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The President’s Jay Walk

In the buildup to President Obama’s appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” the first time that a sitting commander-in-chief had taken a seat on the late-night sofa, there were an array of images on cable news of the pop culture buildup to this point: Sen. John Kennedy on Jack Paar, Richard Nixon on “Laugh-In,” Bill Clinton on “Arsenio Hall” and George W. Bush on “Deal or No Deal.”

So you’d think Obama’s guest shot would be no big deal. But there was something different about the president’s appearance, something that has nothing to do with the incessant talk of whether he’d be funny enough or if he’d be too frivolously funny. It’s that he was just so comfortable chatting with Jay, in the same way that so many other celebrities are at ease in pitching their latest project. As he shared anecdotes about a first ride on Marine One and befriending the Secret Service, Obama was following in the tradition of the old comic formula of, “As I was on my way here tonight…” He came with prepared one liners that fit just right in the conversation as a whole. At one point, when Leno asked him whether he thought his rivals on the basketball court “throw the game” his way, Obama gave a double take matching the best of Johnny Carson.

In fact, the president may have gotten too comfortable, as the White House was forced to explain an offhand and unfortunate remark Obama made about his bad bowling: “It’s like the Special Olympics or something.”

Outside of that gaffe, which surely will create a stir, there was little in substance that the White House can be unhappy about. Their goal was to promote the president’s economic agenda and his budget, just as he had been doing on a two-day swing through California.

Given that much of the anger at bailouts has been fomented and skewed
and pumped up by late-night monologues, it made sense to match the
material on the same turf. In the breezy tone of “The Tonight Show,” he was able to project the image of the reassuring voice of reason in a world gone amuck. Leno was the natural choice, with his strong ratings and predictability, something that can’t be guaranteed in the mix of punchines and probing on David Letterman and Jon Stewart. 

Mostly, as Leno played populist, Obama pressed for patience.

The storm over the AIG bonuses rages in Washington, what with the House of Representatives passing a 90% tax on those recipients and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner admitting that it was his department that had pressed for the loophole that allowed it. As questions in the Beltway veered toward, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?,” Leno asked everyman questions, at once even invoking Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Noting the greed that got us into this mess, Leno said, “Shouldn’t somebody go to jail?”

The president responded, “Here’s the dirty little secret, though. Most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal.”

There was a method to his answers. As much as Obama said he was “stunned” by the AIG bombshell, and pledged to take responsibility for the fallout, however, he also was determined to channel all the anger to his plans for government regulation. “The important thing over the next several months is making sure we don’t lurch from thing to thing, but we try to make steady progress, build a foundation for long-term economic growth,” he said.

He talked about “derivatives” and the AIG meltdown with the same cool manner as he made a quip about Hollywood accounting, and we’ll see if his efforts to explain the financial mess prove as effective as his pop culture savvy.

The risks are readily apparent. In past generations it may have been “beneath the dignity” of sitting presidents to go on “The Tonight Show” — or, in the case of Richard Nixon, just ill-advised. Make no mistake, there still are boundaries, and they probably cut right through Martha Stewart’s kitchen.

But in the fractious media environment, Obama’s “Tonight” appearance probably isn’t the same deal it would have been, given all the other forms of communications our leaders have to undertake just to get our attention and cut through the clutter.  That still didn’t make a visit to “Tonight” any less noteworthy. He is the leader of the free world, and on the billing with Garth Brooks and a skit about 99 cent store gag gifts, it was funny in a different sort of way.

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