With Tina Fey doing such a masterfully brilliant job of turning Sarah Palin into a hilarious joke, it’s possible to forget that her presence on the Republican ticket is no laughing matter. Which is why David Letterman’s interview with John McCain last night was so vital. Yes, Palin has taken a well deserved beating in the press, but as far as I can see only Letterman has looked McCain in the eye and taken him to task for endangering the country by selecting such a clearly unqualified candidate to be the next possible president of our very definitely in trouble country.
Letterman is one of my biggest comedic heroes, but he is often at his best when he is serious. And on last night’s show he got, as they say, as serious a heart attack—specifically, God forbid, a presidential heart attack that would put Sarah Palin in the oval office.
It began innocently enough. Letterman asked McCain about how well he knew Governor Palin when he approached her about the VP slot. McCain admitted “he didn’t know her well at all” and then went into how great her family is, including a long tangent about how wonderful her husband Todd is and how he once completed a dog race with a broken arm. This is the sort of irrelevant nonsense that turns me into a late night Joe Six Pack—not the cliché blue collar one, but rather the one who has to get drunk to numb myself to this frustrating level of BS. And all too often, it’s the sort of time filling talk that leads regular journalists to just skip to the next question. But Letterman wasn’t done. He asked McCain about whether his process for selecting Palin included a sincere reflection on whether she was the best person to safeguard the country, to which McCain of course answered yes. He threw out some buzzwords—Reform! Leadership!—and finished his sentence by saying “Just because she’s not known inside the Georgetown cocktail circuit doesn’t matter to me…Anybody think we don’t need to clean up the mess in Washington?” For some reason, this got an applause break.
Unsatisfied, Letterman pressed on. Clasping his hands, the famously private man invoked his concern for the future of his four year old son.
Unsatisfied, Letterman pressed on. Clasping his hands, the famously private man invoked his concern for the future of his four year old son. And then, leaning forward, he asked the senator the following, with as genuine feeling as I have ever seen him express: “In your guts, in your stomach…if I were to run upstairs and wake you up in the middle of the night and say John, is Sarah Palin really the woman to lead us through four, eight years, through the next 9-11 attack?” And isn’t this the question every real American has been wanting to ask Senator McCain, the man who so many believed, and still want to believe, truly has (or had) the capacity to put country first? Have we not as a nation wanted to collectively shake him awake? Of course McCain would only give one response to this, and that is the response he gave: “Absolutely.”
But Letterman’s question was clearly meant less as a real inquiry than a plea to McCain’s conscience, for him to address whenever he is able. Whether that be today, tomorrow, on the day after the election, or just at some unforeseeable future date, late at night. A plea to haunt him like Poe’s tell-tale heart, beating from under the floorboards of his very soul. Really? Really? Really John? In your guts? Really? In your guts?
This moment of truth made for poignant television that was, like this column, not particularly funny.