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Letterman, Hillary and Jeb: 21st Century symbols

4/13/2014

Yes, it’s a new century. Just look at David Letterman, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. They’re all symbols of a new era.

Yes, it’s a new century. Just look at David Letterman, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. They’re all symbols of a new era.

Letterman surprised the entertainment biz by suddenly announcing he intends to retire from CBS’s “Late Show” as soon as next year. His late-night-nemesis Jay Leno gave up his NBC “Tonight Show” throne last month. In making his decision, Letterman proved himself smart and a symbol of baby-boomers slowly leaving the stage.

He clearly recognized a late night television generational shift and goes out on top. Letterman, 66, and Leno, 63, are baby-boomers imprinted by 1950s television who earlier worked comedy clubs. New Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon is 39. CBS’s reported dream-Letterman replacement, Stephen Colbert, is 49. The Johnny Carsons, the Dick Cavetts, the Merv Griffins — all gave way to baby-boomers, who now are yielding gradually to a younger generation raised on a different kind of comedy and accustomed to being plugged into the Internet. 

Baby boomers spent their lives during a transitional period in which entertainment went from general interest and broadcasting to niche and narrow-casting. The media also was impacted as newspapers offering fact-based reporting engaged in a survival battle with the Internet, ideologically slanted blogs, and cable news and political shows overtly biased toward particular political parties.

Most stories on Letterman’s impending exit didn’t mention one of his inspirations — actor-comedian Ernie Kovacs, an early TV genius famous for his ever-present cigar. Kovacs was a master of irony and sight gags who poked fun at the very medium that featured him. Kovacs often did quick, visual comedy black outs. He did some television pieces that couldn’t be done without a camera.

When Kovacs died in a car accident on Jan. 13, 1962, he left behind baby boomer fans who grew up with him. I did a sixth grade “show and tell” presentation on his death and thought: Well, SURELY someone will now step forward and do the same kind of comedy. But I was wrong: much of his comedy style died with him.

But yet...

Along came NBC’s “Laugh In,” which used comedy blackouts like Kovacs, and then Letterman, whose style, attitude and even some bits seemed influenced by Kovacs. 

Meanwhile, in politics, we see two contradictory symbols as baby boomers Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush seemingly are poised to enter the nation’s 2016 presidential race. 

When Clinton lost her 2008 Democratic nomination bid to Barack Obama, she symbolized a woman trying to “break the glass ceiling” for the nation’s highest office. In 2016, she’d symbolize how being a woman in the race is no longer a novelty. Prediction: Well before the end of this century, the U.S. will shed its Fred Flintstone-era attitude toward a woman as president.

In contrast, Bush is a bittersweet symbol for moderates and centrists. He expressed conservative heresy to Fox News, saying when illegal immigrants come here, it’s “an act of love” and “commitment” to their families. He advocates bringing back bipartisanship and respecting political foes. Which is why Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith said Bush is a terrible candidate.

“The notion that Jeb Bush is going to be the Republican presidential nominee is a fantasy nourished by the people who used to run the Republican Party,” Smith writes. “Bush has been out of a game that changed radically during the 12 years(!) since he last ran for office. He missed the transformation of his brother from Republican savior to squish; the rise of the tea party; the molding of his peer Mitt Romney into a movement conservative; and the ascendancy of a new generation of politicians (who) occasionally, carefully, respectfully break with the movement. Scorning today’s Republican Party is, by contrast, the core of Jeb’s political identity.”

Bush champions the return to when people cared more about substantive issues than 24/7 personal attacks on the other political tribe — an era when compromise and consensus were considered strengths, not treason or wimpishness.

And I think: Well, SURELY someone will step forward and offer this kind of politics again and will win big.

But given what we’re seeing with hyper ideologists and political tribalism, is it realistic to expect a “but yet” this time?

Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas.

 and in the United States. 

He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice.

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