Commentary Magazine


Topic: Johnny Carson

Senator Dirksen, Call Your Office

Everett Dirksen, the late Republican senator from Illinois, is famous for saying (on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” of all places) about government spending, “a billion here, a billion there and the first thing you know, you’re talking about real money.”

The senator died in 1969, when the national debt stood at $352.7 billion ($2.214 trillion in 2012 dollars, as measured by the CPI), and equal to 39 percent of 1969 GDP. Today, 43 mostly prosperous years later (many of them exceedingly so), the national debt is over $16 trillion–eight times as great in constant dollars–and two and half times as great in terms of GDP.

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Everett Dirksen, the late Republican senator from Illinois, is famous for saying (on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” of all places) about government spending, “a billion here, a billion there and the first thing you know, you’re talking about real money.”

The senator died in 1969, when the national debt stood at $352.7 billion ($2.214 trillion in 2012 dollars, as measured by the CPI), and equal to 39 percent of 1969 GDP. Today, 43 mostly prosperous years later (many of them exceedingly so), the national debt is over $16 trillion–eight times as great in constant dollars–and two and half times as great in terms of GDP.

You’d think it might be an issue in the present campaign. But President Obama is not concerned. Indeed, he is so unconcerned that he can’t even remember what the size of the debt is these days. On “The Late Show with David Letterman” (these late-night talk shows, it seems, have become the agora of modern American politics), Letterman asked if it was now about $10 trillion. That, in fact, was the figure when Obama became president. Today, three and a half years later, it has grown by 60 percent, but Obama can’t remember exactly what it is. My friends at Power Line have the tape.

If Obama is re-elected he will have to be concerned at some point, such as when, to paraphrase Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, the government holds a bond auction and nobody shows up.

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Letterman is No Carson

During his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, David Letterman went off on a passionate defense of President Obama. Letterman concluded by saying, “What more do we want this man to do for us, honest to God?”

For starters, something better than the weakest economic recovery in the modern era, the worst jobs record of any president in the modern era, the highest sustained unemployment rate since the Great Depression, a housing crisis worse than the Great Depression, unprecedented deficits and debt, a standard of living that’s fallen longer and more steeply during the past three years than at any time since the government began recording it five decades ago, a downgrade in the United States’ credit rating for the first time in history, and a record number of people in poverty.

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During his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, David Letterman went off on a passionate defense of President Obama. Letterman concluded by saying, “What more do we want this man to do for us, honest to God?”

For starters, something better than the weakest economic recovery in the modern era, the worst jobs record of any president in the modern era, the highest sustained unemployment rate since the Great Depression, a housing crisis worse than the Great Depression, unprecedented deficits and debt, a standard of living that’s fallen longer and more steeply during the past three years than at any time since the government began recording it five decades ago, a downgrade in the United States’ credit rating for the first time in history, and a record number of people in poverty.

Beyond that, though, it’s worth pointing out that earlier this week PBS’s American Masters series broadcast an excellent two-hour documentary titled, “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night.” Among those paying tribute to Carson was Letterman, who clearly revered Carson. In the course of the program, some of those on “The Tonight Show” staff pointed out with pride that no one ever really knew Carson’s politics – that he was never tendentious and his humor and targets were bi-partisan. It helped explain his appeal during the course of 30 remarkable years.

Carson knew he was a comedian, not a political commentator – and he was able to set his political opinions aside before stepping through the “Tonight Show” curtains.

One is reminded that in this area, as in so many other areas, David Letterman – aging, increasingly brittle, and not terribly funny — is no Johnny Carson.

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