If TV talk shows have become a battleground where hosts and newsmakers battle it out, Jay Leno and President Barack Obama didn't get the message.
Leno queried Obama about difficult issues — including AIG's executive bonuses and criticism of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner — but with minor exception allowed the president to answer without challenge.
"Mr. President, I must say this has been one of the best nights of my life," a beaming Leno announced at the end of Obama's visit yesterday to the "Tonight" show.
It was a sharp contrast to the recent high drama of embattled CNBC financial news host Jim Cramer's painful appearance on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" or David Letterman's roasting of Republican John McCain during the presidential campaign.
Of course, a sitting UUS president is a different animal, and Obama was the first to visit "Tonight." (He'd already appeared twice as a candidate.)
"I'm excited, I'm honored to introduce my next guest, the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama," Leno said as his studio band played "Hail to the Chief."
Obama might have sensed from the outset it would not be a grueling exercise. Leno asked if it was fair to be "judged so quickly" after less than two months in office.
"I welcome the challenge," Obama said. "In Washington, it's a little bit like 'American Idol,' but everybody is Simon Cowell. Everybody's got an opinion."
The tone turned serious when the economic crisis was the topic, but Leno wasn't going to make the president sweat.
Obama had appeared "angry" and "stunned" about the AIG bonuses, Leno observed.
"Stunned is the word," Obama replied, then launched into a lengthy, wonkish description of how the insurance giant foundered and why the company bonuses symbolize the larger issue of Wall Street's "attitude of entitlement."
If Leno had a bone to pick, it was with federal efforts to tax the AIG bonuses out of existence.
"If the government decides they don't like a guy, all of a sudden, 'Hey, we're gonna tax you,"' the talk show host said.
He did tweak Obama at one point, after bringing up criticisms of Geithner. As Obama defended the treasury secretary for taking the right steps against a host of problems, Leno joked, "I love that it's all his problem."
But the biggest dig was against Leno's own network.
"A lot of people were surprised that the president came to NBC. You'd think by this time he'd be tired of big companies on the brink of disaster with a bunch of overpaid executives," Leno said during his monologue.
It was a far different atmosphere when CNBC "Mad Money" host Cramer appeared on Stewart's "The Daily Show" earlier this month and the Comedy Central host railed at him for putting entertainment above journalism. Last year, Letterman gave McCain a tough time after the Republican presidential contender canceled a "Late Show" appearance.
The White House scheduled the "Tonight" appearance as part of a broader outreach to promote Obama's agenda — one that's already had him on ESPN's "SportsCenter" this week and includes a "60 Minutes" interview airing Sunday, plus a prime-time news conference Tuesday.
On "Tonight," Obama had enough running room on to display his comedic chops as Leno delved into what he called "some personal things" with the president.
Leno pressed him on when daughters Malia and Sasha would get their pet dog.
"This is Washington. That was a campaign promise," Obama replied to the pet question, drawing audience laughter. "No, no, no, no, no, I'm teasing. The dog will be there shortly."
"How cool is it to fly in Air Force One?" a dazzled Leno asked at one point.
Toward the end of the interview on Thursday, Obama said he's been practicing at the White House's bowling alley but wasn't happy with his recent score of 129. During a campaign photo op a year ago at a bowling alley in Pennsylvania he rolled only a 37 in seven frames. The clip of the disastrous game was replayed on late night television shows such as Leno's — one of Obama's few campaign gaffes.
Watch a clip of Obama's 'Special Olympics' gaffe
Leno complimented Obama on the 129 score, but the president quipped, "It was like the Special Olympics or something," which prompted laughter from the audience.
Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said the president's offhand remark was not meant to disparage the Special Olympics, only to poke some fun at the commander-in-chief's bowling skills.
"He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world," Burton told reporters flying back to Washington with Obama aboard Air Force One.