By Ken Tucker
Updated March 31, 2010 at 03:45 PM EDT
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In a quietly remarkable piece of television, David Letterman interviewed Tea Party member Pam Stout on last night’s Late Show. “I know nothin’ about the tea party,” Dave began, saying Stout had come to his attention after the 66 year-old Idaho woman had been featured prominently in a Feb. 15 New York Times story on the Tea Party movement.

Letterman invited her on to ask about the movement and whether it aimed to become a “third party.” She said, “I don’t think it will become a third party,” but that its voice “can be pretty devisive” in some elections, and that locally, she wanted the Tea Party to “take over the Republican Party… [and] go back to the old ideas.”

Those “old ideas” included “letting [some] businesses fail.” Letterman asked, “You mean like car companies and banks?” Stout agreed: “Then other businesses will step up… there’ll always be a demand.” Stout also said she disliked the way “we demonize business” and condemned “one of the highest tax structures” in the world.

Actually, “condemn” may give the wrong impression. Stout was the mildest of souls, calm and remarkably composed for someone probably not used to the glare of network TV cameras. And Letterman loves this sort of person — a Midwestern citizen, a non-celeb; while raising serious points, he made a point of keeping things light .

When he asked her what a Tea Party presidential ticket might look like, Stout said, “Oh, that’s an interesting question.”

“That’s why I’m here, honey!” Dave said, grinning. He also asked whether at Tea Party gatherings, “tea is actually served?” Stout said no, but seemed open to the idea.

After a while, some of Stout’s positions became more clear. She expressed great admiration, twice, for South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, one of the most conservative members of government. (DeMint is the author of a 2009 book called Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America’s Slide into Socialism.)

Letterman also gave Stout plenty of room to distance herself from what he called “a bonehead like Glenn Beck” and the birther movement. But Stout said Beck had “made me think and re-think” her positions on various issues. Ever the sensible fellow, Letterman said, “Well, anyone who makes you think is good.” But more troublingly, her response to Dave’s observation that “some people in the Tea Party think the President wasn’t born in this country” was, “He spent a lot to cover up his documentation.”

It was a fascinating interview, even if, as usual, Letterman’s instinct to downplay his own knowledge and skepticism leads him to go easy on an amiable guest. Part of this is just primal skill: He knows he can’t lean heavily on a woman who looks like your favorite aunt. That he might have asked her about her membership in Friends For Liberty, a group that includes members of the John Birch Society, or the Times’ detail that she has petitioned to impeach Obama — well, save that for 60 Minutes or Brian Williams, I suppose.

Except nobody else is doing interviews with people like this on TV. Why is it that the most interesting questioning of political issues is still being done not on network news shows, but rather by people like Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Craig Ferguson?

Did you watch Letterman last night? What did you think?

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