Obama and Let­ter­man make case for ci­vil­ity

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - DATEBOOK - David Wie­gand is an as­sis­tant man­ag­ing edi­tor and the TV critic of The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle. Fol­low him on Face­book. Email: dw­ie­gand@ sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @WaitWhat_TV

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.”

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