Published: Sat, January 13, 2018
Life&Culture | By Rose Hansen

David Letterman's first guest on new talk show: Barack Obama

David Letterman's first guest on new talk show: Barack Obama

And here's why it works.

Obama did not discuss his successor's administration, but the Donald Trump White House was not off-limits for the show's host.

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. Obama heads it off at the pass, answering instead with a long riff about the exploding importance of social media in the election process. "The interview doesn't produce any surprising or newsworthy statements from Obama".

Obama recalls being so emotional when he dropped 19-year-old Malia at college last year that he couldn't manage to put together a do-it-yourself item for his daughter's Harvard University dorm room. "If you watch Fox News you are living on a different planet than when you listen to NPR". "At a certain point, you just live in a bubble, and that's part of why our politics is so polarized right now".

This is, he suggests, unsafe for democracy. It is also Mr. Obama's first talk show guesting since he left his presidential post in January 2017. It's Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement who was beaten and suffered a fractured skull when police attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on "Bloody Sunday", 1965.

I have always thought of Letterman as an acquired taste that not everyone acquired.

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Letterman and Obama talk about the significance of that march, and the legacy Lewis has built. When Letterman rounded things off by declaring that Obama was "the first president I truly respected" you believed him - and felt he spoke for many.

Lewis himself doesn't mind mentioning Trump, reiterating that he thinks our current president is taking the country backwards.

"There may be delays", he says.

"It's all pretty rote and familiar, and what's worse is Letterman's stage and interviewing manner, which is clearly rusty", Matthew Gilbert wrote. Letterman seems sincerely if belatedly in awe of what happened there. Warning: More beard jokes will be made.

Obama's first interview since leaving office was with Prince Harry, who was serving as a guest host on BBC Radio 4's popular "Today" program. For instance, Letterman asked about readjusting to civilian life, and contrasted Obama's newfound hobbies with his own ("You're hang-gliding, you're climbing volcanoes, you're wind-surfing, you're wrestling sharks, you're on somebody's private island... and I'm at Bed, Bath and Beyond picking out hangers").

That gives his self-deprecating remembrance a larger context about the value of involvement, without turning the spotlight all on Dave. There is, however, a studio audience - the premiere was taped last fall at the City College of NY, in an auditorium filled with mostly young people who had no clue who Letterman's guests would be. Other scheduled guests on Letterman's show include George Clooney, Malala Yousafzai, Jay-Z, Tina Fey and Howard Stern. It's not the vulgarity so much as the mindset revealed by that phrase that makes many of us shudder, and listening to a different president talk for about an hour about America's best instincts is a relief, for a little while. He's still dry and amusing.

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