Jay Leno hosts stolid Mitt Romney on 'Tonight Show'

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times (March 29, 2012)

Mitt Romney's appearance on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" on Tuesday night was unremarkable but revealing.

Since that late night in 1992 when Bill Clinton played saxophone on Arsenio Hall's program, it has become the norm for presidential candidates and even presidents to show up on these TV shows as if they are desperate actors plugging a bad movie. We have come a long way from the era when the president of the United States was held in awe, when he seemed to exist at a level that was beyond the reach of average Americans. Back then, the office, if not the man, inspired respect, even reverence.

Those days are long gone. Beginning with the right-wing jihad against Clinton, continuing with the left-wing denigration of George W. Bush and now with the outlandish slanders slung against Barack Obama, at least half the country at any time considers the occupant of the Oval Office illegitimate and unworthy of deference.

This isn't all bad, really. We may be better off without the mythology of the presidency. The truth is, many, if not most, of our presidents have been middling politicians who were in over their heads. Very few could live up to the superhuman ideal we once invested in our presidents.

One who could meet that measure was Theodore Roosevelt -- as long as you like a president who goes skinny dipping in the Potomac. Roosevelt was a masterful politician who achieved great things while opposed by entrenched, reactionary interests. He was a prolific author, a rancher, a war hero, a devoted family man and a deserving winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He lived life large the way we imagine all our presidents should.

A fine raconteur, a quick wit -- T.R. would have been great on Leno. It's not unlikely he would have ended up boxing with Jay onstage, poking left jabs at the host's Rushmore-sized chin and grinning joyfully as he did it.

Romney was no Roosevelt in front of the NBC cameras. For the most part, he stuck to generalities about the economy and exuded all the charisma of an earnest bank manager. Though he did get in a couple of clever quips, Romney wisely refrained from trying to be a comic. There's one thing worse than being dull, and that is trying to be funny and failing.

Romney seems reminiscent of the Republican presidents who came after Roosevelt -- Taft, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Like Romney, they were undramatic men who believed the business of America is business. They did their best to make life easier for the tycoons of their time. We can expect the same from Mitt.

In an exchange with Leno on the subject of healthcare, Romney once again displayed his lack of affinity with less-fortunate Americans. When Leno pressed him on salvaging from Obamacare the requirement for insurance companies to offer coverage to people with preexisting medical conditions, Romney made it quite clear he has little sympathy for people who get sick before they can afford to buy health insurance. He came close to Ron Paul's notable let-them-die moment from one of the early debates of the GOP presidential campaign.

These appearances on late-night TV have become a useful measures of the people who want to be president. It's an awkward exercise for all of them. The standard campaign rhetoric doesn't work well in front of a studio audience looking to be entertained. The wealthy comedian who is asking the questions is unpredictable. The candidates have to come up with something a little different and be prepared to wing it. As a result, what we see is often just a bit more real.

What we saw of Romney on Tuesday night was a pleasant, fairly articulate fellow with only a vague conception of life outside the board ooms, owners' boxes and country clubs of America -- a Harding, not a Roosevelt.