particular on Wednesday.

“Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” Woody Allen once famously observed.

Someone should tell the senator.

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