Barack Obama and John Lewis Serve a Double Netflix Helping of MLK Day Respect and Dignity

President Barack Obama awards the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman John Lewis in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Last night Bob and I watched Episode 1 of Netflix’s latest entertainment experiment, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. Though the program is instantly addictive, audiences will not be able to enjoy the familiar, sedentary luxury of binging – at least not for a while. Billed as a “monthly event,” Netflix is taking a light gamble that the next act of David Letterman’s storied career will prove to be destination television. Future A-list guests include Oscar-winner and humanitarian George Clooney, and international social justice icon Malala Yousafzai.

If Episode 1 proves a standard, Netflix has an important, topical non-fiction hit on its hands.  My Next Guest is must-see TV, but don’t expect the old Letterman throwing postcards through fake windows to cheesy sound effects. This is an older, wiser, more confident David Letterman – with magnificently groomed Ralph Waldo Emerson facial hair to underscore the shift. As Esquire’s Matt Miller writes:

“Though the beard might suggest Letterman is in a gives-no-fucks stage of his career, this show is far more mature, more relaxed, and at many times more touching than his previous one…This isn’t a stand-up special. It’s not a late-night talk show. Letterman’s new show is something deeper, more valuable.”

Anytime your guest is former President Barack Obama, value is a given. And not just because of ex-POTUS’s self-deprecating comedic timing. In these troubled times, Obama’s return to the public stage proves a soothing tonic to wounded, exhausted and humiliated political spirits. The quiet wisdom of a Nobel Prize-winning leader, a scandal-free, empathetic human being who’s never done learning and reflecting. Barack Obama is always going to be one of the smartest, most thoughtful people in any room. And in conversation with a transformed, more outwardly self-aware Letterman, an engaging, witty and touching hour unfolds. The communion is a true give and take.

Toward the end of the program, Obama turns the tables on his interviewer, asking Letterman if he ever feels the serendipity of fortune combining with his natural talents. A question to which the former Late Night and Late Show host gives a forceful reply:

“This is what I’m struggling with at this point in my life – I have been nothing but lucky… When John Lewis and his friends, in March of ’65, were marching across that bridge … in April of ’65, 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 purchase alcohol, and we spent the entire week – pardon my French – shit-faced. Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why wasn’t I aware? I’ve been nothing but lucky and the luck continues here this evening.”

Letterman’s honestly earned white guilt is more than academic exercise. Cut throughout the rich Obama interview are segments of the comedian’s visit to Selma, Alabama. There he connected with Civil Rights legend and longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis to discuss the 1965 Bloody Sunday March, where a 25-year-old Lewis was beaten, and his skull fractured, as he and demonstrators tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Letterman purposely keeps himself out of the conversation’s center. He is there to listen and learn, because Lewis has plenty to teach all of us about courage and conviction. There is no celebrity here. Just Dave the American Everyman (or Woman) looking desperately for reason, humility and a path to salvation from our self-inflicted, xenophobic national predicament.

I watched My Next Guest on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, just removed from Donald Trump, the anti-Obama in every conceivable way, labeling Haiti and African nations “shithole countries.” It’s a particularly on the nose time to consider the long-term loss the country experienced as a result of last year’s transition of power from 44 to 45.

This is not to engage in Obama hagiography. I was often a dogged critic of the cautious rationalism that prevented bolder action on a number of generational issues. But to compare the basic goodness and global respect enjoyed by our previous President, to the moral cesspool and international laughingstock (when he’s not hated outright) that is Donald Trump? As tragic as it is unfair to the three million plus Americans who popularly preferred Hillary Clinton and the legacy of Obama’s economic, environmental and social policies.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, David Letterman’s reverence for the sacrifices of John Lewis stand in stark contrast to Trump’s childish taunting of the Civil Rights icon. Lewis’ steadfast refusal to accept a self-aggrandizing, ignorant white supremacist as the legitimate leader of a free and diverse nation chafes the Narcissist-in-Chief. That chafing also drives the current administration’s singular mission to dismantle every achievement of the Obama era, from greater access to healthcare to important steps toward protecting the planet.

Trump’s racist bullying – at least it pertains to Obama and Lewis – stems from a place of naked envy. Because one can’t buy or tweet the way dignity and moral authority. Esteem is built by time and consistency, two currencies of which the racist pseudo-billionaire is acutely short.

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