When Gov. George W. Bush came to visit Thursday night, David Letterman proved himself to be twice as tough as many of the journalists who've covered Bush this year.
It didn't make for many laughs (neither did the horrendous Top Ten list, by the way), but Letterman asked Bush repeatedly about the death penalty, Texas' abysmal environmental record and foreign affairs. The questions weren't always the most sophisticated, but they were tough and honest and Letterman was persistent yet friendly.
The show began typically enough. James Brown sat in with the band. Letterman gave an OK monologue and hosted a current events quiz. He said that Bush was "nervous" when Vice President Al Gore approached him in the third debate, getting in his space. "He thought Al was gonna kiss him," Letterman said. He showed a video clip of the sign outside the theater that he said the staff had altered to make Bush feel more at home: "The Late Show With David W. Letterman."
The host revealed that he and Bush had made a deal before the show: "I won't bring up his record in Texas as long as he doesn't bring up my record at the Academy Awards."
Introduced to the sounds of "Deep in the Heart of Texas," Bush strode out smiling. Letterman thanked him for coming on, Bush jokingly tapped the microphone, a reference to the time a microphone caught him calling a New York Times reporter "a major league asshole."
Letterman began with a confession. "I don't know if you've known this about me, I don't know if people have told you this, but almost from the beginning, I've been very hard on you."
"Really?" Bush asked, joking.
Letterman said that he had. "I've told jokes about you, I've said unpleasant things, I've just been shooting my mouth off left and right ... Does it bother you that I'm always, you know, yakking about stuff?"
"No, I'm glad you're saying my name," Bush said, smiling and unflappable, as he generally was throughout the interview. The audience applauded for him so hard that at one point Bush joked that "it sounds like you have a lot of my family here."
"Well, anyway, I'm doubly glad that you're here under the circumstances," Letterman said.
The first segment was jokey and pleasant. They talked about the campaign, and Gore, and who they were rooting for in the Mets vs. Yankees Subway Series. (Letterman likes the Yankees; Bush joked that "I like that New York club, I do.")
The segment started edging out a tad -- though everyone was still laughing -- when Letterman said that "the only honest moment of the campaign [was] when you called that guy an asshole. Did you ever feel the need to apologize to him for saying that?"
"Not really," Bush said, to many laughs. "It was inappropriate that people heard me say that," he added.
"He picked on my friend, Dick Cheney," Bush said when asked for an explanation. "He said something about my friend I didn't like. Obviously I didn't know the mike was open."
"I feel good," James Brown sang as they broke to the first commercial.
Bush was humble and pleasant seeming all night. Asked about his performance during the debates, he said, "Well, a lot of folks don't think I can string a sentence together. And so when I was able to do so ... Expectations were so low, all I had to do was say, 'Hi, I'm George W. Bush.'"
Letterman soon switched to a discussion of capital punishment and Bush's record-breaking tenure in the world's most execution-happy state.
"Is there a circumstance you can imagine that might change your view of capital punishment?" The studio grew silent.
"Well, obviously, if the system was unfair," Bush said. "It's a serious business."
"Nothing you can imagine could cause a change of heart here?" Perhaps if the guy was proven not guilty?
Bush said that there were numerous lawyers reviewing the cases, and everyone put to death, he was sure, was guilty of the crime. "In Texas, you can't be put to death unless you committed two capital offenses. And there was a man who committed a murder and a rape and there's a question about rape, and there's some DNA evidence that could have exonerated him. I put the 30-day stay on it so they could analyze the evidence; it turned out he was guilty of both."
"Are the numbers of executions in Texas so far greater than any other state using the death penalty now?" Letterman asked.
"Ahhh, I think that's probably true," Bush said.
"Now is there a reason for that?" Letterman asked.
Bush said that Texas is a death penalty state, while not all states are. "Our prosecutors seek the death penalty and they, there, they seek the death penalty. That's why they have it."
"Now, do you know more about this than I do?" Letterman asked to chuckles. "Because people are certainly opposed to this. The notion of this whole topic just makes me very uncomfortable, very squeamish."
Nonetheless, they kept talking about it. Asked by Bush if he opposed the death penalty, Letterman said no, not necessarily. Bush said it was the law of his state and "my job is to uphold the law, and I do."
Letterman asked if the death penalty had ever been proven to deter crime.
"I think that that's a hard statistic to prove," Bush said. "If I could be convinced it didn't deter crime, you know, I may change my opinion about the death penalty.
"Let's go on to a more pleasant subject, perhaps," Bush suggested.
So Letterman then asked Bush about the terrorist murder of 17 U.S. sailors in Yemen. Seriously.
"If I find out who it was, they'd pay a serious price," Bush said of the bombing. "I mean a serious price."
"Now, what does that mean?" Letterman asked, a follow-up Bush doesn't often get when he's asked about such bravado.
"That means they're not going to like what happened to them," Bush said, and the crowd went wild.
"Now are you talking about retaliation or due process of law?" Letterman asked.
"Heh-heh," Bush said. "I'm talking about gettin' the facts and lettin' them know we don't appreciate it and there's a serious consequence ... And I'll decide what that consequence is."
Break to commercial; James Brown sang "Get On Up."
The Middle East. Bosnia. Rwanda. The environment. Letterman kept asking serious questions; Bush handled himself fairly well. Sometimes the questions were silly -- comparing ancient ethnic hatreds in the Middle East to Mets fans vs. Yankees fans, for instance, or naive questions about why hate exists. But I swear, Letterman asked tougher questions of Bush than I've seen anyone ask him in a while. And since it was his show, he got to ask follow-ups, and often he did.
"I heard something a couple weeks ago coming out of your campaign and I just thought, 'Well, this is not true, he's not really going to do that,'" Letterman said. "Talking about wilderness lands up in Alaska or the Arctic Circle -- you're going to take trucks up there and drill for oil. And I said, 'Oh, that's a joke! He's not going to do that!'"
"Yeah, well, then you're not going to have any natural gas if we don't do that," Bush said.
"Don't you have bad air pollution down in Texas?" Letterman asked.
"We got a lot of cars," Bush said.
"Is it the worst city in the country for air pollution, is that true?" Letterman asked.
"Well, we're the best in reducing toxic pollutions," Bush said.
"But it's a problem -- isn't it a problem?"
"Well, it's a big city!" Bush whined. "It's a big city!"
"It's not as big as New York! It's not as big as Los Angeles!"
"We're making progress," Bush said.
"But listen to me, governor, here's my point," Letterman said.
"I am listening to you," Bush said, "I don't have any choice but to listen to ya!"
Letterman asked Bush about the time Gore was on the show and pledged to lead the country in efforts to save the planet. "Do you believe him when he said that?" Letterman asked.
"Not really," Bush said. And the crowd went wild.
After a Letterman shtick on the need for alternative energy sources, he brought the segment to a close. "Sooner or later, we're going to have to make a significant change."
"I think we can do that," Bush said.
"Not just lip service, not just an item on a campaign," Letterman said. "The polar ice cap is melting, that's all I know."
By point of contrast, on CNBC earlier in the day, Bush was allowed to yet again make misleading comments about his role in securing the Texas Patients' Bill of Rights, legislation that, among other provisions, allows patients to sue their HMOs or insurance companies.
What happened in Texas on a patient's right to sue is pretty simple. Bush vetoed a patients bill of rights, one offered by a conservative Republican, primarily because it contained a right-to-sue provision. Bush did instruct his insurance commissioner to enact by regulation other, less controversial, provisions of the bill, such as allowing a woman to use her OB-GYN as her primary care physician. But when the right to sue came up once again in 1997, Bush had one of his aides do everything he could to sabotage the bill. Two Republican state senators complained about it on the floor of the state Senate. Then, when the bill passed regardless with what looked to be veto-proof support, Bush let the bill become law without his signature -- as something of a protest.
Thus the report today that had President Clinton saying that he "almost gagged" when he heard Bush claim to have supported the effort in the third and final presidential debate.
"I'm going to use an indelicate quote here, because it was just given to me," CNBC's Ron Insana said to Bush. "I did not hear the president say this myself, but earlier in the day, it was suggested that President Clinton said he 'gagged' on your support for the patients bill of rights, and suggested that you vetoed one in Texas, and can't understand your position."
Bush allowed that he had vetoed "a bill, because it was a lousy piece of legislation. I got my insurance commissioner to write a series of rules and regulations that then became the law -- because of leadership. And I signed it into law. We're one of the first states in the Union to allow a patient to sue an insurance company after there's an internal review process. Now, we've got a good piece of legislation, and so the president needs to take a look at the facts."
Did you catch that? He rightly said that he had signed a "series of rules and regulations" into law. Then he said that "we're one of the first states in the Union to allow a patient to sue an insurance company," without mentioning the fact that he did everything he could to prevent patients from doing that.
Insana let Bush get away with that, immediately changing the subject. Letterman proved way tougher.