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David Letterman Returns with 'My Next Guest Needs No Introduction' and Barack Obama
January 12, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Watching David Letterman interview Barack Obama becomes a fine hour of television precisely for the reasons you might not expect.

Letterman’s new monthly long-form interview show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, launches Friday on the streaming service Netflix, and Obama is the first visitor.

And here’s why it works. Letterman is smart enough not to press Obama to talk about Donald Trump, and Obama has enough gravitas that Letterman doesn’t end up making too much of the show about himself.

It helps that they obviously like and trust each other, from past interview encounters and from subtle add-ons like Letterman having been invited to events at the White House.

Some viewers may be disappointed that Letterman only asks one topical political question, framing it as a “theoretical” situation in which Russia might try to influence an American presidential election. Obama heads it off at the pass, answering instead with a long riff about the exploding importance of social media in the election process.

So the Obama interview produces no explosive headlines, nothing that would inflame the Twittersphere. He never mentions his successor. Instead, he talks about his childhood, the work his wife Michelle did as First Lady, leaving the White House, and the wistfulness of sending his older daughter Malia off to college.

He talks in general terms, about ongoing American challenges like inequality and the costs of healthcare and education.

He’s still articulate, authoritative and persuasive without sounding condescending or arrogant. He’s a good politician, underscored by the fact that since he left, his own party hasn’t found anyone to replace him as its leader.

The closest he comes to dipping his toes in the contemporary political water is wryly suggesting that one of our biggest current problems lies in not having a common set of facts on which we can all agree.

“If you only watch Fox News,” he says, “you’re living in a different universe.”

His point there was a warning that with the fragmentation of media and information sources, more and more people live in “a bubble” where everything they hear just reinforces what they already believe.

This is, he suggests, dangerous for democracy.

Also dangerous for democracy, Obama says: political forces that keep trying to suppress rather than broaden voting.

This arises in connection with a filmed segment in which Letterman walks with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where Lewis was severely beaten in 1965 for leading a civil rights march.

The brutality with which the marchers were set upon by police was one of the flashpoints of the 1960s civil rights movement, creating sympathy for the cause. At the time, though, Lewis was pretty sure he was going to be killed.

Letterman and Obama talk about the significance of that march, and the legacy Lewis has built. Obama, like Lewis, ties the march directly to Obama’s eventual election as president, saying that without people who were willing to put themselves on the line, we never would have progressed to the point where we could elect a black president.

Lewis doesn’t mind mentioning Trump, reiterating that he thinks our current president is taking the country backward. At the same time, he hasn’t lost hope. 

“There may be delays,” he says. “But we will get there.”

Obama, who has expressed similarly soaring exhortations in the past, plays more small ball with Letterman, maintaining a sense of calm perspective.

He doesn’t have to mention Trump by name for the contrast to be clear.

Letterman, meanwhile, seems ecstatic to be back, even beyond launching with such an A-list guest.

In fact, Letterman may make the night’s most incendiary statement when he opens his very brief introduction by casually saying he was “fired” from his last job.

At the time he left The Late Show on CBS in May 2015, that’s not how either he or the network described it.

A few of Letterman’s questions to Obama are framed inside Letterman’s own experience, including parenthood and his walk with John Lewis.

Toward the end of the hour, after all the discussion about Selma, Letterman says in a chagrined tone that in April 1965, a month after that march, he and some buddies went to the Bahamas because there was no drinking age there and they could get drunk for a week.

There’s very likely something relatable there for a whole lot of viewers who watched from the sidelines as others did history’s hard work.

So there’s a larger point there about getting involved, and happily, Letterman never makes this a show about Dave. Obama references Letterman as much as he references himself, like by joking that Dave’s beard makes him look like a prophet from the Bible who should be carrying a staff.

The tone of My Next Guest may change in coming months when Letterman’s visitors, other than Malala Yousafzai, will be coming mostly from showbiz: George Clooney in February, then later Tina Fey, Howard Stern, and Jay-Z.

Ironically, Letterman may talk more politics with some of those guests than he did with Obama. He may also talk more Dave.  

And that’s fine. He’s still a good interviewer. He’s still dry and funny. With Letterman as with Dan Rather, a stripped-down interview show is an ideal landing spot for someone who’s not ready to head out to pasture.

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Re: the format of David Letterman’s new show. As I recall, Dick Cavett followed the same format on his talk show decades ago—1 guest in an intelligent and often witty conversation.
Jan 12, 2018   |  Reply
Lots of the Cavett-owned shows from the '70s ABC late night series,are spooled regularly on the CBS/Weigel digital broadcast channel,Decades. TCM has occasionally shown some of them,including the great Kate Hepburn hours. Yeah, those on You Tube,too.
Jan 12, 2018
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