Friday, March 20, 2009

Tonight Show and the White House

If you could get through all the commercials NBC larded into his sitdown with Jay Leno, the President managed to make his points about the economic crisis to millions of Americans who probably never watch Meet the Press.

But Jay Leno's approach to the Leader of the Free World recalled a night almost half a century ago when I was an accidental matchmaker for the first White House figure ever to appear on the Tonight Show.

In 1960, after my magazine ran a piece by Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Advice to the Next First Lady,” the producers called me to ask her if she would appear with Jack Paar. To my surprise, she agreed.

On the way to the studio, I asked Mrs. Roosevelt, who had been visibly cool to JFK, what made her decide to take part in a late-night talk show. “I want to help elect Senator Kennedy,” she said.

On the show, she did just that, comparing Kennedy to FDR during his first campaign in 1932, inspiring voters and responding to their enthusiasm, and predicted he would make a fine President. In Kennedy’s hairline victory, her testimonial may well have been significant.

Before she went on, the usually brash Paar greeted her in the Green Room, almost literally bowing and scraping--a sharp contrast to Leno's palsy treatment of his White House guest tonight.

The world is much informal now than it was then and Barack Obama is probably the least stuffy president ever, but Leno could have managed a little more respectful approach than he takes with starlets plugging their new movies.

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