Frank Rich on the National Circus: Colbert Can Bring Life to Dying Late-Night

Future and past. Photo: Comedy Central and CBS

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: how Letterman and his new replacement can still matter; Obama, Clinton, Bush, and Carter rush to embrace LBJ; and what Jeb Bush's comments say about the GOP and immigration.

CBS just announced that Stephen Colbert will take over Late Show when David Letterman retires at the end of 2015. Letterman is the longest-running host in the history of late-night, but he was only rarely a ratings king and the desk-and-guest talk-show is hardly the cultural epicenter it once was. Does Letterman's departure still matter? And will Colbert be a worthy successor?

Letterman’s departure, though inevitable, certainly matters to those of us who have long admired him and still do. Hell, I still miss Carson, whose weird mixture of midwestern eccentricity, wry disengagement, clownish daring, and brilliant comic timing found their only late-night heir in the equally brilliant and mercurial Letterman.

But no television time slot is the epicenter of American culture anymore — not late-night, not the evening news, not the morning shows, and not prime time. Appointment-viewing and the domination of broadcast networks have been on the road to extinction for a long time now, and will be completely gone once the boomers and their elders have faded. While there is still a ratings race of sorts in late-night (as in all these time slots), it will keep mattering less and less as audiences mix and match multiple shows on multiple networks, often not in real time and often not on television screens. Les Moonves, the CBS impresario, and Lorne Michaels, now presiding over Jimmy Fallon’s successful ascension of The Tonight Show at NBC, are likely the last combatants to invest so much emotional and corporate capital into a form whose end is discernible (if not imminent).

That said, it's hard to imagine a better choice than Colbert, whose talents are many and will be even more apparent once he's liberated from his Colbert Report character. Though I confess there was part of me that was still hoping that Joan Rivers would yet get her rightful shot.

President Obama and former Presidents Clinton, Bush (43), and Carter have flocked to the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Johnson's presidency was once viewed through the lens of the disaster of the Vietnam War. Now it's more often linked to massive legislative accomplishments and progressive policies. Why has LBJ's legacy undergone such a transformation? And what does it say about our current political moment that we emphasize his domestic successes over his foreign-policy failures?

To quote LBJ’s reviled successor, Richard Nixon, let me make one thing perfectly clear: The festivities, hagiography, and historical revisionism accompanying this week’s festivities in Austin tell us almost nothing about Johnson’s actual historical status and everything about our current political moment. That’s what makes it fascinating, actually. Vietnam cannot be expunged from Johnson’s record: It was the most costly failed war in our history — costly not only in American and Asian lives and treasure, but costly in how it cracked America in half culturally and politically, setting the table for the polarized America we have today. 

That LBJ’s positive achievements, and they are huge, are being emphasized this week is precisely because they are now under attack. A conservative Supreme Court and the present-day GOP are doing everything they possibly can to undermine the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its 1965 companion piece, the Voting Rights Act. Even as the Great Society’s achievements, including Medicare, are being celebrated in Texas, Paul Ryan is leading the charge in Washington to gut Medicare and further unravel the federal safety net. 

We wouldn’t be emphasizing LBJ’s domestic achievements today in the same way if there were still a Republican Party supportive of some of them — a GOP with moderates (Nixon) and even liberals (e.g., New York’s Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller). And if President Obama had decided to pour more troops into Afghanistan and Iraq upon arriving in office and had intervened militarily in Iran, Syria, and/or Russia, we probably would be talking exclusively about Vietnam instead, just as we did when George W. Bush got bogged down in Vietnam-esque folly in Iraq. (Though even the Iraq fiasco didn’t match the catastrophic scale of the Vietnam debacle.) 

One other factor distorting the historical reading of LBJ’s presidency this week: the epic, multi-volume Robert Caro biography, perhaps one of the most compelling books ever written on any modern American president. The last two volumes to be published, Master of the Senate and The Passage of Power, coincide with the periods of LBJ’s greatest triumphs in the Senate and the White House. Caro is still working on his final volume, dealing with LBJ’s Vietnam years, and such is the power of his work that the eagerly awaited last installment is likely to swing the pendulum back again to a more balanced view of one of country’s most ambitious and tragic leaders.

Jeb Bush declared on Sunday that undocumented immigrants are not felons and often come to this country as an "act of love" for their families. Not surprisingly, a host of conservative commentators and politicians cried bloody murder, with some arguing that Bush's comments torpedoed a potential presidential run. The Republican right knows that immigration reform is generally popular in this country but clearly sees no profit in supporting it. Will that change in the foreseeable future?

No, it’s not going to change in the foreseeable future. The Republican base is against anything that might be recognized as serious immigration reform, period, which is why it remains a dead issue in Congress. But the reaction of that base to Jeb Bush’s moderate view on the subject — not a new position for him or, for that matter, his brother — is yet another example of the huge divide between the Party’s old establishment, or what remains of it, and the grassroots.

I seriously doubt that Jeb Bush, who has been out of politics for more than a decade, is going to run for president, despite the desperate hope of his Wall Street fans that he’ll reemerge as some kind of political Rip Van Winkle; he’s only being talked about now because the Establishment’s chosen candidate, Chris Christie, is toxic. If Bush were to run, it would bring his Party’s civil war to a true boil for however much time he lasted in primary season. Bush is not just a moderate on immigration, but a supporter (as was his brother) of federalized education standards. As Ben Smith of BuzzFeed has pointed out, Jeb also sits on the board of Michael Bloomberg’s foundation, which will taint him with Bloombergian positions on gun control, environmental issues, and raising taxes on junk food. The base would go nuts. (Actually, it already is: Speaking for his many followers, the radio host Mark Levin labeled Bush’s “act of love” soliloquy as “liberal crap speak.” Rush Limbaugh and Bill Kristol have been only slightly less fiery.)  

Though it’s only a 2014 snapshot, the Suffolk University poll of GOP voters in Iowa released this week gives a picture of that base. The top 2016 candidates in the survey were Mike Huckabee (11 percent), Bush and Rand Paul (10 percent each), Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson (9 percent each), and Christie (7 percent). Or to put it another way, the Establishment candidates were favored by a total of 17 percent, while 39 percent wanted those to their right.