David Letterman Was Too in Awe of Barack Obama to Conduct an Engaging Interview
David Letterman is back in the interviewer’s chair for his six-episode series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, which premiered on Netflix Friday. The show’s title is certainly true for the former late night host’s first interview subject, President Barack Obama, in his first television interview since leaving office. It’s a pairing that should elicit some exhilaration—and for the audience at New York’s City College, when they learn who the previously unannounced guest is, it certainly does. But aside from a few moments, the interview is unfortunately neither revelatory or particularly engaging.
Without a doubt, there is a certain amount of enjoyment to just seeing these two men on a stage again. There are some decent laughs at the top of the program as they banter about their first few days off the job and adjusting to the speed of normal life. (“You’re hang gliding, and you’re climbing volcanoes, and you’re windsurfing, and you’re wrestling sharks…” Letterman says, “and I’m at Bed Bath & Beyond picking out wire hangers.”) But throughout the interview, the host is obviously, and at times overtly, in awe of his subject, and it may suffer for it. Letterman rarely presses the former president to go deeper when discussing territory that is already well-covered elsewhere (namely Obama’s childhood, and how his mother’s presence and father’s absence shaped him in fundamental ways), and there’s little in the way of exchanges that could result in viral headlines or public discussion.
Instead, the interview mostly serves as a reminder of the themes of Obama’s presidency—namely, hope, and the importance of working for a “more perfect” America. In a filmed, on-location segment that is interspersed throughout the talk, Letterman visits Selma, Alabama, with long-serving congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, and the two discuss voting rights and the historic 1965 Bloody Sunday march while crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge. Obama and his election are positioned as a direct extension of that struggle, and it’s impossible not to view the president’s own statements about disrupting the status quo—made at Selma on the 50th anniversary of the march and highlighted in the interview—in the context of the current administration. But there are few direct references to Donald Trump, instead just a description of how we got him: Americans “are operating in completely different information universes.”
“If you watch Fox News you are living on a different planet,” the president remarks over the applause of the audience, “than you are if you listen to NPR.”
The most alluring sections of the discussion are much more personal in nature—Obama’s description of his utter uselessness when Malia went to college, spending a half-hour to put together her four-piece desk lamp that should have taken five minutes, for example—but there are all together too few of them. Letterman’s emotional closing remarks, when the tables are turned and he is asked by his subject whether he feels lucky to have had the life he has, are indicative of what this interview could have been:
“Mr. President, this is what I’m struggling with at this point in my life: I have been nothing but lucky. When John Lewis and his friends in April of ’65—March of ’65—were marching across that bridge, in April of ’65 me and my friends were driving to Florida to get on a cruise ship to go to the Bahamas because there was no age limit to purchase alcohol, and we spent the entire week, pardon my French, shit-faced. Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why was I not aware? I have been nothing but lucky.”
It’s a moment of candor and realness that makes for riveting viewing, but it comes far too late in the discussion. There are five more episodes of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, so Letterman will have other chances to wrangle a compelling interview out of the series (his next guest is George Clooney), but unfortunately the former late night host missed his shot with likely his biggest interview subject.