That Jay Leno will do anything for ratings is hardly a Hollywood secret. After all, his August 6 hosting of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recall-candidacy shocker gave The Tonight Show a nice shove upwards in the overnight Nielsens. But his high-profile pop-up at the new California governor’s victory party suddenly puts Leno and his popularity in a precarious position when it comes to the politics of personality. So the question has to be asked: Is the late-night king becoming just another political pawn?

There he was, front and center, to introduce Schwarzenegger Tuesday evening. “Tonight is a testament of just how important one appearance on The Tonight Show can be, ladies and gentlemen,” Leno self-congratulated.

CNN called it “Leno’s big political moment.” Now, he’s a big political target.

The reason is that these days America expects its late-night comedians to be evenhanded when it comes to political humor. These hosts don’t invade bedrooms around the country; they’re invited. And if even the faintest whiff of unfairness taints their jokes, it’s time for viewers to reach for the remote and change the channel.

Which is why Leno’s oh-so-obvious partisanship is so perplexing. Even a dope knows the country is more divided politically now than it’s been in recent decades. So why in the world is Leno suddenly taking sides? Undoubtedly, Leno will brush aside the criticism with a lame explanation that he was there purely out of friendship with Arnold. And that’s true to an extent, since Schwarzenegger has been a frequent and favorite Tonight Show guest dating back to the days when Leno was trailing Letterman badly in the ratings as the two comedians finally went head to head in the late night. And it was because of that buddy-buddy relationship that Leno could squeeze in the occasional joke about those sexual-harassment allegations against Schwarzenegger: “Today, Arnold revealed his health-care plan. Every woman gets a free breast exam.” Sadly, the implication by Leno, and echoed by Republican mouthpieces, was that all those women were supposedly lucky to be groped by the star.

But the real truth is that, for some time now, Leno has been leaning right and going soft on President Bush, judging by jokes on The Tonight Show.

Case in point: President Clinton hasn’t been in office for nearly three years now. Yet there’s Leno night after night still giggling about Bill and Monica. He even recently managed to combine his partisanship for Schwarzenegger with his criticism of Clinton in this guffaw: “On talk radio, they’ve been comparing Clinton and Schwarzenegger — you know, this whole thing, like, ‘Oh, what’s the difference between the Clinton women and the Schwarzenegger women?’ I’ll tell you the difference — about 200 pounds.” The implication, of course, is that Arnold’s non-consensual sex is somehow more palatable than Clinton’s consensual sex because the actor had better taste in women.

It wasn’t always so. Before 9/11, Leno and his writers were deriding Bush almost nightly, blaming him for what was clearly even back then a worsening economy. There was even a tasteless Cheney heart joke thrown in every now and again for good measure. Also, Leno wouldn’t stop hyping the Supreme Court–decided 2000 presidential election. Leno’s nonstop jokes were barbs undercutting the legitimacy of the Bush White House.

But regular watchers of The Tonight Show could clearly discern that the content and tone of Leno’s monologue changed dramatically after 9/11. It was to be expected: His jokes became not just more patriotic but even jingoistic. That “raghead” stereotype of all Muslims became grist for his humor. But Leno was still finding his footing after playing No. 2 in kudos to Letterman, who had given television what was praised as one of its most important entertainment hours of the entire season on 9/17.

In contrast, Leno’s speechifying looked artificial and awkward. He needed a new shtick.

Leno found one: siding with the Bush administration no matter what the circumstances. Leno’s White House promotion was still riding high even when the nation’s terrorist trembling had nearly subsided. After Bush went after France, so did Leno. When Bush went after Iraq, so did Leno. Last month, he even found a way to combine both issues in a single joke: “Well, there are now reports that France may agree to train Iraqi soldiers. Why? I thought Iraqis already knew how to surrender.”

Today, the Clinton gibes continue on The Tonight Show, and the Bush jokes are still few and far between. That’s made Leno a favorite on the lucrative corporate master-of-ceremonies circuit since so many CEOs tilt Republican. Even the suspicion and derision that accompanied Leno’s wife, Mavis, and her championing of the plight of women in the then-Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was transformed by 9/11. Suddenly she looked prescient, and the White House briefly claimed the women’s issue in Afghanistan in a craven attempt to woo females (remember that invite to Oprah?).

Whether Leno continues this partisan attitude as the 2004 presidential race heats up, and the candidates’ talk-show appearances become increasingly crucial, remains to be seen. But the last Tonight Show host who went too far by intermingling politics and entertainment was Jack Paar — remember his embracement of Castro and friendship with the Kennedys? — and his late-night reign ended with his own recall.

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