John McCain returned to David Letterman’s show Thursday for the first time since a last-minute cancellation two weeks ago that resulted in Letterman ridiculing the Republican presidential candidate on-air. (Watch the clips from the shown below)
For the record, the two shook hands and made up by the end of the hour. But in between came some of the most fascinating and illuminating political TV of this remarkable campaign -- with the comedian grilling McCain on his running mate, Sarah Palin, in a more intense and focused manner than any journalist or debate moderator to date.
Fast forward past an entire monologue devoted to Letterman ribbing McCain. Skip the Top 10 List of messages left on the answering machine of Joe The Plumber, the Ohio plumber whom McCain invoked repeatedly during Wednesday’s debate in an attempt to discredit the tax proposals of his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. That was all mainly show-biz shtick and joshing.
On Sarah Palin
What mattered are the tough questions Letterman went on to ask McCain about Palin’s qualifications and her behavior on the campaign trail. Like Jon Stewart, Letterman showed the press how it should be doing its job – but often hasn’t.
"If she had been a man would you have picked her?" Letterman asked at one point. "Were there those in the party who did not think she was qualified?" he asked another.
"If we’re in a 9/11 situation, God forbid, should Sarah Palin be President?" he asked with some incredulity in his voice. "I mean, I ‘m sure she’s a lovely woman, and, as you say, she did a great job in Alaska… but is Sarah Palin really ready to lead in the case of a 9/11 attack?"
McCain, who had been trying to play the role of Genial John rather then Grumpy Grandpa McCain during the conversation, kept saying she was "absolutely" qualified and stressing her campaign-created persona as a "reformer." But as the questions about her qualifications kept coming, McCain started to get annoyed enough to ask at one point, "Have we pretty well exhausted this topic?"
But Letterman hadn’t. He questioned McCain even more intensely on Palin’s claims on the campaign trail that Obama "pal'd around with terrorists." When McCain pointed to the 1960’s radical William Ayers, who is now a university professor, Letterman pressed him on whether the limited contact between Obama and Ayers really makes them "pals."
And then, Letterman asked McCain about his own relationship with convicted Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy. When McCain said that Liddy had paid for his crimes, Letterman asked how his relationship with Liddy was different than that of Obama and Ayers. But Letterman was not done even yet. "She (Palin) said pals around with terrorists. Even if we give her Ayers, who are the others?"
"Look, millions of words are said in a campaign," McCain replied acknowledging that he could not defend his running mate’s claims. The show was not all hardball. Letterman let McCain make plenty of points earlier in the conversation. Either the host didn’t know or he let McCain skate on the fact that Joe the Plumber owes back taxes in Ohio, which might be one reason he doesn’t like Obama’s tax plan.
Letterman also was confused on the Obama plan itself asking a question that suggested Obama's plan would tax small businesses that gross over $250,000. Actually, the tax will be on owners who make more than $250,000 in profit – big difference. But that’s okay.
No journalist to date has managed to put McCain’s feet to the fire the way Letterman did for Palin’s reckless campaign rhetoric. Jon Stewart, Tina Fey and David Letterman – these comedians are some fine journalists
Saturday, October 18, 2008