FLASHBACK: David Letterman and the Liberal Politics of Late Night

May 20th, 2023 9:00 AM

Eight years ago tonight, the Late Show’s David Letterman ended his record-setting 33-year run as a broadcast late-night host, first on NBC and then CBS. At the time, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews attempted to spin Letterman as a non-partisan American icon: “It reminds me of Johnny Carson....Carson never talked politics. Nobody could read his politics like we can’t read Letterman’s. I don’t know what Letterman’s politics are.”

That was such a silly thing to say. Letterman was an obvious liberal who used the platform of his show to promote and flatter liberal politicians like Barack Obama, and to ridicule Republicans with whom he disagreed on issues such as gun rights.

Nearly 20 years ago (January 2004), the Pew Research Center caused a kerfuffle among pundits when they discovered that among adults under 30, late-night comedy shows “are now mentioned almost as frequently as newspapers and evening network news programs as regular sources for election news.”

In a preview of how they’d later react to competition from social media, Big Media gatekeepers hated that the public was getting their information from anyone but them. Yet politicians saw a new tool they could use to reach millions of Americans, on programs that were never supposed to be fair forums of democracy. With liberal hosts operating in the liberal entertainment industry, liberal politicians could expect late night to offer an open door and an easy ride.

The latest NewsBusters study from Alex Christy shows this is exactly what’s been happening. So far this year, liberal guests have outnumbered conservatives by a whopping 77-to-4 on the late-night shows. In his just-concluded eight-year run as a CBS host, James Corden amiably chatted with numerous Democrats, but never once permitted a Republican on his show.

The trend goes back to hosts like Letterman, who understood their clout and used it to influence the politics of their era. A grateful President Obama made sure to appear on Letterman’s show during its final weeks (May 4, 2015) to pay tribute: “You’ve given us a great gift and we love you.”

Letterman wasn’t as obnoxious as his successor, Stephen Colbert, but he wasn’t shy about his opinions, either. Even in retirement, he found a way to get in the jabs, telling GQ magazine in 2017 that “it makes me sick” that Donald Trump was President: “He’s demonstrated himself to be a man without a core, a man without a soul. Is there a guy in there?”

From the MRC’s archives, a few quotes showing how Letterman was a pioneer for today’s highly-opinionated liberal late-night hosts:

■ “My feeling about Cheney — and also Bush, but especially Cheney — is that he just couldn’t care less about Americans. And the same is true of George Bush. And all they really want to do is somehow kiss up to the oil people....Is there any humanity in either of these guys?”
— Letterman interviewing ex-White House press secretary Scott McClellan on CBS’s Late Show, June 11, 2008.

■ “What about this bonehead Rush Limbaugh?...He gets up in Washington and he’s the keynote speaker at some function, and he comes up, he looks like an Eastern European gangster.”
— Letterman on CBS’s Late Show, March 2, 2009.

■ “I know whenever you invoke, like, Great Britain or Canada, people start to shudder, people go, ‘Oh, my God, it’s socialized medicine! Oh, my God, it’s socialized medicine!’ And I’m not a socialist, but it don’t sound that bad to me....I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to watch you work.”
— Letterman to President Obama on CBS’s Late Show, September 21, 2009.



■ “When did the Republican Party become the party of the emotionally unstable? You know what I mean? We’re talking about the party of Lincoln, for God’s sake. Ronald Reagan now looks like the greatest statesman that ever lived. And we got a guy running around named Newt.”
— Letterman on the January 4, 2012 Late Show.

■ “The day after the 9/11 attacks, the number one priority in America, if not the world, was ‘we’ve got to get bin Laden, we’ve got to get bin Laden.’ So eight years go by, we still haven’t got bin Laden. George W. Bush at one point said, well, he doesn’t really think too much about bin Laden. In the interim, we invaded Afghanistan then we invaded Iraq because Cheney wanted to help out his buddies at Brown and Root and Halliburton....and grab up all the oil....So now Osama bin Laden finally is gunned down by Barack Obama, displaying great courage and great intelligence. What more do you want to lead your country than that kind of courage and that kind of intelligence?”
— Letterman on the May 15, 2012 Late Show.



■ “You people are very lucky here tonight. Because we have, in addition to a wonderful program we have the smartest person on television, Rachael Maddow....[to Maddow] You’re the smartest person in the world. Ladies and gentlemen, here she is. Rachel Maddow! She’ll be hosting the coverage of both conventions on MSNBC!”
— Letterman on CBS’s Late Show, August 22, 2012.

■ “Mitt Romney’s tax returns — yeah, wanna get a look at those tax returns. Because I believe we will discover that the man has not paid a nickel in the United States federal income tax. That’s right. We have a felon running for president.”
— Letterman on CBS’s Late Show, October 5, 2012.



■ “Senator Cruz voted ‘no’ on gun control reform. He recently received $14,000 in contribution from the Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights. Senator Ted Cruz, there he is...How about a background check on his barber?”
— Letterman on the April 24, 2013 Late Show.

■ “Kentucky Senator Rand Paul voted ‘no’ on gun reform legislation....Did he have to get a background check before he bought that toupee? I don’t know....You folks in Kentucky elected a toupee to the Senate.”
— Letterman on his May 8, 2013 show. Between April 22 to May 10, 2013, Letterman ridiculed as his “Stooge of the Night” 15 U.S. Senators who had voted against the liberal gun control bill.

■ “Politics notwithstanding, what an impressive man. I mean, my goodness, he walks out here and you can feel the electricity in the room, and the people in the audience jumped to their feet and it’s very impressive. Smart, handsome, charismatic guy. Just tremendous.”
— Letterman talking about President Obama on the Late Show, May 5, 2015.



For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.