Monday, September 22, 2014
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Ticket to ride

Why Obama must love the Letterman show

Ticket to ride

 

 

Put yourself in Barack Obama's shoes. What a relief it must have been yesterday to sit with David Letterman, in front of some fawning New Yorkers, and parry a handful of questions that barely even qualified as softballs.

Hey, that's why the president was appearing on Late Show in the first place - precisely because he could pitch health care reform without any concern that he might be substantially challenged to explain anything. Letterman's show is all about the power of celebrity, not the fine points of policy (the late-night shows haven't been substantive since Dick Cavett in the early '70s and Jack Paar a decade earlier); and, besides all that, Letterman as an interviewer is generally as dogged as an adolescent with ADD.
     
Not that I'm telling you anything new. Still, it was fascinating to watch Obama punch his ticket for a free ride. Here, for instance, was the sum total of the health care reform discussion:

Letterman began by asking, "What is it I don't understand about this?" That kind of question basically gives a president (or any politician) a license to say whatever he or she pleases. Obama naturally obliged, at length.

He framed the stakes as he sees them, noting that there are "at least 30 million people" who lack health insutance, that those who have health insurance are more imperiled than ever before, and that "if we don't do anything about it, then five years from now, 10 years from now, far more Americans are not going to have health insurance, far more businesses are going to say 'I can't afford to deal with our employees,' and in the meantime those government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the VA...if we don't bend the curve overall, we're going to go bankrupt." He then restated the goals he has stated so often: to help the uninsured by making it possible to buy some, to protect those who already have it, to make the system more efficient and thus to save money. He said, "There are a lot of folks in Washington who have a stake in the system staying as it is...It's hard to (change). If it wasn't hard, it would have been done 40 years ago."

He paused. At that point, Letterman could have conceivably summoned a substantive query - perhaps along the lines of, "So, how do we get there?" After all, the Senate Finance Committee on this very day is preparing to debate the Max Baucus compromise package. Without getting too wonky for midnight TV, Letterman could have asked Obama whether he has given up on getting Republican support; or perhaps whether he would support a long phase-in of a government-backed insurance "public option"; or whether he will ultimately support the Baucus proposal of fining those Americans who would defy a new requirement that they buy insurance. (On Sunday, ABC News questioner George Stephanopolous had suggested to Obama that such a fine would be tantamount to a tax. Obama strongly objected, even after Stephanopoulous recited the dictionary definition of "tax." Perhaps Letterman could have brought up that issue...assuming he and his staff were aware of it.)

Anyway, after Obama reached the end of his basic health reform pitch, here was the sum total of Letterman's follow-up:

"Your job is harder than my job. That's what I've learned here tonight."

And minutes later, after Obama talked about how other western leaders express amazement at America's hesitance ("they don't understand why it is that Americans would not want to set up a system that would save money over time, that would work better and make people healthier"), Letterman replied with a quick Palin joke about death panels. That concluded the health care discussion.

Next up was Afghanistan. Obama said that he wants to move deliberately on the issue of whether to send more troops. He said that we need "a coherent strategy that can work...we're not going to make a decision about any further troop deployments until we know what exactly is our strategy, what are the tactics, how would troops be used, can we justify taking those steps. I'm going to be asking some very hard questions."

At that point, it would have been helpful - to at least some of the show's three million viewers - if Letterman had asked the obvious question. Yesterday morning, Obama's Pentagon had leaked a story to The Washington Post, making the military's case for a troop buildup and warning that, absent a buildup, disaster loomed in Afghanistan. Clearly, the military is trying to force Obama's hand; assuming that Letterman's staff monitors the news in a timely fashion, the host might have asked about that leak. (It would surely have been too much to ask the even more substantive question, one that will grow more urgent as the Afghanistan issue heats up: should a president generally heed the advice of the commanders in the field, or, as the constitutionally-designated civilian in charge, should he act as a check and balance?)

Instead, Letterman seemed satisfied with Obama's stated goal of destroying the bad guys who remain in Afghanistan, and the applause took us to commercial.

I know, there's no point in lamenting that Letterman as an interviewer makes Larry King look like Mike Wallace. Obama clearly sought his couch for that very reason, but I wonder whether the president got any mileage from it. Were Letterman's viewers swayed his way by what passed for substance, or did they click off entirely upon realizing that there were no long-legged actresses on the bill of fare?

Celebrity likeability is an asset, but once the novelty of a president appearing on late-night TV wears off (as it already has), the substantive political conundrums remain. And I doubt that Senator Olympia Snowe - the only potential viewer who mattered - even bothered to TiVo.

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In case you missed the weekend's most priceless news paragraph, here it is. It concerns our favorite addled lothario, John Edwards. A former Edwards aide, Andrew Young, has written a book proposal, with the intention of telling all:

"In the proposal, which The New York Times examined, Mr. Young says that he assisted the affair by setting up private meetings between Mr. Edwards and (Rielle) Hunter. He wrote that Mr. Edwards once calmed an anxious Ms. Hunter by promising her that after his wife died, he would marry her in a rooftop ceremony in New York with an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band."

No word yet on whether Edwards has asked wife Elizabeth for an updated prognosis, so that, for booking purposes, he can give Dave Matthews a time window.

Or perhaps he'd be willing to try something else. The Times reports that Rielle is planning to move herself and the baby to North Carolina, taking up residence close by the former power couple. Perhaps, while Edwards' wife is still alive, he could plan a welcoming party and hire David Crosby as his musical act. Crosby could sing one of his old compositions, entitled "Triad":

You want to know how it will be
Me and her or you and me...
But I don't really see
Why we can't go on as
Three.

 

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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