If you didn't stay up to watch John McCain's appearance on David Letterman last night, you missed one of the better political interviews of the year.
Not surprisingly, Letterman was hard on McCain, who'd skipped an earlier, scheduled Letterman appearance, supposedly to rush back to Washington to save the faltering bailout negotiations. Only, as Letterman has repeatedly pointed out since, McCain did an interview with Katie Couric and hung around in New York for another 20 hours before "rushing" to Washington. Last night, McCain acknowledged that "he'd screwed up" -- an admission that has drawn most of the attention.
But there were two much more revealing moments in the interview.
The first came when Letterman was pressing McCain about his efforts to tie Barack Obama to Bill Ayers, the Chicago professor who founded the Vietnam-era Weather Underground group whose protests included bombings of government buildings. Letterman pressed home the obvious point that Obama was 8 years old when Ayers was engaged in anti-war activities.
Then Letterman noted that we all have associations in our lives that we can't really control, and the viewers thought, Well, here's where Letterman brings up the Keating 5. But Letterman had a better McCain association to recall:
"Did you not have a relationship with Gordon Liddy?" Letterman asked.
"I've met him, I mean, you know," McCain stammered.
But Letterman wasn't done. "Did you attend a fundraiser at his house?"
If McCain could have gone any paler, he would have. He fell silent. Then, mercifully for McCain, a tragedy for television viewers, Letterman cut to a commercial.
So who is G. Gordon Liddy? For those too young to recall, Liddy was one of the original plumbers of Watergate fame who led the break-in of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters that ultimately led to the near-impeachment and resignation of Richard Nixon. But the burglary wasn't the only thing Liddy was involved in. In the effort to win Nixon's re-election, Liddy also proposed firebombing the Brookings Institution and kidnapping anti-war protesters. Fortunately, Nixon's White House rejected those ideas.
Unlike Bill Ayers, whose anti-war activities, including bombings he's said he participated in, never led to a convction, Liddy is a felon. He was convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping for his Watergate activities and ordered to serve 20 years in prison. He got out after only five years when President Carter, in an apparently misguided belief that it would help put that troubled era behind us, commuted his sentence.
Like Ayers, however, Liddy's never apologized for his criminal activities -- in fact, he's proud of them -- and has become one of the stars of right-wing talk radio (where one's legal transgressions don't seem to matter much).
Liddy once hosted a McCain fundraiser and has donated several thousand dollars to McCain over the years. McCain even appeared on Liddy's radio show a year ago.
But trumpeting the McCain-Liddy tie on late night TV probably won't do much for McCain's waning hopes of wooing independents, which may account for McCain's initial reaction to the question. By the time the commercial break was over, McCain knew where he had to stand and he assured Letterman that he was "not in any way embarassed to know Gordon Liddy"
You can find the exchange here. Skip ahead to 2:45 on the video to get right to it.
The other interesting moment came moments later (start at 4:13 on the video), as Letterman pressed McCain over Sarah Palin's assertion that Obama "pals around with terrorists."
"Ok, we'll give her William Ayers," Letterman said. That's one terrorist. So who's the other one?
That's when McCain got truthful -- and maybe capitulated the point. "There's millions of words said in a campaign, c'mon now" -- meaning, voters shouldn't take everything they hear as being literally true.
Which, of course, voters don't really need to be reminded of. But it's always good to hear it from a politician, especially when he's referring to such a key part of his campaign. Now we'll see what the next two weeks hold.