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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. Continue reading