In a kind of coda to an electoral cycle in which key battles were fought on the sets of comedy talk shows, and even as a movie about a television interview with a disgraced politician has been nominated for five Academy Awards, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's self-exculpatory campaign train rolled into the Ed Sullivan Theater last night. I don't expect to see "Letterman/Blagojevich" up for any Oscars in 2039, but the real thing provided an odd half hour of television.
"I've been wanting to be on your show in the worst way for the longest time," Blagojevich told "Late Show" host David Letterman.
"Well, you're on in the worst way, believe me," Letterman lobbed back, having been served a straight line that was old the first time your granny heard it.
"For the life of me, I have no idea why this guy is here," Letterman had said, but that wasn't really so hard to answer. The ousted governor, who has also lately appeared on "The View," "The Rachel Maddow Show" and "The Today Show" ("and every other show that is in production currently," said the host), had, like most "Late Show" guests, something to sell: his version of whatever truth is out there. ("Go ahead and set up the clip," Letterman said before playing a not particularly incriminating bit of tape of Blagojevich discussing a contributor.)
And, like many other Letterman guests, he's a curiosity, a political Dog-Faced Boy, a performer of stupid human tricks. With his aggressively coiffed hair and his undeleted expletives, and deprived now of the somewhat compensatory dignity of his office, Blago -- who might be a minor character in a Barry Levinson or John Sayles comedy -- has become a well-established figure of fun. The audience did not hesitate to greet his statement "I'll be vindicated" with a laugh.
The governor, at least, appeared convinced of his purity, though he clearly was putting some effort into looking comfortable within the cultural context. ("Elvis performed here, right?" he said of the theater they sat in. "Back in 1956.") He attempted to explain his appearance there in terms that Letterman would understand: if Jay Leno (described, not named) were to attack Letterman's "Top Ten" list, Dave would have the right to defend himself.
Letterman -- who earned a reputation as a bit of a tough interlocutor during the election, but painted himself as "a man who’s largely ignorant of these matters" -- had no qualms about making his qualms clear: "The more you talked and the more you repeated your innocence," he said of Blagojevich's recent television appearances, "the more I said to myself, ‘Oh, this guy is guilty.’” He seemed at first fascinated by his guest's blindness to public perception (and scored some laughs off that), but as the two went in circles around whether the governor had been deprived of due process, the air went out of the room. Jokes about Blagojevich's hair and prison food barely registered; they seemed like reinforcements dragged to the front in a failing campaign.
“Now, are you going to continue to be on TV?” Letterman finally asked.
“Well, look," Blagojevich replied. "I don’t know –- are you going to invite me back?”
“Well, I mean, just in terms of filling time, you’ve been tremendous.... So, you know, based on that, why not?”
A complete transcript is here.
(Photo courtesy Jeffrey R. Staab / CBS / AP)