Jay Leno: a short history of a political player

Jay Leno was a must-stop for Washington power players, who often emerged more likable. But his jokes could sting: The Broncos were so ineffective ... 'they were invited to join the Obama administration.' Ouch.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
In this April 6, 2013 file photo, President Obama is wishing Jay Leno well, as he prepares to say farewell to 'The Tonight Show' on Thursday night. Obama spokesman Jay Carney says Obama is a Leno fan and has enjoyed his many appearances with the late-night comedian in his Burbank, Calif., studio.

Late-night talk-show hosts have long poked fun at presidents. But during Jay Leno’s watch, they’ve become more than political jokemeisters. Leno et al are now part of the political process itself.

As he signs off the “Tonight Show,” Leno can pride himself on being a pioneer in this context. The couch next to his desk has become a must-stop for Washington’s biggest players. Look who he’s had on in recent months: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio, who told Leno he was too fond of wine and tobacco to run for president; Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and his daughter Meghan, who said that being part of a political dynasty was like being a member of a mafia family; and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who said he “was not a fan” of shutting down the government last November.

“You looked like a big fan from where I was standing,” Leno replied.

President Obama was a guest last August. Ann Romney was on just prior to the 2012 election – she admitted to Leno that she used to dress her boys for church the night before and have them sleep in their clothes.

Oh, and former President George W. Bush painted a portrait of Leno and handed it to the “Tonight Show” icon in an appearance last November. During that show, W. displayed a keen sense of comic timing. Asked why he’d agreed to the guest spot, Bush answered “only because of you” to Leno, drawing audience applause. Then Bush waited ... just long enough, and added, “You’re about to head out to pasture, just wanted to see what you look like before you go out that gate.”

Look, the network news anchors aren’t getting this kind of access. Leno’s decades of hosting have coincided with a number of factors that have made politicians see him, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, and so forth as legitimate interviewers.

That's where the people are. The fragmentation of the American viewing public into niches, made possible by cable and Internet streaming, has left few places where politicians can appear in front of a true mass audience. There are sports (Why do you think Obama appeared in a pre-game Super Bowl interview?) and popular talk shows. That’s about it.

Humanize. Humanize. Leno appearances usually make politicians appear more likeable and human. They talk about their favorite TV shows and their families as well as public policy. That’s important in a political environment where voters make electoral choices based on their emotional reactions to candidates, as well as partisanship and proposed programs.

Who's a journalist? The line between journalist and entertainer gets more blurred by the day. Polls show Jon Stewart of the “Daily Show” is rated one of the most admired journalists in the US, even though he insists he’s a comic. Rush Limbaugh may complain that Obama’s appearances on Leno cheapen the presidency, but he might be in the minority there.

“I don’t think JFK went on Jack Paar to talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Mr. Limbaugh on his show last August.

Also, politicians know they are not going to get blasted by late-night hosts. They can, and do, ask serious questions, but the shows thrive on an atmosphere of fun, not tension.

It’s the jokes, not the interviews, that skewer. Take Leno’s jab Monday, after the Denver Broncos got flattened in the Super Bowl.

“The team was so ineffective, today they were invited to join the Obama administration,” Leno said.

Leno himself has said he’s a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. Republicans generally consider him the most even-handed of the late night hosts. Now that his gig at NBC is up, there are reports that CNN is wooing him for a show to spark their evening lineup. That alone tells you all you need to know about the new confluence of yuks and news.

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