Leno may be the ratings winner. Stewart is the critics’ darling. But, day in and day out, Letterman is the hands-down leader when it comes to unabashed Bush bashing. One reason is that his Late Show has the brass balls to go where the cowardly White House news corps and corporate suck-up Leno fear to tread: presenting Dubya in all his dumb-ass glory.
During their workweek, executive producer Rob Burnett and his octet of writers often begin their morning by wondering, What’s George W. doing today? So they glance through his schedule and look for an interesting presidential public appearance. Then they contact CBS News or the local affiliate for the Bush raw footage and examine it in a process that often induces stupefying boredom. “We start out having no idea it will yield anything,” Burnett tells L.A. Weekly. “We put it on only if it’s funny. It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s Wednesday and we need Bush footage.’”
But the end result is really something. Enough fodder for the show to spotlight snarky segments like “George W. Bush: Inspiration to America” featuring the president flippantly telling a classroom, “Look, I didn’t like to take tests either, but that’s too bad.” Or, wearily listening to a business speech, nodding like a bobble-head doll and repeatedly checking his watch. (Déjà vu, anyone? Remember Daddy Bush checking his watch during the 1992 debates, a move that helped cost him the election?)
This past Monday, Dave’s people labeled a segment “Who Does George W. Bush Remind You Of?” and, while Hail to the Chief played loudly in the background, Shrub, talking about taxes, was shown stuttering, “the market . . . the market . . . the market . . .,” followed by a cut to a cartoon starring Porky Pig.
These undoctored snippets show Bush being Bush: a stumbling and fumbling orator, a why-can’t-I-just-take-the-money-and-run campaigner, or worse. This, of course, is in stark contrast to what happens to the footage once it’s been edited by the news media. Miraculously, Bush’s actual inarticulate ramblings or arrogant posturing are prettied up to the point where he’s made virtually coherent and semi-mature.
Just look at the startling difference between Bush reading a prepared text at the start of his April 13 live news conference and the long pauses, repetitive phrases and overall pathetic-ness of his replies when he tried to parry the press during the Q&A portion. But by the time the footage reached the nightly news, Bush seemed and sounded smooth. In his monologue Letterman even joked about the president’s poor performance: “Bush’s press conference was such a big deal that Fox pre-empted American Idol. That makes sense: You don’t want too many amateurs on TV the same night.”
Which is why Letterman’s Stupid President Tricks segment is so deliciously subversive: because it’s truthful. Truthful, at a time when the news media are engaged in unsettling arguments over how much unvarnished truth about the war in Iraq — from footage of the desecration of American victims in Fallujah to photographing the rows of coffins of U.S. soldiers on their sad voyage home — is palatable to the public. Truthful, when Bush’s image makers have been editing the official White House transcripts to make the president and his people sound more presidential. (Remember that low point in the aftermath of 9/11 when Bush mouthpiece Ari Fleischer warned that Americans “need to watch what they say”? Those Big Brother tactics were edited out of the official White House transcript.) Truthful, when the Bush administration has been purging government-issued facts and statements, like last year’s deletion from cyberspace of the gross understatement made by the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development that U.S. taxpayers would not have to pay more than $1.7 billion to reconstruct Iraq, or like the gutting of a chapter on global climate change from a 2002 government study on the state of the environment.
It’s this kind of hypocrisy that the Letterman show is headlining. And the White House is noticing. (So is W.’s daddy, who recently got all teary-eyed about how “It hurts an awful lot more when it’s your son that is being criticized.” Didn’t Republicans accuse Clinton of murder, thievery, fraud and rape?) Hollywood remains a huge headache for all the president’s men, and not just because the TV-movies-music industry gave 78 percent of its millions in political donations to Democrats in 2002. The Bushies hate the anti-Bushisms creeping into prime time on Whoopi and Law & Order and Curb Your Enthusiasm (where Larry David backed out of sex when the prospective partner turned out to be a Bush supporter).
So it stands to reason that Rove et al. fear Leno and Letterman because the duo proved pivotal last time out. A Pew Research survey before the 2000 presidential election found that almost half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, and more than a quarter of all adults, often gained their info about the campaign from late-night comedy shows. “I don’t think this is the place you want to get your news, but it’s probably more entertaining than other places,” Burnett tells the Weekly.
Yes, the openly liberal Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has more Bush bashing quantitatively but not necessary qualitatively. Besides, his cable audience is at best minuscule. Leno, meanwhile, damaged any aura of political impartiality he may have claimed when he slobbered over Ah-nuld’s California gubernatorial candidacy and then emceed Schwarzenegger’s victory party. (For more, see my column.) The Letterman folks were aghast. They knew that Jay had taken a step where no host had gone before. Johnny never would have done that. But they also knew it was quintessential Leno, that he runs The Tonight Show like a political campaign. When he sees something hot, he jumps on it. Forget reputation and credibility as a host: Jay wanted to get a nice number. It’s Leno vs. Letterman in a microcosm: Jay leads in the ratings, but Dave has the legacy and Emmys. And a lock on inventiveness, like having a Nobel Prize winner tell “You might be a redneck” jokes in a recurring bit recently.
Leno was steamed when L.A. Weekly, the Washington Post, and The New York Times accused him of political partisanship following l’affaire Arnold. But shortly after I blasted the comic for becoming yet another Republican political pawn, one of Leno’s best friends in comedy assured, “I think you got it correct.” There are reasons Leno turned right. First, of course, was 9/11, followed by the invasion of Iraq. Add to that the May 2001 departure of The Tonight Show’s so-called vice president in charge of monologues, longtime head writer Jim Brogan, who at one time worked for the late, ultra-liberal New York Congressman Allard Lowenstein. Finally, those incredibly lucrative corporate gigs that book Leno for $100,000 to $150,000 each (plus a chartered jet) where the fat cats don’t want to hear anything bad about the guy cutting their taxes. (These events, along with his Las Vegas appearances, allow Leno to boast he can bank his Tonight Show salary.)
Both Leno and Letterman wished Clinton could have a third term, and while Jay is still flogging really old blow-job humor, his Bush jokes aren’t nearly as biting as Letterman’s. Even Dave’s tired Top Ten lists include more truthfulness about the Bush presidency than most newspapers’ front pages: Top Ten Signs Bush Is Considering Dumping Cheney: “When Cheney says, ‘We’re gonna win in November,’ Bush snarls, ‘What’s this we crap?’” Or, Top Ten Surprises in President Bush’s Address to the United Nations: “Usual smug smirk even smugger and smirkier.” Or, Top Ten Questions You’re Afraid To Ask Condoleezza Rice: “What kind of job will you and Bush be looking for in January 2005?”
Burnett claims his show operates in a completely apolitical atmosphere even though Letterman introduces the Bush-bashing segments with obvious glee. Says Burnett: “As close as I am to Dave, I honestly have no idea what his politics is. I know he votes religiously, but I don’t know who he votes for.” As for the Bush bashing, the executive producer shrugs it off: “There’s no agenda. We’re not a news show and don’t have the need to convey information.”
But as Stupid President Tricks has gained in popularity, it’s become more controversial. Witness the March brouhaha between Letterman, the White House and CNN over the accuracy of footage of a Florida Republican organizer’s kid hilariously yawning and squirming while standing behind Dubya at an Orlando campaign appearance. “It was one of those ‘You’re not going to see that anywhere else but on Dave’ kind of moments,” Burnett recalls. His team noticed that Bush had a speech scheduled and couldn’t find anyone national covering it, so they went to the CBS affiliate in Orlando for the raw footage. Then a writer said, “Hey, look at the kid in the back.”
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After the video of Orange County, Florida, Chief Executive Rich Crotty’s dead-on-his-feet son Tyler aired under the title “George W. Bush Invigorates America’s Youth,” CNN reported it had been told by the White House that the child was edited into the video by the Letterman show as a joke and was never standing directly behind the president.
Dave went Full Metal Jacket. He stared into the camera and called the White House assertion “an out-and-out lie” not once but twice. Then he warned his viewers, “When you cast your vote in November, just remember that the White House was trying to make me look like a dope!” Immediately, everybody backtracked, CNN apologized and the White House was cleared of ever having complained. But the Letterman folks still believe the Bushies did try to attack Dave. When Letterman made a stink about it, the White House turned and ran. (Tyler was a guest on Dave’s show and scored cans of Red Bull.)
It’s not easy bashing Bush in today’s political climate, especially when the FCC has the Big Media Behemoths by the tin balls. Just look at what’s happening to Howard Stern, though Howard’s longtime Infinity boss, Mel Karmazin, now Viacom’s number two, is fighting those indecency fines. (Interestingly, now that Howard has gone from supporting Bush to bashing him, WBCN in Boston claims 72 percent of its Stern listeners say they’ll vote differently because of it.) Right now on the howardstern.com Web site there’s a behind-the-scenes video clip headlined “Human Kleenex” from an appearance by Bush on the Letterman show. It reveals Bush, during the commercial break, leaning over and, without asking permission, wiping his eyeglasses on the sweater of one of Dave’s female producers. “That’s how arrogant our president is,” notes the Web site, which doesn’t say how the footage was obtained.
Unlike Leno's Tonight Show, which is owned by NBC, Letterman's Late Show is owned by Dave's company, Worldwide Pants, which affords him near-total immunity from corporate pressure. But to Viacom’s credit, says Burnett, “They leave us alone. They know better than to tell Dave what to do. They know it’s futile.”