On Friday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz made his first appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Leno, allegedly in his last season as host of the Tonight Show, has not been known as a particularly partisan entertainer, so it was surprising to see him go “Candy Crowley” on Ted Cruz. You may recall that CNN’s Crowley, who moderated a debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, became part of the debate when she began reciting (false) White House talking points on Benghazi. Some on Twitter compared Leno to a prosecuting attorney as he interrupted Cruz and accused him of everything from shutting down the government to wanting violent psychopaths to have guns.
Cruz, for his part, used the appearance to his advantage, clearly understanding both the venue and the audience. Although Cruz is certainly more than capable of holding his own in a debate with Leno, he chose mostly to keep his powder dry, defying the media-generated image of him as a hostile aggressor. He was relaxed and laid back, despite the tough questioning. It seemed to go over well with the audience, which erupted into cheers after several of Cruz’s points.
It’s interesting to go back and watch Leno’s interview with President Obama from this past August and compare the questions and tone with Leno’s interview with Cruz last night. The most obviously noticeable difference is how often Leno interrupts Cruz compared to Obama. Leno lets the president finish nearly every answer. Even when Obama lapses into “um…uh….uh…,” Leno patiently waits for Obama to continue.
There is a stark contrast in how often Leno uses the pronoun “you” when questioning Cruz. Also, Leno speaks about policies and events as if the president has nothing to do with them.
On the following pages you can read the questions side-by-side. Where a question is preceded by dashes (- – ), it means Leno interrupted the interviewee.
From the very first question, you can see the difference in tone between the two interviews.
Leno to Obama:
Happy Birthday! How did you celebrate? What did you do?
– – [responding to Obama’s basketball comment] You’re pretty competitive, so…
I’ve seen Michelle tease you about your gray hair — you’ve got a bit of silver in your hair — do you tease back?
Leno to Cruz:
I’ve been reading a lot about you lately and they describe you as aggressive, arrogant, and abrasive. Accurate?
– – Any one of those? Can you believe any one of those?
What three adjectives would you use to describe…
Leno tosses the president a few softball questions to relax him and create a friendly atmosphere. With Cruz, he goes straight to the “everyone pretty much agrees that you’re a jerk. Why do you think that is?” question.
Leno to Obama:
Everyone is concerned about these embassy closings. How significant is this?
This global travel warning…this is for Americans all around the world? Are we telling people don’t take that European vacation just yet or what are we saying?
What do you say to those cynics who say, “Oh, this is an overreaction to Benghazi”? How do you respond to that?
This interview was right after American embassies were closed due to terror threats. Notice that Leno doesn’t ask Obama why he closed the embassies or if he is telling people not to take a European vacation. He asks instead if we (collectively, the American people?) are telling people to stay home. And obviously, Leno makes a conscious effort to avoid any questions about the embassy attack in Benghazi. Even after Obama gives a gratuitous little speech about how some of the embassies are not well-defended and how brave our ambassadors are, Leno takes a pass on the opportunity to ask a follow-up question.
Leno to Cruz
I know you’re a man of principle. You have your principles. Does that prevent compromise when you are so set in what you do?
–I don’t think Ronald Reagan could get in the Tea Party today.
–Congressional approval is … what? Twelve percent? Americans are sick of the brinkmanship, don’t you think?
Would you be an entrenched politician? You seem pretty set in your ways. This, this, this, or you shut down the government.
–If all this effort is in jobs, why so much in social issues that have nothing to do with jobs?
After a backhanded compliment about being a man of principle, Leno asks Cruz about his ability to compromise, but doesn’t really let him answer the question. Cruz tries to answer Leno’s comment about Reagan by explaining that Reagan challenged the party establishment and was reviled by many in the GOP. Leno again interrupts, complaining about brinkmanship and accusing Cruz of shutting down the government because of his unwillingness to compromise. Cruz tried to get back to his main talking point for the interview — that Obamacare is a job killer — but Leno again interrupted and asked why Cruz was so focused on social issues (offering no evidence for the accusation).
Leno to Obama
Is it safe to say we learned about these threats through the NSA intelligence program? Is that a fair assessment?
The NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Some call him a whistleblower. What do you call him?
Now he was a contracted employee. It seems like the government has a lot of these. I remember when I was coming up, my brother was in ROTC. In those days they would take college students. You were in the Army, the Army would train you. This guy’s being paid money by an outside firm, living in Hawaii, got the stripper girlfriend, all of a sudden you’re all upset with what the government is doing and you go to another country. In my era, Daniel Ellsberg stood on the town square and said “I’ve got this,” got arrested, the New York Times, I mean, should we go back to not using — whether it’s Blackwater or these contract — people that are Hessians? They get paid.
Again, Leno distances Obama from the issues. We learned about the threats. The government has a lot of contracted employees. No questions about why Obama’s NSA is spying on Americans or what he is going to do to stop it.
Leno to Cruz
If I was a strategist for your side and I didn’t think Obamacare was going to work, I would have sat back and you know something? Let’s not shut down the government. Let’s see what happens. I think a lot of people do not like the government shutdown. When Newt Gingrich was here, he said this is a game. Well, this is not a game. There are a lot of people who will lose their jobs. But if they had just not shut it down, what’s happening with Obamacare would still have happened, and rather than having people vilified for shutting down the government it might have been seen in a different light.
Cruz: I was not a fan…
– – You looked like a big fan from where I was sitting, by golly, reading that Dr. Seuss thing? But here’s my thing. You don’t negotiate a compromise because a) John Roberts, Supreme Court justice, said this is the law. Obamacare is the law of the land, let’s move on. Isn’t that true?
Social Security took seven years before anybody got their first check. Roosevelt said we’re going to put — it was seven years before anybody got anything. And I watch — you know the thing that I dislike, whether you like Obamacare — I don’t like that each side takes such glee in the other person’s failure. Because the people — you know, I watch Republicans do this (rubs hands) when the Democrats fail and vice versa. I think that’s what people really hate.
In this series of questions it was almost as if CNN’s Candy Crowley was hiding under Leno’s chair, feeding him lines. Or maybe Obama left a teleprompter behind when he visited in August and Jay was reading the Democrat talking points on Obamacare and the government shutdown. It’s a stark contrast from Jay’s demeanor on the NSA questions tossed to Obama.
Leno to Obama
Were you surprised that Russia granted Snowden asylum?
And Putin seems to me like one of these old-school KGB guys. He has that mentality. I mean, look at this picture here. You two…you look like me and the NBC executives. What’s going on there? That doesn’t look like a friendly picture.
The G20 summit is in St. Petersburg. Are you going to that and will you meet…
Something that surprised me about Russia, and I’m surprised this is not a huge story — suddenly, homosexuality is against the law. I mean, this seems like Germany. Let’s round up the Jews, let’s round up the gays, let’s round up the blacks. I mean, it starts with that. You round up people who you don’t like. Why is not more of the world outraged by this?
Yet again, Leno treats Obama not as the president, but as a passive observer of world events. Somebody should do something about the Russian problem (but not Obama).
Leno to Cruz
You’re a smart guy. Why do you think Republicans lost the last two elections?
I see something — when I started this job the Forbes 400 was millionaires, I think 660 millionaires and 40 billionaires. Now it’s all billionaires.
–25% of [Texas] doesn’t have health care, so [Obamacare] would help them, wouldn’t it?
Cruz tried to answer the question by saying that the policies of both parties are not working and the economy is in terrible shape. He made reference to the 1%, which led to Leno’s comment about millionaires and billionaires. Again, Cruz tried to pivot back to Obamacare being a job killer. Leno again interrupted to ask why Cruz doesn’t want a quarter of Texans to have “health care.”
Leno to Obama
Would it be possible to do a modern W.P.A., almost like a Peace Corps — kids get paid a decent wage, you give them food and they fix up Detroit, they fix up other cities, they fix bridges. I mean, when you travel this country you see these great bridges that were built and they have the plaque — the guys that built it in 1932 or 1931…
Leno to Cruz
You’re a likely candidate. Let me ask you about social issues. To me, Republicans should be about defense and money. Everything else is “do whatever the hell you want,” pretty much. Why all this focus, for example, on gay marriage? You’re against it?
Your dad’s been in the news lately. He’s been talking against gays. Is that fair game?
While Obama gets another softball “somebody should do something” question, Leno again accuses Cruz of focusing on social issues, while offering no evidence or examples of him doing so (he doesn’t). He then goes a step further by attempting to box him in on gay marriage — will he denounce his father, a pastor, for “talking against gays”? Cruz gave a great answer, saying that his father was his hero, emphasizing that while he believes in traditional marriage, he thinks that each state should decide the issue.
Leno to Obama
Is it me or do we see kind of a bromance between you and John McCain? You two had that lovers’ quarrel for a while and now you’re best friends. What happened? What changed? Who saw the light?
You and Hillary had lunch. Who invited who to lunch? I’m curious? Did you notice her measuring the drapes or anything like that?
Leno to Cruz
Let me ask you about gun control. Why is increased or better background checks not a good thing? You voted against this. Why is keeping the mentally unstable, those type of people — no one is saying you can’t have guns — you just have to pass a background check. Why is that bad?
– – You always target violent criminals, obviously. But the idea that a complete psychopath can go to a gun show and buy a half dozen guns, and now, hasn’t your bill made it easier to go across state lines with guns?
– – How many did the Bush administration prosecute? Is that just law enforcement?
What do you think, are we going to have another shutdown in February? Are we going to do this again? Have you stockpiled some books to read for this one?
While Obama got the Oprah style of questioning, Leno switched to Piers Morgan mode for Cruz, asking him why he wants to let psychopaths run around the country buying guns. Cruz said that we should work on prosecuting federal gun crimes, citing Obama’s dismal record on prosecutions. Leno interrupted, demanding to know how many Bush had prosecuted.
Leno ended the Obama segment with some fawning and softball questions:
Leno to Obama
What’s new with health care? Anything new?
Well I was able to get health care for the guys who work in my shop for me — they’re all over 50. They never had health care and I was able to get it now because you can’t be turned down.
I thought you spoke very eloquently about the Trayvon Martin case and I could tell that you were speaking from the heart. Tell me about that.
You told a group of young people that broccoli was your favorite food. Now, lying to voters is one thing. Lying to children, that’s…can you put your right hand on the Bible and say broccoli…
Does Michelle make a broccoli cake with the broccoli icing?
Did the kids believe you or did they go, “Oh, come on!”?
Despite the tough questions and a host that was less than sympathetic to his views, Cruz handled himself well in a venue that is obviously not his sweet spot. While Leno was certainly not hostile to Cruz, it’s clear he is not a supporter. Moreover, it’s a shame that Leno couldn’t step out of his prosecutor shoes during part of the interview so he could engage Cruz in some friendly banter to show his less wonky side. Leno’s audience tunes in to be entertained, not lectured about the W.P.A. and the government shutdown. Nevertheless, Cruz was relaxed and confident and the audience seemed to relate to his populist talking points about entrenched politicians and Obamacare being a job-killer. He may have won himself a few new fans in the process, even though he was not afforded much of an opportunity to show his softer, more human side.