Both once giants in their respective fields, and now possibly the most famous retirees on the planet, David Letterman and President Barack Obama met face to face in a Netflix special that starts streaming Friday in which nothing was said about the current White House, but plenty about dance moves, kids, retirement, social media and — over one extended segment — the legacy of civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis.
Taped late last year before an audience at the main campus of the City College of New York in Manhattan, the Obama interview was the 44th president’s first talk-show appearance since leaving office and the first edition of Letterman’s new Netflix show, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”
When Obama first appeared onstage as a surprise guest, he received more rapturous applause than the master of ceremonies. “Do you have a staff?” the former president jocularly asked Letterman, sporting a flowing white beard. Actually, Letterman looked more professorial than Biblical.
The interview itself was congenial, relaxed and largely apolitical.
In one instance where Letterman did broach current affairs, he asked about the challenge to American democracy when a foreign government manipulates elections. “Hypothetically” manipulates, interjected Obama.
“One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts,” said Obama, adding that “what the Russians exploited was already here. We’re operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News you are living on a different planet than when you listen to NPR.”
Letterman then appeared ready to back into an observation about the current president: “I thought Twitter would be a mechanism by which truth would be sent throughout the world,” he said dryly.
“It’s just reinforcing whatever biases you have,” said his guest, declining to take the bait.
During a pretaped segment as part of the middle part of the program, Letterman interviewed Lewis as both walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, site of the “Bloody Sunday” march on March 7, 1965, when police attacked protesters — including Lewis — with clubs and tear gas. Obama later said that Lewis’ ordeal “carried me through multiple failures, not just as an organizer but also early efforts in politics, when I was reminding myself that nobody’s siccing dogs on me, nobody’s beating me half to death.”
The conversation later turned to “luck.”
Addressing Letterman, Obama said, “Don’t you say to yourself, ‘boy, am I lucky?’ I’m always surprised when I see people who have been successful and they are absolutely convinced it’s because they’re so smart. I worked hard, and have got some talent, but there are a lot of hardworking, talented people out there. This element of chance, serendipity, I wonder if you feel that? Sometimes it’s important for me [to believe in it] so that I don’t feel too self-important and can maybe sprinkle that stardust on other people.”
Letterman: “I have been nothing but lucky. When John Lewis was marching, me and my friends were driving to Florida to get on a cruise ship to go to the Bahamas because there was no age limit to purchasing alcohol. Why wasn’t I on that bridge? I have been nothing but lucky.”
Friday’s launch of “My Next Guest” is the first of six monthly Letterman interview Netflix specials this year. Upcoming guests include George Clooney, activist Malala Yousafzai, Jay-Z, Tina Fey and Howard Stern.