February 23, 2018, 21:40

Barack Obama Is in His Element on David Letterman’s New Netflix Series |

Barack Obama Is in His Element on David Letterman’s New Netflix Series |

Barack Obama was just fifty-five years old when he left the White House,
and there was much speculation regarding how he might occupy himself in
the years that followed. My vote, formed after watching his breezy
facility during one of his appearances on “Late Show with David
Letterman,” was that he host a late-night talk show—nothing too glitzy,
just an interview show in which he could be a more telegenic version of
Tom Snyder or a more regal Dick Cavett. Of course, this wish was just a
lark: clearly the job was beneath the dignity of the office he was
leaving behind. That’s less clear now, as, on one hand, the dignity of
the Presidency has been sullied, and, on the other, the skills honed by
years hosting a talk show have come to seem like the kind of credentials
that might make for a good President.

My dream of an Obama talk show has resurfaced with the release, on
Friday morning, of the first episode of David Letterman’s six-part
Netflix series, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.” The former
President, wearing a trim suit and white shirt, open at the collar,
joins Letterman for an hour-long conversation that was recorded before a
small audience, this fall, in New York. Obama clearly imposed parameters
on the conversation—of the “T” words, “tweet” is mentioned only in
passing, and “Trump” not at all—and as such, it produces no great moment
of liberal catharsis, save for allowing viewers to luxuriate in an hour
of restraint and grace, as well as complete and coherent sentences. The
closest the show gets to referring to the current occupant of the Oval
Office is with some misdirection by Letterman, who tells Obama that his
clear explanation of an issue “makes me so happy you’re still
President.”

Letterman, whose snow-white achievement beard has grown to Biblical proportions, shapes the episode as a love letter
to the former President and his family, each member of whom he speaks of
with admiration and delight. (The première episode also includes a
stirring segment of Letterman in Selma, Alabama, walking across the
Edmund Pettus Bridge with Congressman John Lewis.) Mostly, the former
President is on autopilot, speaking in the way he sometimes does, where
you can almost see him thinking a few sentences or ideas ahead, which
makes him appear less than completely present. He trots out the old
hits, defending his Administration’s accomplishments in handling the
financial crisis, warning about the dangers of a divided America,
speaking warmly about his mother’s influence on his life. The effect is
familiar, and is enough to make a sympathetic viewer feel wistful for
saner times, but perhaps little else.

It’s when Obama breaks his own oratorical spell—when he talks more like
an entertainer than a President—that the interview becomes engaging,
surprising, and funny. Never known for his chumminess with
fellow-politicians while President, he nonetheless affects just that in
this format. He is comfortable with all the talk-show shorthand: when he
mentions that he and Michelle had taken a trip to the British Virgin
Islands, a few enthusiastic members of the audiences hoot, and Obama
gestures out in a knowing way, gently mocking that enthusiasm. “There
you go,” he says. He shows off his quick wit, his playfulness, and his
ease and pleasure at delivering a good joke. “Do you have a staff?” he
asks Letterman, teasing him about his Gandalfian hirsuteness. He makes
fun of his own limited dance moves, and tells a charming story about
trying to put together a lamp, and hold back tears, when he dropped his
daughter Malia at her dorm room at Harvard.

Early on, he turns a question back on Letterman, asking how the former
late-night host had spent the early days of his retirement—“Did you just
brood in the dark somewhere?” Yet after that first back-and-forth,
Letterman makes it clear that he’ll be the one asking questions, and the
discussion proceeds from there. Neither man, having done so for years,
seems particularly interested in talking about himself. You could
imagine a different hour passed between the two men, in which Obama was
the host and Letterman the guest. And you can imagine that hour
repeated, say, weekly, with Obama engaging other interesting people in
wide-ranging, intelligent discussions of the issues of the day. (He’d quickly have to overcome his reluctance to speak about the current President.) I’m
already picturing his interview with Hillary Clinton, perhaps a pair of
tumblers on a glass-top between them.

In the moment of Trump—and that of Jimmy Kimmel changing minds about
health-care policy, or John Oliver making a generation care about net
neutrality, or Sarah Silverman bringing empathy to her exchanges with
conservative voters, or Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers fact-checking
the White House—the talk-show host has become a kind of secular
preacher, a sense-maker, a reassuring voice of good humor and patriotic
confidence. Part of this owes to the vacuum at the top, Trump’s
abdication of the rhetorical responsibilities of the Presidency. The
absence of this kind of leadership is, in large part, how a well-crafted
and perfectly delivered speech from Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes ceremony could immediately vault her to front-runner status in an
imagined Democratic Presidential primary. The speech’s mental and moral
clarity felt Presidential, and specifically Presidential in the Obama
mold.

Perhaps, then, Obama might consider filling out the Winfrey mold. When Letterman introduces Obama, who arrived as a surprise guest at the taping, the audience responds with a euphoria that looks a lot like the way Winfrey’s audience once responded to being given a car. Yet such
wild “Oprah” moments were never exclusively about the value of the
objects being gifted, not merely part of a capitalist frenzy, but
instead a kind of free-floating ecstasy that such a moment was possible,
that such a person like Oprah was possible, and that maybe, for each
person, anything might be possible. To Letterman, Obama talks about the
broader power of the Presidency, saying, “Part of your ability to lead
the country doesn’t have to do with legislation, it doesn’t have to do
with regulations, it has to do with shaping attitudes, shaping culture,
increasing awareness.” It sounds quite a bit like what a good talk-show
host can do. And so, here, a proposal: Mr. President, get a band
together, hire some writers, pick out a proper desk, and get back to
work.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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