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At some point in their career, every future President will go on a late-night show. Maybe when they’re the candidate hunting for buzz, or the incumbent hunting for midterm goodwill, or, latest of all, the retiree hawking a memoir or a message. Saying “A President shouldn’t go on a late-night comedy show” used to sound snooty, and that was before Barack Obama did Between Two Ferns and Donald Trump blasted misspelled tweets before breakfast. The goalposts have been moved, and they’ll never move back. More likely they’ll keep moving, and some future President will announce their candidacy via Kardashian-adjacent Instagram, and some oldster will remember the good old days when candidates proved their merits by earning “Dustin” in a “Which Stranger Things kid are you?” quiz.
Bill Clinton moved these particular goalposts back in 1992, when he was the presidential candidate playing saxophone behind sunglasses on The Arsenio Hall. Oh, Ronald Reagan went on The Tonight Show in the mid-’70s, at a specific in-between moment, not a governor but not yet a presidential candidate. But Clinton helped to define the late-night swingby as some essential part of a presidency. I can’t think of a major late show Obama didn’t appear on while he was in office, and both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump marched through Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show. Right to criticize Jimmy Fallon’s performance with Trump as normalizing, but wasn’t he just following the trend to its logical apocalyptic endpoint, like how Walter White in episode one of Breaking Bad has to eventually become Heisenberg in episode 53? Late-night shows were always a way for politicians to sand off edges; in 1992, Arsenio asked Hillary about Gennifer Flowers! And appearing on such a show was a way to appear endearing — because everyone is supposed to seem endearing.
Twenty-five years later, here was Bill Clinton was talking to Conan O’Brien, the shining guest star in Conan‘s weeklong visit to Harlem. It was a strange conversation. Whether you supported his policies or curse his surname and all who bear it, you always get the feeling that Clinton is talking around something in appearances like this, the way David Lynch movies seem to circle around some unmentionable soul-revoking horror. O’Brien started with softballs, asking Clinton what was the hardest thing about not being POTUS anymore, then making fun of Clinton’s “awkward youth” photo by calling it “the coolest picture of a kid I have seen in my life.” Clinton insisted no, no, he was overweight and his hair was too long. What a laugh we’re having here, the Yalie and the Harvard Man! Can’t imagine why anyone would think the media-political industrial complex is hermetically sealed off from the rest of the country!
O’Brien didn’t get to ask anything too specific or too dangerously interesting, which is part of the tradeoff of an appearance like this. Ask something controversial, and the next president (future or current or ex) won’t want to sit down. Your interest piqued when O’Brien said, “You were out there campaigning hard last year at this time…” What stories could he tell about that? But that pitch was all wind-up. O’Brien concluded: “Did you think you saw a different America than the one that you had seen when you were campaigning back in 1992. Do you think that we have profoundly changed since then?”
Clinton’s response: “Yes and no.” Well, there we go! Different, but the same, and more moderner! Clinton’s answer went on, of course, and one of the best things about O’Brien is how willing he is to let his guests wander. He’s learned the fine art of listening, something that only really comes with experience. Clinton talked about how the country is more diverse and blessed with a younger median age than some powerful countries. He talked about the need for immigrants to come in — but also talked about the need to bridge the widening economic divide. He even got marvelously wonky discussing voting demographics, cross-indexing economic status with proximity to economically ascendant urban environments.
The answers got long, and the pauses got longer, too. It didn’t seem like confusion, more like he was carefully planning out his sentences, “Carefully Planning Out Sentences” being a skill set that used to be expected of all presidents and adult humans. The studio audience applauded intermittently, eventually at odd moments. Discussing the Clinton Foundation’s work to stop the opioid epidemic, Clinton said: “You cannot mix an opioid with any level of alcohol of any kind without risking your life.” The clapping that followed that line seemed… oddly timed?
That’s the nature of the presidential late-night show guest appearance, though. Everything — even profound conversations about major drug epidemics and troubling economic disparity and the importance of immigration reform! — circles the drain towards laughter or clapping or (worst of all) clapter. But here’s a man who was the President of the United States for eight years, and then spent the next 16 years in various stages of campaigning for another presidency. So maybe you think a victory lap is what he deserves, or is all we could expect. “We need to just go out and start going up to people who are mad at us,” said Clinton, “And say, ‘Look, we’ve got to live together, we’ve got to share this together, and if we work together, we’ll have better economics, better societies, and we’ll have a culture we can all be a part of.'” Wise words. Less than 280 characters, so they’ll fit in a tweet.