For weeks, even months, David Letterman had been directing monologue barbs at John McCain’s advanced age. So when the presumptive Republican nominee appeared on “Late Show With David Letterman” on April 1, it was a given that something had to be done to address, well, the elephant in the room.
As the host launched into another parade of age jokes, McCain suddenly appeared on stage and said, “Hi, Letterman. You think that stuff’s pretty funny, don’t you?” Then, the Arizona senator launched into his own series of insults, telling Letterman, among other one-liners, “You look like a guy caught smuggling reptiles in his pants.”
Any worries that a presidential candidate stumping on the latenight talk circuit is somehow undignified have long given way to a genuine feeling that the chatfests offer big advantages in a campaign’s media exposure. They reach viewers who may not normally tune in to political fare and, better yet, present a candidate in a relaxed and more friendly setting (i.e., they won’t be grilled in quite the same way).
The difference this election cycle is the extent to which campaigns are taking advantage of the latenight circuit. McCain announced his candidacy on “Late Show” last year. Fred Thompson jumped into the race on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in September. Mike Huckabee broke from the Iowa campaign trail to make a caucus-eve appearance on Leno, where he joined the band to play bass, and in another appearance on “The Colbert Report” talked with host Stephen Colbert about being his running mate. Barack Obama read Letterman’s Top 10 list.
Leading candidates have open invites, while those further down in the polls have to wait their turn. The same food chain applies to exclusivity, although campaigns appear to be remarkably adept at spacing out the appearances of their candidates. The hosts themselves have stayed out of the fray, refraining from endorsing a candidate or making a campaign contribution.
The writers strike shut down most shows, or made them off limits to union-supporting candidates. When Letterman returned to the air on Jan. 2 after making an interim agreement with the guild, Hillary Clinton opened the show with a cameo.
The flurry of latenight campaigning started with Bill Clinton’s 1992 appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” in which he was not only a guest but played “God Bless the Child” and “Heartbreak Hotel” on saxophone with house band Michael Wolff & the Posse. Candidates had appeared on “The Tonight Show” before, but nothing with quite like the kinetic atmosphere of “Arsenio Hall.” It helped burnish Clinton’s image as the candidate of the next generation.
“It was a very big deal,” says Claudia Cagan, the show’s booker, now senior segment producer for E! “I don’t think we knew how big a deal it was at the time.”
Other campaigns were invited as well, but none took up the offer.
Hillary Clinton, who was with her husband that night, has perhaps benefited from latenight exposure more than any other candidate this cycle. She has timed her appearances on the even of major primaries, and she was boosted by the “Saturday Night Live” skits that mocked the media’s kid-gloves treatment of Obama. Even some Obama campaign officials acknowledge that the skits helped shift the national press’ scrutiny of their candidate.
This isn’t to say that Letterman or Leno or “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” are a free ride. There are perils, less about stumbling on policy details and more about just not being funny.
“I think every one of these shows presents its own opportunities and its own unique danger zone,” says Joe Trippi, senior adviser to John Edwards’ campaign.
“A lot of this is about whether you can pass that show’s ‘Are you real?’ test, whether it is Leno’s or (Bill) Maher’s show.”
While Letterman or Leno may not engage in policy debate, they are apt to bring up an embarrassing moment.
When Edwards appeared on Letterman on Jan. 22, just days before the South Carolina primary, the campaign had no idea that the host would reach over and mess up the candidate’s hair, says Trippi.
“You are sitting there from a senior adviser position going, ‘Oh man, where is this going?’ ” Trippi says.
“We were just sick and tired of people making the $400 haircut thing, and it was really hurting us, so the last people we wanted were people asking about the hair.”
Luckily, rather than sit stonefaced, Edwards chuckled and tried to reach for Letterman’s hair, diffusing the situation and getting a big laugh. The move came “without any coaching,” Trippi says.
Although the latenight circuit has lost its novelty, there are some shows that would still be genuine surprises. HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” for instance, is still a landmine for some campaigns. Last week, Maher was still making Monica Lewinsky jokes at Hillary Clinton’s expense.
It’s doubtful that it would come to pass, but imagine the surprise if the senator from New York came on the show.