Thursday, December 22, 2011

Still rockin’ after all these years

His presidential campaign has languished in the single-digit doldrums pretty much since the day he declared he was running, back in June. Despite a general acknowledgement that he’s the most electably conservative Republican candidate in the race, his bid for the White House hasn’t caught fire.

But say what you will, Jon Huntsman still knows how to rock.

The former governor of Utah made a pilgrimage to David Letterman on “The Late Show With” on Wednesday night. Weaving the GOP candidates into the show, for straight-up interviews or readings of the “Top Ten” list is something that’s been a reliable fixture of Letterman’s late-night program. (Watch for Newt Gingrich next. As if.)

In the course of being interviewed by Dave, the governor was blindsided by what Letterman called “an incriminating photo” of the candidate: a shot of Huntsman as a high-school student in the 70’s, a member of the band Wizard. It was a great goof, showing the future governor and multimillionaire as a fashion victim of that era, all blow-dried hair, collared shirts and earnest soulful looks into the camera. Bread! Air Supply! Wizard!

“I thought I could make it big,” Huntsman said. “I wanted to be like Paul Shaffer. So if I'd made it as a musician, Dave, I wouldn't be sitting with you today. I'd be playing with the guys.”

A rocker’s life wasn’t to be, but Huntsman kept up his chops on the piano. And Dave’s studio audience was about to get a taste.

Letterman talked Huntsman into joining Shaffer and the Late Show band behind the piano. The band jumped into a spirited version of Chuck Berry’s classic "Johnny B. Goode," and in the ensuing performance, the guv’nor wasn’t half bad. The second coming of Johnnie Johnson he ain’t, but Huntsman proved he knows his way around the 88’s, after all these years.

With his campaign seemingly on life support, Huntsman can hardly be blamed for trying to push the envelope on the public’s idea of who he is. Over the last five months or so, it’s been hard for the quotable, photogenic former governor to extricate himself from the clown car jail he’s trapped in with the other candidates. We might believe he could be president, if not for the company he’s been keeping.

So, not unlike President Clinton’s 1992 campaign flirtation with pop culture (when he played saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show”), The Huntsman Show seemed to make good political sense, putting a smart distance between himself and the pack with a sharp display of the music of Americana.

Questions remain. Do the people of Iowa still rock? Will they forgive a fellow conservative for his liaison with the Devil’s Music? Is there room in the conservative mindset for a candidate with a good right hand? We’ll know in a few weeks. Maybe Huntsman’s late-night move gets him to, or near, the top of the other charts.

Image credits: Paul Shaffer and Jon Huntsman, Huntsman bottom: © 2011 CBS/Worldwide Pants. Huntsman middle (back in the day): Jon Huntsman via "Late Show With David Letterman."

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