Leading With the Chin

Photo: Paul Drinkwater/Courtesy of NBC

Harry Thomason was having a vintage Harry Thomason moment. It was late on Thursday, March 19, just as Barack Obama became the first sitting president to appear on The Tonight Show, and the white-bearded sitcom maestro (Designing Women, Evening Shade) turned Bill Clinton image Svengali was exuberant about the move. “I think it’s a verrrry good strategy,” Thomason purred over the phone, his Arkansas accent still dewy. “And I think you’ll see more of this in the future.”

Thomason had arranged something like this before, of course. For all the fuss over Clinton’s dressing up like a California Raisin and playing sax on Arsenio, it was The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson that saved then-governor Clinton’s political bacon, in 1988, after he gave a haplessly gasbag speech at the Democratic National Convention. That night, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, Harry’s wife and producing partner, turned to him and said, “There’s only one venue that can fix this.”

The next morning, Harry phoned Carson’s producer, Fred De Cordova. But Carson told him no: He didn’t like having politicians on his show. An hour later, Thomason called back and told De Cordova that Clinton would play saxophone. This time Carson agreed.

Two decades later, there seems little functional difference between Hollywood and political star-power. Even, in the election, when John McCain (himself a joshing talk-show regular) tried to make Obama seem frivolous by tagging him; “the biggest celebrity in the world,” voters seemed to take it as merely a statement of fact. Which is why, overall, it was strange how inconsequential the Obama-Leno summit felt, even if no president had done it before. Leno treated the opening like a regular night—a tame monologue (joking that Obama’s entourage was smaller than Mariah Carey’s), a flat sketch about 99-cent-store items, then voilà, the 44th president. It was as if Obama had come on to plug Marley & Me, not calm a nation amid a meltdown. He capably delivered a couple of presumably scripted one-liners (Washington is “a little bit like American Idol, except everybody is Simon Cowell”), spoke reassuringly of the economy (“Everybody should have complete confidence in the banks”), expressed proper outrage at the AIG bonuses (“Stunned is the word”), and stood up for Tim Geithner (“He’s a calm and steady guy”). He was a smooth guest. What did you expect—Joaquin Obama?

This is surely to Leno’s credit. He was selected exactly because there’d be no surprises. Despite a massive personal fortune (a reported $27 million salary) and that sheikhlike car collection, he’s still the Middle American Everyman, playing that Detroit gig for laid-off workers and winning the audience battle for a generation. (Letterman’s producers have been angling since Election Day—but the last thing Obama needed was to sit in Dave’s irony cave just up the road from Wall Street.) Obama had clearly studied his Jay, too: When explaining that he wanted wealthy taxpayers like Leno and himself “to make sure that kids can go to college who aren’t as fortunate as our—” he caught himself. “As my kids might be.” (Leno and his wife have no children.)

Even with that Special Olympics gaffe, which was like tripping over the restaurant furniture after a nice dinner, it was a modest success. “He reaches the widest possible audience,” Thomason said. “People who’d never pay attention to politics.”

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Leading With the Chin