Obama and Letterman make case for civility
The interviewer and his guest haven’t been seen around these parts in recent times, but, still, they need no introduction. In fact, just minutes into the new Netflix series “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman,” it will feel like old — and arguably better — times.
The audience members in the Alabama theater where the interview was taped don’t know who Letterman’s guest is. But they leap to their feet and erupt into wild cheers as soon as the announcer utters the phrase “Forty-fourth” and before he can add “president of the United States, Barack Obama.”
The first of Letterman’s six monthly interview shows is available for streaming on Friday, Jan. 12.
In a relaxed, wide-ranging hour-long chat, Obama, making his first talk show appearance since leaving office, and Letterman, whose last “Late
Night With David Letterman” show aired in May 2015, make a combined case for civility that has been missing from television and perhaps our culture for far too long.
Much of the conversation focuses on family, on what the former president felt when he took his elder daughter to college. He describes the feeling of having kids, of never wanting to let them out of your sight, of wanting to protect them, but having to accept that they will learn to protect themselves the more you teach them. When he took Malia to Harvard, everyone had a task, except Dad. Sasha helped put her sister’s clothes away, Michelle scrubbed down the bathroom, and Barack tried to hold back the tears welling up inside. Malia gave him the task of assembling the four parts of a desk lamp just to keep him busy. It turns out assembling lamps is not one of Obama’s talents.
Although Obama wrote a book titled “Dreams From My Father,” he says that the most important lesson he learned from his father, who was all but absent from his life, was to be present in the lives of his own children. Much of his character was shaped by his mother, by her simple Midwestern values. He was so focused on his absent father while growing up that it wasn’t until later in life that he fully realized how much his own life and values were shaped by his mother.
A significant portion of the hour is given over to someone who is not onstage, and it isn’t the current occupant of the White House. 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. We cut away from the interview to view a recent video of Letterman walking the bridge with Lewis.
As they stroll across the now-peaceful landmark, Letterman asks Lewis to recall what went through his head when he was attacked.
“I thought I was going to die,” Lewis responds.
What was on the other side of the bridge for the marchers, Letterman asks.
“The vote,” Lewis answers. And: “Barack Obama.” The march, and the long and continuing civil rights movement made it possible for the country to elect an African American president 43 years later.
“Those people carried me across that bridge,” Obama adds. “They carried America across that bridge.”
The conversation includes references to the divisiveness of the present day, with Obama talking about how social media was key to communicating his positions on the issues in 2008 and 2012. What he didn’t realize, he says, what few realized, was how “people in power, special interests and foreign powers” could use social media to manipulate public opinion. The audience doesn’t need to hear “Trump” or “Russian meddling” to get the point.
“We don’t share a common baseline of facts,” Obama says to diagnose the root of divisiveness in the country today. He relates something the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said while debating an opponent: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
“If you are watching Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR,” Obama adds.
The audience laughs at the mention of Fox, as if it’s meant as a humorous dig, but Obama goes on to argue the importance of accurate news reporting as an antidote to the current reality that too many Americans live in “a bubble” of their own biases.
Obama’s appearance will make some viewers feel nostalgic, and others indifferent, or less. But regardless of your take on the 44th president, it sure is good to have David Letterman back. And certainly because it’s Letterman asking the questions, we should feel nostalgic for a time when candid, insightful and civil interviews played a larger role in television news and the national conversation.
“We don’t share a common baseline of facts,” Obama says, citing a quote from late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
David Letterman on “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”
Former President Barack Obama talks with David Letterman on the premiere episode of Letterman’s monthly interview show, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”