One of the more heartening and unexpected developments of the latter stages of the campaign season was seeing David Letterman return to form as a relevant player in the news/pop culture universe. It's been a long time in coming, and proved that the old pro can still help set an agenda.
As recently as the summer, it appeared that Letterman, now 61, was content to drift along until both he and CBS found a face-saving way for him to move into the sort of permanent retirement that his hero Johnny Carson had enjoyed. In fact, back in July I mentioned Letterman as someone who should consider hanging it up, saying that someone who had once been so groundbreaking shouldn't be content with just playing out the string. The failure of The Late Show to seriously challenge The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the ratings during the early weeks of the year, when the former show cut a separate deal with the writers' guild, seemed to prove that the situation was too far gone for Letterman to ever make a difference again.
But in September, fate would intervene in the form of John McCain. The Republican presidential nominee had a Late Show taping scheduled but abruptly canceled, saying that he was suspending his campaign, and presumably all frivolous activities such as talk show appearances, in order to rush back to Washington to deal with the financial crisis. A cancellation of a highly promoted guest appearance on very short notice is not pleasant for a talk show, but these things do happen. Had McCain done what he had implied he was going to do, leave New York immediately and hole up with financial experts, the whole episode would have wound up a footnote.
However, Letterman sensed that he was being played, and spent much of his monologue the evening of September 24 grumbling about the cancellation. At this point it still seemed like it was just Dave being Dave -- complaining about little inconveniences is part of his shtick, after all. Things changed once Letterman brought out the guest who substituted for McCain, Keith Olbermann.
Olbermann is a major critic of McCain, though his appearance on this night owed more to a need to find a New York-based replacement guest quickly than to any thoughts of revenge. But having Olbermann on the set seemed to egg Letterman on further. The host somehow found out that instead of leaving for Washington, McCain was not only still in New York, but was at that moment preparing for a different television appearance, on the CBS Evening News. The live feed from the news studio was put up on screen, showing McCain being made up for an interview by Katie Couric. "He doesn't seem to be racing to the airport," mused Letterman.
Anyone who has followed Letterman's career had to know what was coming next. It's not as if McCain had been absent from his monologues to this point -- as a co-star of the year's biggest ongoing story, far from it. But in the ensuing days, his jabs at McCain became practically unceasing and were harsh in a way they had not been before. As has always been the case going back to his days on NBC, a Letterman who is mad at somebody, especially somebody powerful, is a host who crackles with energy and is fully engaged in his show. The notion that McCain canceled on him as part of a stunt to seem busy with the nation's business genuinely seemed to offend Letterman.
After a couple of weeks of this treatment, the McCain campaign put out feelers about a possible rain check, since the candidate needed to return to the New York area anyway for the third presidential debate. A good enough pro to realize that a make-good appearance from McCain would be the biggest bonanza his show has had in years, Letterman agreed, though not without first taking credit for McCain's sliding poll numbers.
For many in Letterman's position, something like the McCain show of October 16 would have been a rote feel-good story, where all would agree that bygones were bygones, the host would congratulate the guest for being a good sport, and everyone would go on as if nothing had happened. But among Letterman's strengths as a host is that he holds no one in awe, and isn't particularly interested in upholding the polite conventions of the genre. While The Late Show is a comedy program first and foremost, Letterman is not one who is inclined to let a presidential candidate come on his show and schmooze for ten minutes.
After the opening pleasantries and an admission from McCain that the initial cancellation had not been handled well, the appearance turned into a real interview, one that might not have surprised McCain (who should have been briefed on how tough Letterman can be) but was good television nonetheless. As a late-night host, Letterman had somewhat more leeway to be openly skeptical of Sarah Palin to McCain's face in a way a conventional interviewer likely would not.
The McCain affair proved to be a boost for Letterman's ratings, although considering how entrenched he and his competition are this is not something likely to last. Still, the episode was a welcome reminder that this talk show lion in winter can still swing a mighty paw when the mood strikes.