Thursday, September 11, 2008


By all accounts, Barack Obama was pretty damned masterful on Letterman last night. Here's a transcript.

Dave: "Let me ask you a question here. Have you ever actually put lipstick on a pig?"

Obama: "You know," (audience laughs) "the answer would be no. But I think it might be fun to try."

Dave: "I know the reaction to that was, 'You were overreacting.' You stand by that?"

Obama: "Absolutely." (audience applauds) "Look, this is - if you - this is sort of silly season in politics - not that there's a non-silly season in politics." (Dave, audience laugh) "But it gets sillier. But, you know, it's a common expression in at least Illinois, I don't know about New York City. I don't know where you put lipstick on here." (audience, Dave laugh) "But in Illinois, the expression connotes the idea that if you have a bad idea, in this case I was talking about John McCain's economic plans, that just calling them change, calling it something different, doesn't make it better, hence, lipstick on a pig is still a pig."

Dave: "Now what I like about this scenario is because they demanded, the Republicans demanded an apology."

Obama: "Yes, they did."

Dave: "So that means there had been a meeting at some point somewhere along the line."

Obama: "All of them."

Dave: "Yeah, they got together and they said, 'You know what? He called our vice presidential candidate a pig.'" (audience laughs) "Well, that seems pretty unlikely, doesn't it?"

Obama: "It does. But keep in mind that, technically, had I meant it that way, she would have been the lipstick, you see?" (audience, Dave laugh) "But now we're..."

Dave: "I don't know, you're way ahead of me." (audience laughs)

Obama: "Yeah, the failed policies of John McCain would be the pig."

Then Letterman asked Obama about what some have called the Palinomenon, the way the Alaska governor has become a national celebrity in a matter of weeks.

Dave: "The fact that we're talking about this now, do you feel like within the last week and half or so, there's been - you're derailed a little bit and now you're campaigning against, not necessarily the Republican ticket, but John McCain, not him, but Sarah Palin?"

Obama: "Well, I - look, there's no doubt that she's been a phenomenon. I mean, you know, as somebody who used to be on the cover of Time and Newsweek, you know." (audience, Dave laugh)

Dave (laughs): "Those were the days." (audience applauds)

Obama: "Those were the days. I had a recent offer with Popular Mechanics." (audience laughs)

Dave: "Take it, take it." (audience laughs)

Obama: "Said they had a centerfold, yeah, with a wrench, you know." (audience, Obama laugh) "But, no, look, she's on a wild ride and there's no doubt that she's energized the base. But ultimately what we've seen over the last week is a concession on the part of the McCain campaign that this election is going to be about change. You'll recall, you know, for the last two years, we've been talking about needing to change how Washington works, how the country is managed and people were saying, 'No, it's about experience, experience, experience,' and over the last week and a half I think they recognized that, no, the American people want something fundamentally different and for a good reason. Because when you travel, it doesn't matter whether you're here in New York City or a tiny hamlet somewhere in the Midwest, what you find is people are just having a tough time right now. The economy is not working for middle class families, incomes have gone down, people don't have healthcare, you've got foreclosures all across the country, and so people want something different, and whoever makes the better case that we have had enough of the last eight years, we need something fundamentally new, whoever makes that case to the American people will be the next President." (audience applauds)

Dave: (laughs) "You're campaigning now, aren't you?"

Obama: "I am."

Dave: "Campaigning."

Obama: "I had to throw a little - " (audience still applauds)

Dave: "I understand."

Obama: "I had to throw a little campaigning in."

Dave: "But now, Labor Day weekend, we hear that John McCain has selected Sarah Palin and nobody knows, except maybe people living in Alaska, who that is. And we think, in the beginning we think, oh my God, that's the worst decision the man could have made. And then, subsequently, it turns out to be a pretty good decision for the man, for the party, certainly for the ticket - and calculated, no question about it, calculated. And I'm wondering, if he had picked Sarah Palin before you picked Joe Biden, is there a chance that maybe you would have selected somebody else? Would that have affected your choice?"

Obama: "You know, the way I thought about it was, 'Who's going to help me govern? Who's the person I want in the room if we've got a big decision to make? Who's going to be able to give me good counsel, good advice, who's able to maybe have some ideas that I don'thave or give me a perspective that I haven't seen, and I think that nobody can do that better than Joe Biden." (audience applauds) "And I know what he cares about and what he stands for - I think he's going to be a great choice."

Dave: "When word came out that it was Sarah Palin, what was your personal reaction? What was the reaction of the folks around you?"

Obama: "You know, we didn't know much about her, and I think that, obviously, she's a skilled politician and you know, she has energized their party. But, what I think are pretty confident about - we'll know, you know, if she does more interviews with people and talks to them - about what her ideas are. I think what we're going to see is she shares John McCain's view that the policies of George W. Bush have worked pretty well. All right, so McCain has said we've made great economic progress, the economy's fundamentally sound - you haven't seen any separation between them and what we've seen over the last eight years. And so the bottom line is if you think the last eight years haven't worked, if you think that the government can do a better job creating jobs, building the economy, making sure kids that can go to college, providing healthcare to people who don't have it, then it's hard to figure why you would want four more years of exactly the same policy." (audience applauds)

With the interview taking place on the eve of 9/11, Letterman shifted to ask Obama what he would have done had he been president that day:

Dave: "Tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of the attack on the United States, and when we come back, I want you to tell us what you would have done, knowing what you know now, what you would have done had you been President then, what you would do if you're President now and we get another attack, so we'll be right back here with Sen. Barack Obama, everybody."


Dave: "All right, Barack Obama is here. Had a lot of time to think about people, you know, when Washington was attacked, when New York City was attacked, and for us in the Northeast, it was, I think, more about Rudy Giuliani - he was our savior here in this city - than it was about George Bush and the national strategy. But now, this is stuff you've got to think about. You have to think about it. What would you have done then? What kind of a situation would we be in now if you had been the President?"

Obama: "Well, first of all, I think Giuliani deserves credit. He kept calm and he was clear. You know, I still remember your show after it happened and how moving that was. That was one of the most powerful moments on television. I think that George Bush did the right thing by going after the Taliban in Afghanistan, and I would have done the exact same thing, and the big difference between myself and George Bush I think would have been to stay focused on Afghanistan, not get distracted by Iraq. I think we would have tamped down Al Qaeda, we could have, if not captured or killed Bin Laden, at least made sure that they weren't setting up the kind of base camps that have now reconstituted themselves, so they've got safe haven in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And I think in terms of the United States, there was just this outpouring - you remember, people wanted to do something, and, you know, George Bush asked them to shop, and if we had instead said, 'You know what, we are going to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil,' or, you know, 'We are going to create the kinds of energy-efficient economy that will allow us to weaken the forces of terror,' that could have made an incredible difference and I think you could have mobilized the American people around bold plans on energy that would make sure that we weren't continuing to be in the situation we're in today."

Dave: "Now, two things: it's been called to my attention, and you see it on television, there's documentaries about it and there've been books published about it, that seconds after the first plane hit the tower, there was chaos in Washington, D.C. Is that your understanding, that systems that everybody took for granted about being in place were not in place and if they were, nobody knew how to run them?"

Obama: "Well, there's no doubt it was a shock to the system, and, you know, the failures of intelligence have been well-documented. I think some of the systems broke down, but, you know, my interest is not in playing Monday morning quarterback. I think that any president who was there would have had to deal with a whole range of problems that we hadn't anticipated before. What I am concerned about is that we have not taken the steps since that time that would make us safer. I think that if we had stayed focused in Afghanistan, if we had, instead of spending a trillion dollars in Iraq, had focused on our energy problems here at home, if we had started hardening our chemical plants and our ports in ways we that we still haven't done and implemented the 9/11 Commission reports then, we couldn't guarantee that 9/11's not repeated, but we would be further along in making sure that America was safe. And the other thing we would have done is we would have maintained the sympathy of the world and the alliances that have been frayed so badly over the last several years."

Dave: "More or less decimated."

Obama: "Absolutely."

Dave: "Now, you mentioned twice staying focused in Afghanistan, and we have seen relatively so, we had a short visit in Afghanistan militarily, and now, there's trouble there in Afghanistan. What would maintaining focus there mean?"

Obama: "Well, it means a couple things."

Dave: "Would it mean a similar situation as we have in Iraq? Would it mean an American and military control of the country?"

Obama: "Well, I do think we've got to have more troops there, so I think we've got to have a couple of more brigades. But just as important is the non-civilian side - what are we doing in terms of giving farmers there an alternative to growing poppy, right, so narco-trafficking has funded terrorism in that region. What are we doing about rooting out corruption in the Afghan government, so people actually trust what's going on there?"

Dave: "Also schools?"

Obama: "Schools, medical care, and what are we doing in terms of dealing with Pakistan, because the fact is that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, they are on the Pakistani side of the border, we were funding this guy Musharraf, providing him $10 billion in military assistance, and they were not going after these folks that are sitting there hatching plots to attack the United States again. And, you know, one of the things that we've got to recognize is that if we are protecting dictators because we think that's the best we can do, we're actually creating an environment in Pakistan that becomes anti-American and feeds the kinds of militancy that can end up damaging us badly."

Dave: "This sort of discussion, because I don't have the brainpower for it, makes my head hurt." (audience laughs)

Obama: "Does it hurt?"

Letterman then asked Obama about his first visit as a child to the contiguous 48 states:

Dave: "Actually makes my head hurt." (Obama laughs) "I want you to tell us a little bit about, I think when you were 10 or 11 years old, was your first trip to the mainland."

Obama: "That's right. I was living in Hawaii at the time."

Dave: "And you came with your, uh, sister?"

Obama: "I came with my two-year-old sister, my mom and my grandma, and we went to Seattle because that's where my family had lived before they moved to Hawaii."

Dave: "And they decided it was time, as nice as Hawaii is, time to see more of the country."

Obama: "Time to see more of the country, so we went to Seattle, we went to Disneyland, which was big. They got a lot of points for that." (audience laughs)

Dave: "As a kid, you responded the way kids respond to that?"

Obama: "Yeah, Dave, I mean, you know, kids in Hawaii, they know about Mickey Mouse and things like that." (audience laughs, applauds)

Dave: (laughs) "I don't know." (Dave, Obama laugh; audience applauds) "Just checking."

Obama: "Yeah, yeah, it's Disneyland, man." (Audience laughs) "I mean, you know, kids like that."

Dave: "I don't know what it's like in Hawaii, I don't know what's going on over there."

Obama: "So, what do you think? We went and kind of looked around and said, 'What the heck is this?'" (audience, Obama laugh)

Dave: "Yes, yes, I do." (audience laughs)

Obama: "No, so, we went to Disneyland, we went to the Grand Canyon, we went to Yosemite."

Dave: "Grand Canyon."

Obama: "Grand Canyon was great. My first trip to Chicago was on that trip, and went to the Field Museum, and I still remember this, they had shrunken heads. Real shrunken heads, which, you know, when you're - 10-year-old boys are kind of strange because," (audience laughs) "or 11-year-old boys, that was fascinating to me. That was actually the highlight. That was almost as good as Disneyland." (Dave, audience laugh)

Dave: "Right up everybody's alley."

Obama: "Shrunken heads." (audience laughs)

Dave: "Shrunken heads, that's right." (audience applauds)

Obama: "I thought that was pretty cool."

Dave: "And did that create any kind of yearning? Did it create any kind of an awareness? Not the shrunken heads, but the whole trip." (Obama, audience laugh) "You know, I mean - "

Obama: "No, you know, what it did, and this is actually something that happens, people ask me, 'Well, what's - you know, what have you learned as you've been campaigning for 19 months?' And you know, you realize what a spectacular country this is." (audience applauds) "And how big it is and how beautiful it is, and so it really underscored for me just how lucky we are to be Americans."

Dave: "Yeah, all right, good enough. We'll be right back with Sen. Barack Obama, ladies and gentlemen."

The conversation turned to Africa and Haiti. Obama actually gave President Bush credit for his major initiative to fight AIDS in on the African continent.

Dave: "Well, it's pretty short now. Just a couple of months and there will be the election and the inauguration in January. Do you ever think about going to Kenya as president of the United States?"

Obama: "You know, I do think about that. I went there a couple of years ago after I'd been elected senator and, you know, it was moving for me to see people's response. You know, sometimes we forget how people overseas look at America. They place so much hope in the United States, and that's something I think we've forgotten because we always hear bad news about how, you know, people don't like Americans anymore. That's not true. They're disappointed precisely because they've got high expectations, and obviously, given that my father's from Kenya, there was a special connection, so we were just seeing these enormous crowds, and you know, I went up to the village where my grandmother lives and folks were lining the roads for miles. And, you know, we took an AIDS test because the CDC, which is doing great work - this is something that George Bush has done well is work on AIDS issues in Africa, he has made a serious commitment to it and I give him credit for it. But the CDC that's working over there, they asked Michelle and I to take a test because they said just the act of you as a married couple taking a test, potentially a million people will see it, and you can save thousands of lives just by people getting tested. So it was a great trip. I can only imagine what it would be like if I were president, but we have 55 more days of work before we get to that point."

Dave: "What - I, for like the last 10 years, even longer - for as long as I've been aware of stuff," (audience, Obama laugh) "rarely do you hear positive stories coming out of Africa to the point where you can create the impression the continent could be lost. And you mention George Bush actually providing medical care and food and funding and so forth. Is it a lost cause? Is that a false impression?"

Obama: "You know, it is. Look, we tend to focus on the negative, and when you go there, first of all what you realize is that the people there are more energetic and optimistic than you would ever imagine. In fact, there've been some surveys done showing that Africans are surprisingly happy and positive about the future, and there are a lot of good things going on there. You go to a place like Rwanda that suffered such brutality and now it is thriving, it is growing. President Bill Clinton has done some great work in helping to foster economic development and other efforts in those areas, Bill Gates' foundation has done great work, so it makes a difference. But what is true is that we've got to have better governance in Africa. You know, sometimes we spend so much time running down government that we forget what it means, how important it is to have a functioning government, one that can deliver services, one that, you know, if you want to get a telephone, you don't have to pay a bribe, if you want to start a business, you don't have to give a cut to somebody. All that makes an enormous difference, and hopefully we can hold governments there more accountable so that their people actually have a chance."

Dave: "Is there a way for this country to do that without pushing people around and being resented?"

Obama: "Well, no, I think that if we send a signal, and this is true whether it's in Africa or the Middle East or anywhere in the world, if we say we want to be a partner with you, we respect you, but if you're getting our help, then we've got certain expectations, that we're not just helping the wealthy or the people who are going to send the money to Swiss bank accounts, we expect to actually see results on the ground. Just holding people accountable but doing it in a respectful way, I think that could make a big difference." (audience applauds)

Dave: "And - absolutely. And then I saw today, closer to home, in the Caribbean - Haiti - things just get worse and worse and worse and worse."

Obama: "They've had a long, long run of bad luck, and, you know, we need to make sure that we're providing help to them - obviously, our prayers go out to the families who've just been devastated by the recent hurricane. They already had little, they have even less now. But one of the things that I think it's important to remind ourselves is, you know, New Orleans hasn't been in great shakes either, and you know, if we're not doing our job with respect to our fellow citizens here during crises, then it's a bad sign for us being able to help others and that's part of the reason why we've got to have a government that works, and I am campaigning now, Dave. That's why I'm running for president of the United States." (audience applauds)

Dave: "But it's frustrating to me because even I know that the resources are here. You know, we have the resources, just in terms of money, we have the money. We can raise the money, the world can raise the money to solve these problems. Africa can be solved, Haiti can be solved, New Orleans could be solved."

Obama: "You know, part of it is that we've been sold a bill of goods, I think, that says just look out for yourself and everybody's on their own. Now, I am a big believer of individual responsibility and whether it's improving our education system or dealing with issues like welfare, I'm a big believer that you've got to take care of yourself and take care of your kids. But, I also believe that part of what makes this country great is that we rise and fall together, and that our attitude is, you know, if there's some child out there that doesn't have a decent school, that that affects Harry and that affects my kids, and it affects everybody."

Dave: "That's right, it's everybody's problem, absolutely. Yeah, that seems to have evaporated, yes, I think so."

Obama: "We've lost that, let's see if we can restore it."

Dave: "We'll be right back with the Senator."

The conversation ended with a discussion of Obama's visit today with former President Bill Clinton who, if everything goes according to plan, will be campaigning soon in Florida for Obama. Letterman also asked after Obama's family, specifically his maternal grandmother and his daughters.

Dave: "Now, tell me about the big lunch with Bill Clinton. Is that tomorrow or the next day?"

Obama: "You know, I've got lunch with Bill Clinton, which I'm looking forward to. There's nobody smarter in politics," (audience applauds) "and he is going to be, you know, he's going to be campaigning for us over the next eight weeks, which I'm thrilled by because, you know, the race that he ran in '92 is - it was similar to what's taking place now. You had an economy that wasn't working for people, you had a party that had been in power that didn't seem particularly concerned that it wasn't working for people, but, you know, he was new. He was young and people were still trying to figure out whether or not the guy was up to the job, and so, you know, I think giving - having him talk about, you know, why we need to change the economy in a fundamental way so it works for middle class families so that they can get ahead, so that they can send their kids to college, I think he can be a great advocate on behalf of the campaign."

Dave: "Would he be, if you are elected, would he be somebody that you could consider in a Cabinet position, somebody in the administration, or is that not done with former Presidents?"

Obama: "Yeah, I think if you're a former President, you don't take Cabinet positions." (audience laughs) "I think your attitude is, you know, sort of been there, done that, you know." (Dave, audience laughs) "It's sort of like getting, you know, Mickey Mantle, you know, to play Triple A, you don't do that." (Dave laughs) "But obviously you consult with him as often as you can because, look, there are only a handful of people who've actually done the job."

Dave: "Right. So, what do you do now? What's ahead of you in terms of the campaign?"

Obama: "Well, I have to keep Michelle and the girls happy." (audience laughs, applauds)

Dave: "How are the girls? They just started school."

Obama: "The girls just started school. You know, they started late at the school where they go, so my - Malia started 5th grade and Sasha started 2nd, and I don't think Malia wanted me to walk her to the class because 5th grade's kind of a big deal. You - she gets get a combination lock now, so she had gone to practice the combination lock, and so her father there was generally an embarrassment." (Dave, audience laugh) "But, I didn't care, so." (audience laughs, applauds)

Dave: "Yeah, that's right. Now, let me - your grandmother - 87 years old?"

Obama: "Eighty-seven years old. She can't travel. She has terrible osteoporosis so she can't fly, but, you know, she has been the rock of our family and she is sharp as a tack. I mean, she's just - she follows everything, but she has a very subdued, sort of Midwestern attitude about these things. So when I got nominated, she called and said, 'That's nice, Barry, that's nice.'"

Dave: "'That's nice, that's nice.'" (audience laughs)

Obama: "'I thought that was a very nice speech, yes.'"

Dave: "At 87, are you worried that she may not vote for you and vote for someone maybe closer to her own age?" (audience, Obama laugh; audience applauds)

Obama: "You know, I, uh, I have been sending her out to some of her bridge partners trying to peel off votes from that demographic." (Dave, audience laugh)

Dave: "All right, well, great pleasure to have you."

Obama: "It's great to see you, Dave."

Dave: "Good luck on the campaign trail. Barack Obama."

(Dave and Obama shake hands; audience applauds)

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