A History of Politicians on Late Night

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President Barack Obama appears on “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert in 2014. Politicians have been appearing on late-night talk shows since John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Joe Biden told Stephen Colbert on Thursday’s Late Show that he’s still undecided about entering the 2016 presidential race. Undecided or not, by going on the show he was definitely acting like a contemporary presidential candidate.

Jeb Bush was on the Late Show premiere, Donald Trump appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show Friday, and Fallon will host Hillary Clinton on September 16, with Colbert hosting Bernie Sanders on the same day.

If there’s one thing that’s important in modern politics, it’s getting your face on TV. But it’s usually not enough just to make it into the living room. Today’s candidates choose the late-night comedy circuit because they know they have to appear comfortable and relatable, especially to young voters. That’s what Richard Nixon learned after the first televised presidential debate, when his awkward vibes—along with the sweat on his chin—may have cost him the election.

John F. Kennedy was the first major candidate to go on late night. Running against Nixon during the 1960 presidential election, he appeared on Tonight Starring Jack Paar. Unlike today’s candidates, who usually try to play along with the host’s jokes, Kennedy played it straight and got into some pretty serious discourse about the threat of communism:

Nixon himself made two appearances with Paar, first in August 1960 and then in 1963, after he lost the California gubernatorial election. Tricky Dick even played his own piano composition.

There was a lull in late-night campaigning through the Carter and Reagan years, depriving the nation of what could have been some classic political comedy. If there was ever a politician suited to appear on late night, it was the Gipper. But Reagan’s only notable appearance—on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson—came in 1975, just before he tried and failed to wrest the 1976 Republican nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford.

Reagan’s successor didn’t get the message that comedy shows make you look more human. In 1992, George H.W. Bush infamously checked his watch during a town hall debate question and couldn’t manage to recall the price of a gallon of milk. His opponent, Bill Clinton, facing questions over his trustworthiness, played a rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” on Arsenio Hall’s show.

In 2000, George W. Bush, the compassionate conservative, learned from 41’s mistakes and took to the Late Show With David Letterman to read “Top 10 Changes I’ll Make in the White House.” No. 6: “Issue an executive order commanding my brother Jeb to wash my car.”

At the time, Bush’s easygoing demeanor, West Texas accent and vote-for-me-because-I’m-the-type-of-guy-you-could-have-a-beer-with approach proved quite popular.

But everything changed during Bush’s actual presidency. For starters, Letterman turned on him in a segment called, “What the hell is George Bush talking about?”

Bush’s presidency also deeply altered the politics of late night. The eight years of the Bush administration were essential in propelling Jon Stewart and his protégé Stephen Colbert to national superstardom. The left-leaning comedians needed material, and they got it in the form of a Republican-dominated federal government.

By the time Bush’s run was nearly over and Barack Obama was seeking the 2008 Democratic nomination, Stewart and Colbert were must-stops for any candidate. Young voters, whom the Obama campaign targeted through social media, got much of their news from Stewart and Colbert. As president, Obama made regular appearances on Stewart’s show and even invited the comedian to the White House:

Obama was criticized by some for appearing on Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns YouTube show to promote Obamacare’s healthcare.gov site, but he told the White House Correspondents’ Association, “That’s what young people like to watch.”

During the 2012 campaign, even the notoriously stiff Mitt Romney was going on Jimmy Fallon to “Slow Jam the News.” Unfortunately for Romney, at least 47 percent of Americans weren’t convinced that he was likable enough to elect.

As for this year’s hopefuls, TV appearances are more of a requirement than a boost. Of the candidates polling well in early states, only Ben Carson (currently polling in second place among the Republican candidates) has yet to schedule an appearance. Hillary Clinton, who is trying to overcome a trustworthiness problem because of her email scandal, has already been on daytime TV, chopping it up with Ellen DeGeneres on the possibility of a 2020 Kanye West run:

Trump hardly needs more publicity or more TV appearances. He’s already been on Fallon, Letterman and even The View back in 2011, when he infamously voiced his doubts about Obama’s birth certificate. During Friday night's interview with Fallon, he hinted at his potential vice presidential choice: