Shut Up, Trump! The Grownups Are Talking
Late night TV these days looks a lot like that Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men. Advertisers covet the 18-49 age range, and networks tend to tailor programming (and hosts) to target that demographic. When David Letterman signed off The Late Show in 2015, he was 68. He had hosted a late-night show nearly half his life.
By the end of his CBS run, Letterman’s nightly viewership according to The Wrap stood at 35% of his audience in 1992, the year his show moved from NBC to CBS. Worse, his ratings with those in the coveted 18-49 range had dwindled to 12% of his 1992 share. His ability to deliver the comedy (and social media) needed to connect with younger viewers may have waned. What never waned, though, was his gravitas.
Most regular television stopped in the days after 9/11. When Letterman’s show returned less than a week after the attacks, most Americans were still searching for answers. None were forthcoming. Even now, nearly two decades later, America struggles to fully digest the ways the world changed that September morning. Letterman did not return with comedy skits, or his trademark self-deprecating humor. Bodies were still being pulled from the ruins in Manhattan. Funerals were being planned. America was readying for war. The Late Show was broadcast from New York City. This was no time for jokes, and Letterman was brilliant that night.
He spoke eloquently of the police and fireman who lost their lives. He spoke of the religious radicalization that led to the attacks. Most importantly, Letterman made sure all Americans knew he was scared, confused, almost shell-shocked. He made sure those watching knew it was OK to feel that way. He reassured us we would get through the coming months together.
He almost broke down talking about the small Montana town near where he had purchased a ranch. The town, which had already been struggling, had been further devastated by the recession that began that March. Yet the residents of Choteau still scraped together money to donate to New Yorkers who had lost everything. With tears welling in his eyes, Letterman said, “If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the spirit of the United States, then I can’t help you, I’m sorry.”
Would the 2016 election season have gone differently if Letterman and Stewart had not retired in 2015? Look, no one is blaming late night television hosts for Donald Trump. That falls squarely on the voters; both the ones who showed up and the ones who did not. But Conan and Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon (Leno’s Tonight Show replacement) saw plenty of daily material and significant ratings boosts by making Trump a punchline instead of raising alarms. None appealed to Letterman’s older demographic (which largely propelled Trump to victory). None but Letterman could have locked eyes with viewers through the camera and implored, “Think about the consequences of what you are about to do!”
A year into the Trump presidency, David Letterman is back on television. The first episode of his Netfix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman was released last week. Fittingly, the first guest was former President and frequent Trump target Barack Obama. Obama brought the same gravitas and empathy to the White House that Letterman brought to The Late Show, while adding decency, dignity, and unwavering positivity. America would be a better place if either were back behind their respective desks.
My Next Guest has no desk though, no fancy skyline backdrop, and no house band. Each episode features two comfortable chairs, and the sort of comfortable conversations one might have with their best friend. The feeling is more, “Hey, remember that time?” Or maybe, “So I built this lamp for my daughter to take to college.” There is an openness, a feeling the guest can share anything, and they will. The Obama interview was wonky at times, wacky at times, and occasionally, sobering. Other than seeming more at ease, Obama has changed little since leaving office. Letterman, however, now sports a Grizzly Adams beard and round spectacles (almost like the ones The Simpsons’ Professor Frink wears). Both still appear at the top of their games.
Though it is something most Americans realized already, it was no less a wake-up call to hear President Obama say, “If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you, you know, listen to NPR.” And wake up we must.
When I listened to President Obama deliver that line, I immediately thought back to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and to (unfortunately flawed) Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards’ speech The Two Americas. Edwards spoke of the mill workers in his home town of Robbins, North Carolina, and the auto workers in small factory towns across the Rust Belt. He spoke of these folks coming home with lint in their hair and grease on their faces, whatever it took to make a better life for their children. He spoke of the two economies, the two school systems, and the fear he saw and heard more frequently when he spoke at campaign rallies. Like a canary in an Appalachian coal mine, the warning was there if we only looked and listened.
Or maybe Democrats did listen, but dismissed the decline in these communities (and the rising backlash) when Barack Obama won in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012? It was Obama, then as a candidate for the United States Senate from Illinois, who had delivered the keynote address at the convention the night before Edwards spoke. Either way, by 2016, the situation for those Edwards singled-out in his speech had reached a critical point: anger and blame. No longer was it about how a candidate might help these folks get back on their feet. It was about hopelessness and who was to blame.
Enter candidate Donald J. Trump.
Trump told them what they wanted to hear, what they already believed, that someone else was to blame for their circumstances.
Over and over, Trump tied Hillary Clinton to NAFTA and the TPP.
“Here, in this beautiful and great state, so many people have suffered because of NAFTA. NAFTA. Remember NAFTA, what it’s done to this country. Bill Clinton signed the deal and Hillary Clinton supported the deal.” (Aug. 18 in Charlotte, N.C.)
“Sad, isn’t it? Isn’t it pathetic? North Carolina’s industrial workers have been crushed by Bill Clinton’s signing of NAFTA supported by crooked Hillary.” (Oct. 14 in Greensboro, N.C.)
“There’s never been a worse or a dumber deal for trade including TPP which is a disaster — but TPP I don’t believe will be as bad as NAFTA. And as you know, Hillary Clinton totally wants to approve TPP.” (Sept. 13 in Des Moines, Iowa)
Trump tied Hillary to Goldman Sachs, and by default, any of the other folks getting richer while working class America gets poorer.
“Hillary speaks in secret to Goldman Sachs — her private position — then lies to you, the public, with her public position. It’s all a fraud.” (October 15, 2016 in Portsmouth, N.H.)
Trump spoke of Mexicans flooding across a seemingly unguarded border, raping women, bringing drugs, and refusing to speak English. Trump drew a direct comparison between the people these prospective voters saw in their bathroom mirrors and who they saw when looking out their windows.
“They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. “
Trump’s speeches told these people that not only do the liberal, educated elites in their sanctuary cities NOT care one bit about your present or your future, they think they are better than you. These liberals think working with their brains makes them deserve more than people who work with their hands, or their backs. Maybe neither candidate could bring the jobs back or stop the opioid crisis ravaging so many towns (though Trump promised to do both), but their votes could do one thing for sure. They could stick-it to those who Trump had convinced them had stuck-it to them for so many years. And so they did.
Letterman’s new show is a monthly event, so viewers will not get the sort of Daily Show treatment so common these days. The opportunity is for guests like President Obama to remind us of the hope and optimism of a decade ago, and to provide a 2018 version of Edwards’ 2004 Two Americas, maybe this time with a blueprint for fixing the issues. Perhaps George Clooney will share his experiences aiding victims of the Darfur genocide, or his more recent efforts to aid Syrian refuges, when he is the guest? Tina Fey can tell us what it is like to be one of the most powerful females in Hollywood. Jay-Z can share what it is like to be black in America. Malala Yousafzai can share how to fight religious extremism, even if it means risking one’s own life.
These guests are not plugging a movie or a book. Nor are they telling (or laughing at) jokes. They are fighting every day to change the world and are there to tell the world how to help. Letterman’s new show is the perfect format for serious people to share serious ideas on solving the world’s most serious problems, and Letterman is the perfect host. The show, and the host, stand in stark contrast to the shallowness and lies coming from the White House these days. Welcome back, Dave.