John McCain handed David Letterman a gift a few weeks ago when he canceled a Late Show appearance to make an urgent return to Washington but first headed across town for an interview with Katie Couric.
The Republican presidential nominee made amends Thursday, getting nearly the full hour as Letterman’s guest and offering up a speedy mea culpa for his absence in late September, saying bluntly, "I screwed up."
Dave was a welcoming host, but he wasn’t quite ready to let the senator off the hook for the slight. "I guess I don’t need to tell you Sen. McCain is our guest tonight," Letterman said at the beginning of his monologue. "Yeah — maybe I won’t show."
After showing his audience a map of McCain’s supposed travels through Midtown Manhattan on the day of the canceled appearance, the two frequent conversation partners — McCain has been a guest of Letterman’s about a dozen times — settled into what seemed like a fairly routine appearance. Letterman jabbed McCain, not too forcefully, about the non-appearance (Paul Shaffer and the band played The Who’s "Can’t Explain" as McCain’s intro music) and the repeated mentions of Joe the Plumber in Wednesday night’s presidential debate. McCain echoed some of his statements from the debate about Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s tax plans and the tenor of the campaign. Up until the first commercial break, it looked about like any other time a politician has appeared on The Late Show.
And then things got interesting. Coming back from commercial, Letterman asked McCain about his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain admitted to not knowing her very well when he made the selection — "I knew her reputation. But I didn’t know her well at all," were his exact words — but said she was "absolutely" his first choice to join the ticket.
Letterman continued to press, at one point asking if he were to wake McCain up in the middle of the night and ask if Palin is really ready to lead the country if need be, would he say yes? Again, "absolutely." The answer was no surprise at all — what candidate wouldn’t say that about a running mate? — but by now there was some visible tension between the two men, and it made for a riveting few minutes of television. "Have we pretty well exhausted this?" McCain asked a moment later, to which Letterman answered, "No, no — I’m just getting started."
Talk then turned to Obama’s relationship with former Weather Underground leader William Ayers, who’s been a big point of discussion in McCain campaign ads and stump speeches in recent weeks and came up in Wednesday’s debate. McCain reiterated a statement from the debate about Obama coming clean about the extent of his relationship with Ayers, then tried to move on: "But the point of this campaign is the economy, the economy …"
Letterman cut him off and asked, "Did you not have a relationship with Gordon Liddy?" — the former Nixon aide who served four-plus years in prison on charges related to the Watergate break-in. The question seemed to take McCain by surprise. "I met him …" he replied, at which point Letterman asked if he’d ever attended a fund-raiser at Liddy’s home. McCain was considering his answer when Shaffer butted in with "I object, your honor!" and the show went to commercial.
The tension eased a little when the show came back for one more brief segment, with the two men discussing Tina Fey’s impersonation of Palin and the possibility that Palin might appear on Saturday Night Live before the campaign is out. First, however, McCain circled back to the Liddy question.
"I know Gordon Liddy," McCain said. "He paid his debt — he went to prison and paid his debt, as people do. I’m not in any way embarrassed to know Gordon Liddy."
For all his talk of hurt feelings in the past few weeks, Letterman wouldn’t completely burn the bridge to a reliably engaging guest like McCain. And McCain is savvy enough to know that the jabs he’s taken from Dave are, as he put it, part of the process. I can’t see too many political ramifications resulting from McCain’s appearance, and at any rate I don’t get paid to judge such things. I do get paid to judge them as television, though, and on that scale McCain and Letterman gave me a pretty good reason to stay up late Thursday night.