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Fishing with Dave

by Roger Ebert

David Letterman played John McCain like a trout. It was a masterful performance, depending on timing. If you counted words, McCain said a lot more than Letterman, who usually interrupts when a guest goes on and on. It wasn't the words. It was the music.

McCain showed nerve in appearing on the show at all, after the ribbing he's received ever since he "cratered" by "bailing" on Letterman. Just before he came on, Letterman mercilessly used a little magnetic bus on a Manhattan map to show the Straight Talk Express circling the "Late Show" studio for 18 hours after McCain said he had to rush straight back to Washington. Then the candidate appeared.

McCain possibly expected Letterman to kiss and make up. Not a chance. He received tough, pointed questions, delivered with the confidence that leaves no doubt who is the host and who is the guest. I won't describe the two segments, except to say McCain would probably prefer three more debates to going on the "Late Show" again. Let's just consider the bullet points:

* Sarah Palin. Letterman asked if she was qualified to be President. McCain answered with sound bites from campaign speeches we all know by heart. If I hear one more time that Palin's qualifications include being a member of the PTA for two of the many years her children spent in school, I may be forced to throw something across the room. How would it sound if Obama cited Biden's PTA membership?

But McCain went on about Palin. And on. And on. I've never heard a "Late Show" guest allowed to speak without interruption for so long. Letterman let the trout run out the line. There was less to say about Palin than the time allowed. In all that time, to his credit, McCain cannily never used the words "foreign policy," because he knew he would hear about the view from Palin's house.

* The Ayers connection. McCain attacked it. Letterman countered with McCain's friendship with the convicted Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, who held a McCain fund-raiser in his living room in 1998. That was four years after Liddy advised gun-loving listeners of his radio show how to greet agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: "They've got a big target on [their chests]. Don't shoot at that, because they've got a [bulletproof] vest on underneath that. Head shots, head shots.... Kill the sons of bitches." In November 2007, McCain went on the talk show and told Liddy he was "proud" of his "adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great."

Again Letterman's timing was everything. He brought up the Liddy connection as the punch line of second segment, and after McCain explained Liddy had "paid his debt to society," something you never want a supporter to be forced to do, Letterman closed the segment. Point, set, and match.

* * * *

CBS highlights of the McCain-Letterman interview here:

Palin discussion here:

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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