It is somehow fitting that Barack Obama’s first talk-show appearance since leaving the White House was with his fellow retiree David Letterman.
On Friday, Netflix premiered the very first episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, David Letterman’s heavily anticipated and unexpected follow-up to The Late Show. And he landed a hell of a first guest in the 44th president of the United States.
Despite the inevitable excitement surrounding their sit-down, Letterman and Obama seemed far more relaxed this time than they ever did on CBS. For both men, the stakes are a lot lower now. Between Obama’s open collar and Letterman’s massive beard, they are finally free to just be themselves.
Obama appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman nine times, from just after he was elected to the Senate in 2004 to the host’s farewell show in 2015, where he joined Bill Clinton and both Bushes for a taped send-off to the TV legend. But it was Obama’s last real guest spot on The Late Show that opened the first episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.
At the time, Obama joked with Letterman about playing dominoes and going to Starbucks together once they were both retired. Two years later, we see a bearded Letterman call up Obama and ask him to collaborate. When an off-screen voice asks him how it went, he replies, “I think it was a ‘no.’”
In lieu of a traditional monologue, Letterman emerged onto the stage and delivered a few off-the-cuff remarks before asking members of the audience to guess who his surprise guest will be. One guessed “William Jefferson Clinton,” but the crowd seemed far more enthusiastic to see Obama emerge from the wings.
When Letterman began by noting that both men recently left long-term jobs, Obama joked, “I was not fired though,” making the host laugh—and not for the last time. What Letterman wanted to know is what Obama’s first post-presidency day was like.
“It was later, I slept in, which I was pretty happy about,” Obama said. “And I took Michelle on a holiday, because I missed my wife.” When they got back to their new house in D.C., Obama said he did not miss the “trappings” of his old job and “enjoyed puttering around the house.”
When Letterman asked if there was a feeling of “relief,” Obama said no. Rather, “there was a sense that I had run the race, I had completed it, I was proud of the work that we had done, and I was ready for the next stage.”
Letterman admitted that there was a “palpable sadness” on his part when Obama left the White House. “But then I see you and you’re hang gliding and your climbing volcanoes and you’re windsurfing and you’re wrestling sharks on somebody’s private island,” he said, “and I’m at Bed, Bath and Beyond picking out hangers! Something’s wrong here.”
The two men spent a good part of their interview reminiscing about the early days of the Obama administration—and the early years of Obama’s life—but the conversation was most compelling when they discussed the year since he turned the presidency over to Donald Trump, especially because we have heard so little from the former president during that time.
The interview was taped well in advance of its release, so there wasn’t much talk about current events. No reaction from Obama to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury or President Trump’s “shithole countries” comment. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t talk politics.
Letterman started with a “hypothetical” question about which would be more damaging to our democracy, “the diminishment by the head of that democracy of press” or “somebody screwing around with the actual voting process.”
Obama said that “one of the biggest challenges” to our democracy is that “we don’t share a common base line of facts.” He added, “What the Russians exploited—but it was already here—was we are operating in completely different information universes.”
To loud applause, he said, “If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than if you listen to NPR.” Facebook and Twitter only exacerbate this problem by reinforcing people’s existing beliefs, Obama explained.
Beyond the Obama interview, the episode was intercut with footage from another interview Letterman conducted on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis (R-GA). The congressman was a bit more candid in his condemnation of Trump than Obama was willing to be, calling him a “threat, not just to our own country, but to the planet.”
Throughout the episode, Letterman joked about his desire to still have Obama as his president. “If it were not for the Constitution, there’d be Michelle,” Obama said, by which he did not mean the former first lady would be president, but that she never would have let him stay for a third term. “Michelle would leave me,” he said. “And I want her around.”
By the end of the interview, Letterman was nearly in tears as he told Obama that, “Irrespective of the man or woman who holds the office, you have to respect the office of president,” before adding, “Without a question of a doubt, you are the first president I truly and fully respect.”
They may not have broken any news in their nearly hour-long talk, but there was something deeply satisfying about watching these two legends emerge from their much-deserved retirements for one night and open up about their lives.