The Presidential Campaign and the New Late-Night Wars
On Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton went on the “The Tonight Show” to talk about, well, mostly Donald Trump. She first appeared in a skit in which the host, Jimmy Fallon, dressed as Trump, called her on the phone to catch up, offer campaign advice, and provide a set-up for her to discuss the many ways that she has fought for women’s rights throughout her long career in public service. Later, during the interview portion of her appearance, she and Fallon joked about Trump’s hair (she invited Fallon to touch hers) and mocked his stream-of-consciousness speaking style.
Noting that Trump and other Republican candidates have never held political office, Fallon asked Clinton, “Is this possible, that you have too much experience to become the President of the United States?” The questions did not get harder hitting from there. Are you tough enough to be President? How did you figure out how to use Twitter? Fallon tried to ask Clinton about the ongoing scandal involving the e-mails she sent as Secretary of State, but she parried the question by joking about gefilte fish, then offered a vague explanation about how various governmental agencies interact. Fallon, nodding, was ready to move on.
Fallon, as Trump might say, always wins in the ratings, and is a great big, huge, massive success on social media. Clinton was eager and a good sport, but if there was a viral moment I missed it.
It could have been different. Clinton was reportedly offered a spot on Colbert’s first show, which aired last week, but her campaign team turned it down. (Perhaps they were worried that he would ask a coherent question about the e-mails; he probably would have.) So the invitation went to Jeb Bush, who, during an oddly paced conversation, earned from Colbert some lukewarm and circuitous praise. “There is a nonzero chance that I would consider voting for you,” Colbert said, causing Bush to pause for a moment, taken aback, perhaps thinking that the host had said “a zero chance.” But such scorn from Colbert was instead reserved for Trump, who is, despite the host’s antipathy, appearing on “The Late Show” next week, a day after Ted Cruz. Before that, on Friday, it will be Bernie Sanders, who earlier this summer went on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” There, Meyers began the interview by making fun of Sanders’s hair, but then, remembering perhaps that he is supposed to be the intelligent late-night alternative (or is that Colbert now?), led a substantive conversation about economic inequality.
All of the candidates—including those among the herd of Republicans in the race, some of whom have started their own late-night tours—have the misfortune of campaigning to replace an all-star yakker, Barack Obama, who looks more comfortable on talk-show sets than at least half of the guys (yes, still all guys) currently behind the desks. In 2009, he became the first sitting President to appear on a late-night show, when he visited the “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” This summer, he offered quasi-official Presidential goodbyes to the departing David Letterman and Jon Stewart. The 2016 candidates aren’t just running for President, but auditioning for the role of Guest-in-Chief.
And this campaign arrives at a time when the hosts, too, are jockeying for position in a crowded field. Some see the booking scramble as a new iteration of the late-night wars, with Fallon and Colbert reëstablishing the old Leno-Letterman dynamic, in which Fallon, like Leno, wins the ratings, but Colbert, as was true of David Letterman, enjoys more cultural cachet. (This interpretation relegates “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” to third-party status, and the others to the further fringe.)
The emerging conventional wisdom suggests that if you want to behave like a grown-up, you’ll go on Colbert’s show, and if you want to make a dent on social media, you’ll go to Fallon and make yourself look gently ridiculous in exchange for a little viral gold dust. But, for politicians, it hasn’t worked out that way so far. Last week, Trump chose Fallon and faced off against the genial host’s Trump impression. (He seemed pleased at what he saw.) When Fallon asked him how he would create new jobs as President, Trump replied, “I’m just going to do it.” (Same thing with the border wall.) At the end of the bit, Trump blew Fallon a kiss. The exchange did not make waves.
Trump might have made more of a splash on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, which, like Fallon’s, produces reliably shareable moments, but with a touch more vinegar thrown in. Watching Trump read mean tweets about himself could have been fun for all. Then again, the invitation might not be forthcoming: Kimmel doesn’t seem to like Trump much. (An even better, but sadly impossible, match for Trump: the short-lived but sensation-making “Morton Downey Jr. Show,” which ran for a couple years in the late nineteen-eighties, and where Trump could have traded insults with the vituperative host, mocked his fellow-guests, and basked in the madhouse frenzy stirred up by the braying audience.)
Remarkably, the most viral late-night moment for any politician during this cycle was a long, wide-ranging conversation about authenticity and grief. When Vice-President Joe Biden went on Colbert last week, they talked about how religious faith has shaped the way that they both have faced personal tragedy, and the discussion was raw and unsettling and poignant. No one quite knew how to put this politely, but it was political gold. Colbert, visibly moved, more or less demanded that Biden run for President—if he does, these several minutes on television will be cited, rightly or wrongly, as a turning point. They were also a reminder that Internet virality is not always a reflection of our most shallow selves. Sometimes people share things for the simple reason that they mean a great deal.
Watching Clinton on Fallon, Wednesday night, I was reminded of just how many times Clinton has, while running for office, strained to come across as an ordinary person. No amount of self-deprecating quips about dyeing her hair or wearing pantsuits, or jokes about being a kooky grandma, will make the case. She is not ordinary, but rather an exceptional person with an exceptionally complicated public history. That doesn’t mean that she can’t connect with people, though, even in the constricting genre of late-night TV. She was always funny on Letterman, but during an appearance in 2003 she was more than that, talking about how she felt in the days after her husband admitted to having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. She was there to promote her book, but everyone goes on late night for a reason. She had profound things to say about marriage, pain, and forgiveness. Viewers have come to expect a politician’s appearance on a talk show to be frivolous and opportunistic. When it is more than that, they are surprised and sometimes even moved. Humanizing yourself, after all, is a different thing from showing your humanity.