Jay Leno Wins on Tonight Show, But Obama and His Special Olympics Joke Flop

One big point for Jay Leno. None for Obama.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The morning shows were abuzz with reviews of President Obama's performance last night on Jay Leno's show. I still say he shouldn't have done it. Here are the reasons this was a bad idea from the start:

The risky nature of unscripted, be-funny-right-now late-night television played against him. Overall, the president was his usual charming self. But sure enough, in an effort to be funny, the president slipped. Everyone cringed when he made a self-deprecating joke at the expense of the kids in the Special Olympics. Before the show even aired, he found himself apologizing to the head of the Special Olympics from Air Force One, and the White House put out a printed apology shortly afterward. Completely avoidable, and now it's getting played over and over on cable.

Leno also asked the president about his confidence in Secretary Geithner, and his off-the-cuff response is being replayed endlessly as a "heck of a job, Brownie" non-endorsement. It's adding fuel to the fire at Geithner's feet, which is probably not what the White House wanted going in to the weekend talk shows. Again, completely avoidable.

The fact that the president didn't control the questions, Jay Leno did. Although the White House intended that the interview would allow the president to explain to the American people his proposals for getting the economy moving again, he spent roughly half of his time answering Leno's questions about the AIG bonuses instead. In fact, Leno asked a great question to which the president didn't seem to have an answer: In reference to the bill that passed the House imposing a 90 percent tax on AIG executives who kept their bonuses, Leno said, "It's frightening to me as an American that Congress could decide that 'I don't like that group—let's pass a law and tax them at 90 percent' ... It seems a little scary to me as a taxpayer that they can just decide that."

Great question, one that no one seems to have asked so far. What is preventing Congress from imposing a 90 percent tax the rest of us, if they so chose? Apparently it's not going to be President Obama. He responded with a vague answer that started with something about not letting the horse out of the barn and ended with calling for tax hikes on the rich.

The appearance diminished the office of the president. First the president had to cool his heels backstage while Jay Leno went through his usual comedy monologue. When Leno ended it with his usual "Stay with us, _____ is up next," it was not "Britney Spears" or "Ryan Seacrest" up next, but "The President of the United States." When the show returned, we all waited through an extended bit on silly items found at the Dollar Store. As my sixth grader would say, awkward.

The president was introduced like any starlet or movie producer. There was nothing different from any other guest, except that Kevin Eubanks and his band played a rock-and-roll version of "Hail to the Chief" when the President came onstage.

Even if the president had it the ball out of the park, his appearance on Leno did nothing in terms of building respect for the office of the presidency. And now that's he's done it, what's next ... Letterman? The Daily Show? It'll be hard to say no to everyone else, now that the precedent has been set.

It was a win for Leno, but not for the president. So much for making television history.

PS: A note to my readers who questioned my reference to Leno's "new" show in a previous blog; I was mistaken in thinking he had already switched to his "new" 10 p.m. EST timeslot. Sorry for the confusion.

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