Eight Famous Presidential Visits To Late Night TV (Video)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 26, 2012 – 6:12 AM

President Obama appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Tuesday night and participated in a recurring bit called “Slow Jamming The News.”

Almost immediately, conservatives began attacking the President’s appearance as un-presidential.

Fox and Friends host Gretchen Carlson, for example, called his appearance “nutso,” and said, “I personally do not agree with the highest office of the land, the most important figure in the world going on these comedy shows. I think it lowers the status of the office.”

Is she right? Do these types of appearances lower the status of the office? First, watch the clip below to decide for yourself whether this skit went too far:

Ms. Carlson is right that this is all very new: President Obama is the first U.S. president to appear on a late night television comedy program during his presidency. But late night appearances are almost de rigueur for presidential or vice presidential candidates these days – and have been for more than a half-century. Here are seven examples of candidate appearances on comedy programs:

June 16, 1960: Senator John F. Kennedy appears on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show:


1968: Richard Nixon delivers a signature line on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In:


March 13, 1975: Ronald Reagan appears on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (although he was not a candidate at the time, he announced his candidacy for the 1976 race months later)


1992: Bill Clinton plays sax on The Arsenio Hall Show:


2000: George W. Bush delivers a Top Ten list on Late Night with David Letterman:



2008: Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin raps on Saturday Night Live (presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain also appeared on different episodes)


March 2012: Mitt Romney appears on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno:


Candidates regularly appear on late night comedy shows to display their “human” sides and to appeal to younger voters. It’s often a smart political decision, since many independent voters base their decisions primarily on personal factors, not policy or ideological ones.

Ms. Carlson’s angst may be legitimate, and it’s fair to argue that the President should uphold a certain level of dignity. But I couldn’t find any evidence that Ms. Carlson spoke out against Mr. McCain’s or Ms. Palin’s appearances on Saturday Night Live in 2008. In fact, her weekend counterparts at the time called Sarah Palin’s appearance on the show – the one in which she “raised the roof” during a ludicrous rap – “hilarious,” “great,” and “clever.”

Is Carlson’s line really that it’s fine for a Republican or Democratic nominee to appear on these shows, but not the sitting president? It’s her right to believe that, but I see it as a distinction without a difference. If anything, it seems to me that a presidential aspirant has to work harder to be seen as presidential than the incumbent.

The debate, therefore, is somewhat predictable, with pundits on both sides playing a set role and performing set lines, as if on cue. Appearances on late night comedy programs are good if the pundit likes the candidate, and bad if they don’t.

To answer the question posed by this post, President Obama definitely explored new turf in his appearance. But Americans are used to people in power appearing on these shows – candidates Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush (and others) paved the way – and Mr. Obama’s appearance is a logical continuation of that tradition.


President Obama appears on Late Night With David Letterman in September 2012


An increasingly diffuse audience means that politicians have to use different means to reach their targets. And President Obama was perfectly on message. I think this appearance was on the right side of the line, if only barely. But expect to see a lot more of them from future presidents.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (8)

  1. By Chuck Norton:

    It would be interesting to see a poll of which of these clips are “OK” as opposed to going too far.

    I also believe that largely it depends on what activity the president or said candidate will be participating in on the show.

    I believe that President Obama and Sarah Palin should not have participated in such a display for the reasons you indicated above as the risk of such appearences. The same for President Nixon’s.

    I believe that the top 10 list with President Bush went too far, but only a little.

    The appearences by Senator Kennedy and Governor Reagan were responsible and substantive. The appearence by Mitt Romney was tolerable.

  2. By Brad Phillips:


    I agree that it would be interesting to see a poll. I suspect the results would be similar to your own rankings (and I agree with your rankings). Palin’s clip is the worst in my view; whereas Obama played the straight man, Palin was foolishly dancing along and “raising the roof.” Truly mortifying.

    Thanks for visiting the blog and commenting.

  3. By TC Dickson:

    Absolutely Un-presidential. “I too personally do not agree with the highest office of the land, the most important figure in the world going on these comedy and late night shows. I think it lowers the status of the office and sends a message to the terrorists and enemies of America that our President is a joke.”

  4. By Pam:

    These were all presidential candidates, NOT the sitting POTUS.

  5. By Brad Phillips:


    You’re absolutely right. That fact was noted in the article.

    Thanks for writing.

  6. By lotsahelp:

    Big difference between Candidate and sitting president….if Bush had gone on late night TV the left would have raised a big stink…Not presidential

  7. By Robin:

    I agree with Pam. When I see that our president is on late night TV, my first thought is, “With everything we have going on, why is he not in Washington doing his job?” Defintely unpresidential.

  8. By joann:

    This is so tacky. Not at all professional. Very humiliating for our country.

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