President Obama will be on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on NBC on Tuesday, and we can probably blame this on a 1992 memo from a Bill Clinton campaign staffer on the necessity of doing "UnPresidential" stuff to get voters to like the candidate.
On Monday, Lapham's Quarterly posted an April 27, 1992 memo from Mandy Grunwald in which she encouraged the campaign to be openminded about getting free media from low-brow soft-focus interview shows like The Tonight Show, Late Night, and yes, The Arsenio Hall Show. Just over a month later, Clinton appeared on Arsenio and famously played the saxophone. The New York Times write-up of the Arsenio appearance by Elizabeth Kolbert said, somewhat prissily, that more of this low-brow stuff was to come:
"He wore cheap sunglasses. He blew the saxophone. He explained that he really wanted to inhale; he just didn't know how… It was not the kind of television performance Presidential candidates typically give, but it is not likely to be the last."
That last sentence has proved accurate. Tuesday will be Obama's first appearance on Fallon, which he will do from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. He'll talk about student loans. The Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Zakarin points out that the president went on Jay Leno's Tonight Show show in October, while the first lady has been one one late-night talk show almost every month: Leno in January, Fallon in February, and The Colbert Report in April. The Obamas are probably going on these shows for the same reason Grunwald suggested the Clintons should:
We know from research that Bill Clinton’s life story has a big impact on people... We know that moments of passion, personal reflection, and humor do more for us than any six-second sound bite on the network news or for that matter any thirty-second television spot...
I understand that many people will say these kinds of things are “UnPresidential.” Bull. This is how people get information. These are forums for more personal and varied looks at Bill and Hillary and Chelsea.
Obama's job approval rating has been stuck just under 50 percent for several weeks. But voters are more likely to like him personally. All the more reason to talk about basketball with Jimmy Fallon than health care with George Stephanopoulos.