Inevitably, the Late Show‘s wind down has struck a heavily nostalgic tone, with clip reels and beloved frequent guests looking back rather than forward. (And don’t forget that, in addition, last night CBS devoted 90 minutes of its primetime programming to a best-of retrospective, David Letterman: A Life on Television.) By contrast, Monday’s show was a bit startling for how rooted in the here-and-now it was. That’s not so surprising when you have the President of the United States on: The guy sitting in the Oval Office has too many fires to put out at any one time to waste a moment getting all misty-eyed about the past.
First Lady Michelle Obama stopped by last week, mostly to talk about her veterans’ initiative Joining Forces, and her husband hit similar notes during his lengthy sit-down with Dave. But Barack Obama, who has been on the Late Show seven times previously, elegantly moved across several topics, whether it was playfully chiding Letterman for preferring the FLOTUS to him (“It’s okay … I assure you, you are not alone,” Obama told Dave, no doubt referring to his poll numbers) or answering the host’s question about the causes for the recent social unrest in Baltimore.
Those familiar with the President’s pop-culture television appearances are, by now, accustomed to his smooth, confident style — a mixture of gravitas, professorial deliberation and a sharp sense of humor. (He explained to Dave that he was excited about being one of his last guests — quickly adding, “Mainly, I came by to say goodbye to Biff and Paul.”) On cue, the president had a bullet-point series of answers about racial strife, economic inequality, trade agreements, the American job market and what can be done to fix education. His responses were intelligent, reasonable and above all vague in the way every politician speaks, and yet his largely somber appearance served as a nice counterbalance to the frequent trips down memory lane that the Late Show has traveled in recent times.
Maybe that’s why Letterman seemed engaged talking to Obama in a way he hasn’t while reminiscing with old buddies — or, during the opening monologue, laughing at Will Ferrell’s quickie cameo as Harry Caray. Dave gets a lot of mileage out of his “I’m just a Midwestern rube” routine, which undersells his moral intelligence and gentlemanly manner, but his unassuming demeanor seemed to disarm the president, particularly when he expressed surprise that Obama only wants to take a month off after leaving the White House in 2017. “I’ll be a pretty young guy when I get out of here,” the commander-in-chief explained. “I’ll be 55.” It was a quietly poignant moment and a study in contrasts. Letterman, who recently turned 68, hasn’t said much about his post-retirement plans, other than he hopes to slow down and spend time with his 11-year-old son Harry. The current leader of the free world, meanwhile, is looking ahead to the next chapter, with plenty he still wants to accomplish.
Monday’s show was also immensely moving, with Dave’s guest paying tribute to the host’s ability to bring a laughter into people’s lives. “We’ve grown up with you,” Obama said. “You’re part of all of us. You’ve given us a great gift, and we love you.” Of course, lots of celebrities could say something similar, but even in a time when the sight of politicians on chat shows is no longer novel, there was an undeniable lump-in-the-throat sensation hearing the POTUS express that sentiment to Dave. And last night was the first time that it felt like one of Dave’s guests was really speaking directly to him for all of us.
The show ended with Brandi Carlile and the Avett Brothers covering “Keep On the Sunny Side,” made famous recently in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Between Obama’s heartfelt sendoff to Dave and the musicians’ lively treatment of that smiling-through-the-pain folk standard, it made for an undeniably wistful evening. We don’t know all the surprises Letterman has in store for these last few weeks of shows. But it’s a safe bet it’s only going to get more tearful as we near the end.