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Remember when George W. Bush became president, and the pundits said that, at last, the grownups were now in charge? (And how did that work out, by the way?) It’s a lot easier to imagine that the grownups are in charge now that the cool, seemingly unflappable, roll-up-your-sleeves Barack Obama is president, and when he took office, I felt a surge of almost familial pride. At last, the reins of power were passing to someone roughly my age (Obama is about five years older than I am.)
I felt a similar emotion this week when Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson had made the forum into the voice of national consensus; Jay Leno tried to maintain that role even as consensus crumbled around him (we’re a much more fragmented, factionalized people now, not just in terms of our politics, but also in our tastes in pop culture and our countless entertainment options). Now that desk was passing to someone of my generation (Conan is four years older than I am), and it felt like a momentous, torch-passing occasion.
The president himself seemed to acknowledge the similarity between these two transitions in his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams this week (see above video). It was a puzzling moment; Time columnist James Poniewozik seemed to find it crass that Williams spent valuable face time with the president getting Obama to plug an entertainment event on Williams’ network, and O’Brien himself wondered why the leader of the free world should be devoting any attention to Conan’s career move. But such pluggery is standard procedure these days for TV news (which is more entertainment than news anyway, with the cotton-candy puffery throughout Williams’ primetime special as just another example), and the fact that Obama responded to Williams’ prompt not by saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” but by deadpanning a good joke about it without missing a beat indicates that, not only is Obama as media-savvy a chief executive as we’ve ever seen, but also is thoroughly conversant with the ironic, absurdist humor that is Conan’s (and our generation’s) preferred mode of expression.There was a time, back in 1991-93 — when Johnny Carson gave up his seat, when Conan was transitioning from the Simpsons writers’ room to what had been David Letterman’s post-Tonight Show perch, and when Bill Clinton took over the White House and started cleaning up the economic mess left by 12 years of Reaganomics — when it seemed like people my age were at last going to take control of the seats of power, both in politics and in culture. But then Kurt Cobain killed himself (nipping our musical revolution in the bud), the dot-com boom made us forget our youthful angst (so much of which was about being over-educated and underemployed), and Clinton’s personal scandal turned into a massive distraction from government’s day job of promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty. Politics became a matter of personality over merit, and so did culture, with a wave of reality TV, empty-carb action-spectacle filmmaking, and bubblegum teen pop. For folks my age, it seemed like a window briefly opened had been slammed shut again, with control of the nation’s agenda passing back to the Boomers or over our heads to our kid siblings. Our turn had been skipped.
Now that we’re a little older and wiser, however, the reins have been handed back to us. Again, we’ve elected someone more on the basis of his competence (or at least, his opposition’s manifest incompetence) than his ability to be our beer-drinking buddy, and again, he has to be an adult and clean up the economic and foreign policy messes left to him by a president named Bush. Again, we have massively influential punk revolutionaries pushing roaring guitars and angry dissent up the charts (only now, Green Day are much more mature and overtly political than they were 15 years ago, when their breakthrough anthem was named after a turd). And now we have someone at The Tonight Show who shares our sensibility.
We’re not going to get to keep the culture for long without a fight, The forces of reaction against Obama have responded to even his mildest overtures with panic and paranoid fearmongering. And O’Brien’s first week at his new job has been met with largely scathing reviews from older critics who never got his act in the first place. (Having Leno, the host who won’t go away, dogging him every night when his primetime show starts in the fall, isn’t going to help.) I’m reminded of the moment at the end of the movie The Candidate, when Robert Redford’s callow, newly-elected pol wonders, “What do we do now?” Except, with Obama and O’Brien, I don’t sense that uncertainty. Their shared answer? Do what works, and keep doing it until everyone who’s going to come around comes around. Still, Conan might do well to heed the president’s jokey warning that he’s not going to get a bailout if he screws this up. Then again, neither is Obama. So to both of them, I say, it’s a wonder that our crew got another shot. It’s probably our last one. Don’t blow it.