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David Letterman to John McCain: 'Now, what exactly happened?'

October 16, 2008 |  5:01 pm

Letterman

Sen. John McCain tried today to make amends with David Letterman, telling the late-night comedian that he “screwed up” when he stood him up last month to focus on the country’s economic crisis.

McCain’s appearance on “Late Show” –- his 13th time on the CBS program –- came after Letterman mocked him incessantly for three weeks.

The Republican presidential nominee took extra precautions to ensure that he made today’s long-awaited visit, traveling by helicopter from Philadelphia to skirt a weather delay, fearful that another cancellation would further enflame the host.

When the candidate walked onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater, he pretended to cower in fear as Letterman strode over to greet him.

“Can you stay?” the comedian asked, as McCain settled in his chair.

“Yes, sir,” responded McCain. He then added with a wary grin, “Depends on how bad it gets.”

The Arizona senator said he had asked his son, who is in the Marine Corps, to FedEx him his helmet and flak jacket for the occasion, “but it didn’t get here on time.”

McCain had reason to be nervous. He was supposed to make an appearance Sept. 24 on “Late Show” but canceled at the last minute. At the time, he told the comedian that he was racing to catch a plane to return to Washington to deal with the burgeoning financial crisis.

But Letterman was steamed to discover that McCain in fact remained in New York another day. Instead of visiting the “Late Show” studio in Manhattan that afternoon, the GOP presidential hopeful made a stop at CBS News several blocks away to give an interview to Katie Couric.

When he learned of McCain’s whereabouts, an indignant Letterman patched into a live feed of the Couric interview during his show and shouted at the television monitor: “Hey John, I got a question! You need a ride to the airport?”

The incident ruptured a long-amiable relationship between the two men, who at one time had been so friendly that McCain chose Letterman’s show as the forum to announce his 2008 presidential bid.

But Letterman appeared deeply offended by McCain’s behavior.

The day after the senator stood him up, the comedian told his audience that when McCain first told him he had to cancel to deal with the economic meltdown, “I felt like a patriot.”

“I was going to help in my own little way get this economy out of the crater,” he said. “And now I’m just feeling like an ugly date.  That’s what I feel like. I feel like an ugly date. I feel used. I feel cheap. I feel sullied.”

At today’s taping, Letterman got straight to the point.

“Now, what exactly happened?” he asked McCain. “I got to think maybe I’m just not important enough.”

“Can I give you an answer?” responded the senator. “I screwed up.” He shrugged his hands apologetically, adding: “But look at all the conversation I gave you.”

“Well, I’m willing to put this behind us,” Letterman said.

The candidate appeared visibly relieved. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you very much,” he said.

Still, Letterman wasn’t ready to let him off the hook.

“I want your friend Sarah Palin here,” he said. “And if you’re in the White House, I want to be the guy who sits in the outer office, reading magazines.”

“Is this a shakedown or a ransom?” asked McCain with a chuckle.

The conversation quickly turned seriously as Letterman pressed him about his choice of a running mate and the tone of his campaign, questioning McCain's attacks on Sen. Barack Obama.

McCain did his best to project a calm, even-keeled demeanor throughout the 20-minute conversation, though he forcefully rejected Letterman’s suggestion that Alaska Gov. Palin was not qualified to assume the presidency or “lead us through the next 9/11 attack.”

“She has inspired Americans," McCain said. "That’s the thing we need.”

It remains to be seen whether today’s encounter will be enough to persuade the comedian to let up his barrage of jabs at the Republican candidate.

In the last several weeks, Letterman has made McCain and his running mate his central targets. He ridiculed McCain as old and out-of-touch, saying that at last week’s debate, he “looked like a retiree who couldn’t find his Buick.”

He derided Palin as a lightweight, saying, “To improve her foreign policy experience, she recently went to the International House of Pancakes.”

For all the buzz that Letterman’s stinging rebukes have attracted, the attention does not seem to have lifted his ratings. From Sept. 22 through Oct. 5, the most recent data available, “Late Show” averaged 3.79 million viewers, down 1% from the same period last year. And during the week of Sept. 29, the second week of Letterman’s tirade against McCain, the program’s average viewership was 3.63 million, down from 3.94 million the week before.

Despite the pounding he received, McCain appeared determined to return to Letterman’s program today, hoping to smooth things over. When his campaign plane was delayed for two hours at the Philadelphia airport this afternoon, an aide announced that McCain had chartered a helicopter to get to New York for the show, saying it was important for McCain to be there on time.

Thirty minutes later, a navy blue helicopter with thin gold stripes swooped down next to McCain’s plane.

Steve Duprey, McCain’s close friend and frequent traveling companion, said McCain felt it was important to keep his commitment to Letterman.

Asked why McCain still felt obligated after he’d been bashed by Letterman for three weeks, Duprey shrugged and said: "He didn't care."

"We moved heaven and earth for Mr. Letterman,” Duprey joked to reporters after they watched McCain disappear into the Philadelphia sky. “I thought we should call him up and say, ‘Dave, we have a problem’ ... and send a [McCain] cut-out over.”

-- Matea Gold and Maeve Reston

(Photo courtesy AP)

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