The first president to leave “the bubble” and appear on a late-night show was goofy, self-mocking, as much Johnny Carson as the leader of the free world.
On a visit to London some time ago, I marveled to a British book editor over the exquisite sensitivity to class possessed by certain of his countrymen. “They have a silent scoring system,” he said, explaining to me the different values of various personal qualities like accent and dress. “And what about talking with your hands?” I asked him. “Oh,” he said, smiling broadly, “you lose a lot of points for that.” Appearing on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show last night, President Obama used his hands—active, powerful, subtle—as semaphores acknowledging and reflecting the forces of popular rage.
Watching Obama so expertly modulate his image—first he’s an average guy, then he’s the boy with his nose pressed to the glass, then he’s the president, then he’s the father, then he’s the president—you recalled that original late-night Everyman, Johnny Carson, who knew how to cut himself down to the size of his audience.
There is nothing more frustrating than seeing power wheel out of control and become predatory and abusive. It provokes a physical reaction in most of us—we jump up out of our chairs, grab at the air and clench our fists. We’d like to ring their necks—the fools who led us into Iraq, the parasitic lenders, the greedy bankers, the con-men and the frauds. That’s what Obama did with his hands last night as he used them to hold the future, illustrate obstacles, apportion blame, set limits, imply punishment. You know someone is not high and mighty when he gesticulates with his hands.
Everything might well be sinking deeper into chaos, but the president set a new precedent. Obama was not just the first sitting president to appear on a comedy show. He was the first sitting president to master the techniques of the participatory culture—which is everything from the blogosphere to Facebook to online shopping to Twitter to reality TV—that started springing up out of the blue about 15 years ago. You felt that if Leno could make him laugh, you might, too.
Obama spoke about the experience of possessing barely comprehensible power—“life in the bubble,” he called it—as if he had won the presidency on The Apprentice, occupied the Oval Office for a few months, and was now returning to tell funny, awed, slightly self-mocking stories about it. The doctor walking behind him with a defibrillator; the Secret Service men who wouldn’t let him walk alone for “750 yards”; his characterization of Washington as “a little bit like American Idol, but everyone’s Simon Cowell”—the stiff, defensive air of abstraction that would have cost him the election last fall if the bottom had not fallen out of the economy was now the insouciance, and the irreverence, of the triumphant interloper.
(Also the arrogance of the triumphant interloper: he talked patronizingly about Timothy Geithner as though the Treasury secretary were an underachieving student, and impulsively compared his bowling score to the “Special Olympics,” in an unsettling moment when he seemed, strangely, to want to banter privately with the Famous Comedian.)
At a time when Americans feel locked out of power’s contemptuous-seeming sanctums, Obama shrewdly spoke from the vantage point of someone looking in—with an air of pinch-me disbelief—at power from the outside. Once he leaned forward to adjust the bottom of his pants, and once he smoothed his pants with his hand—no American television audience has ever seen a president suddenly become conscious of his own appearance. But they were brilliant moves. They simultaneously established his gravitas and made him seem slightly uncomfortable with it; and they had the effect of distancing him from the occasion, since he made the slow, fastidious gestures while Leno was talking.
Television has long been the electronic fireplace of modern life, and it’s only natural that FDR’s fireside chats would evolve into a conversation between a president and a television host. And this was Jay Leno, l’homme moyen sensual—Everyman—not an ideological, or polemical, or sarcastic niche comedian. Watching Obama so expertly modulate his image—first he’s an average guy, then he’s the boy with his nose pressed to the glass, then he’s the president, then he’s the father, then he’s the president—you recalled that original late-night Everyman, Johnny Carson, who knew how to cut himself down to the size of his audience. It was a sharp contrast to those comedians today who always seem to be subtly cutting down uninitiated, or unapproved, segments of the audience.
Never mind all the prattle about whether Obama diminished the presidency by coming onto Leno’s show—he charged right into the nanosecond news cycle and made it stand still for a moment. For a hefty thirty minutes or so, Obama made Leno his sidekick, and gave America the impression that, though the country may be spinning out of control, he knows how to control that sacred hour before the country goes to bed and tries to fight its way through worry and fear to sleep. That’s not nothing— the land of TV is how America thinks about America, after all. Obama gained more than a few points for that.
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.