I was a bit disappointed that John McCain actually felt the need to appear on The Late Show and apologize to David Letterman. I mean, the guy endured five and a half years of torture by the North Vietnamese, but after three weeks of ribbing by Dave, he knuckles under? That said, McCain’s ritual act of contrition before this particular priest of the entertainment-industrial complex on Thursday night did make for riveting television.

As I predicted, Dave continued to mock McCain for his false excuse for bailing on a scheduled appearance three weeks ago, right up to the moment when the host was finally face-to-face with the senator at his desk. (There were lots of Joe the Plumber jokes, a makeshift magnetic map of the Straight Talk Express bus route that avoided the Ed Sullivan Theater three weeks ago while making various stops across Manhattan at the time McCain was supposedly en route to the airport to fly to Washington to fix the economy, and human prop Keith Olbermann, waiting in the wings in case he needed to sub for the missing candidate a second time.) Once the interview started, however, the mockery stopped, and Letterman was respectful, though not deferential. For his part, McCain got the mea culpa out of the way quickly — “I screwed up,” he said a couple times. (He, too, made the comparison to his POW ordeal, saying, “I haven’t had so much fun since my last interrogation.”) But the interrogation was just beginning.

Letterman, in his faux-ingenuous way, was able to ask questionsof the candidate that I hadn’t heard any journalist ask him. Like: WasSarah Palin really his first choice for vice president? In his gut, didhe really feel she was ready to lead the country in the event of acrisis? Having endured smears during the 2000 campaign, didn’t he feela special responsibility to keep the tone elevated this time around?And did he disavow Palin’s remark that Barack Obama is known to be”palling around with terrorists”? In fact, McCain thought this was afair comment, since Obama had once worked alongside at least oneunrepentant former terrorist, William Ayers. Letterman responded byspotting him Ayers and raising him G. Gordon Liddy, the unrepentantconvicted felon who planned acts of terror around the same time asAyers, and who masterminded the Watergate burglary. (Another famousplumber!) For the first time in the interview, McCain seemed flummoxed, acknowledging only that he’d met Liddy.(Actually, there was a lot more to their relationship than that.)After a commercial break gave him time to think of a fuller answer,McCain observed that Liddy had gone to prison and therefore paid hisdebt to society. Alas, Letterman didn’t ask the obvious follow-up question (so,if Ayers had been convicted and served time, Obama’s association withhim would be okey-dokey?) but instead concluded the interview with somefluffy questions about Tina Fey’s Palin impersonation. Still, for halfan hour, Letterman generally refused to let McCain off as easily asother interviewers have.

On some level, both McCain and Letterman surely know that this is all showbiz. McCain’s been on The Late Showmore than a dozen times, so he knows the drill, and he’ll surely returnto the Ed Sullivan Theater in the future, whether or not he becomespresident. And when he does, Dave will continue to be cordial (thoughnot obsequious) to his face, while feeling free to joke about him atany other time. Still, for one night, a window opened up where both mencould travel back and forth across the line between joking about theissues and addressing them in straightforward seriousness, and theyboth rose to the challenge posed by that unique moment. As the senatortold the talk show host, “It’s gonna be a sad feeling around here whenthe election finally takes place.”

Tell us, PopWatchers, do you think McCain effectively made his case to Letterman’s audience? Did his apology help or hurt his campaign? Was Dave too hard on him, not hard enough, or just right? And has any of this political spectacle (on The Late Show or other entertainment venues) actually swayed your vote?

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UPDATE: has made the entire interview available for streaming here.