In his first three nights as host of CBS’ Late Show, Stephen Colbert has made it clear he has no intention of pretending to be neutral. About anything. His emotional encounter Thursday night with Joseph R. Biden focused primarily on the Vice President’s experience of tragedy, most recently the May death from brain cancer of his son Beau, and his wife and infant daughter in a 1972 auto accident. It was riveting television, at once compassionate and revealing, and it almost incidentally lifted the issue of faith to a far higher level in the national conversation than any of the fatuous debates and sparring among the announced candidates have done so far.
“Everybody likes Joe Biden,” Colbert said, introducing his first guest of the evening. “I think it’s because when we see you, we think we’re seeing the real Joe Biden…We’re inspired by the way you have responded” to unimaginable loss. Biden, obviously moved, paid tribute to Beau’s grace and determination to take care of those who would survive him, especially his father. “I never heard my son complain,” he said.
And when Colbert asked, “How has your faith helped you respond?” Biden, a self-described devout Catholic, answered, “I feel self-conscious talking about it,” noting that many people — including Colbert himself — had dealt with tragedy. “Loss is serious, but there are so many other people going through this,” he said, adding that few of them had the “incredible support” he himself benefitted from. “I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt, and most do it with an incredible sense of empathy.” He added that quote from the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had been a comfort to him: “Faith sees best in the dark.”
Biden made explicit reference to the comforting role in his life of ritual — without making it seem like a pronouncement. And so it was natural, when Colbert finally did ask him about a run for the Oval Office, that Biden responded, as my colleague Dominic Patten reported earlier, that he wasn’t quite ready to make that decision.
“I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president, and two, they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion,’” Biden said. “And I’d be lying if I said I knew I was there. I’m being completely honest. Nobody has a right, in my view, to seek that office unless they are willing to give it 110 percent of who they are.”
It wasn’t just the words, however, but the quiet thoughtfulness in the delivery, that gave the words their power. Colbert closed the interview by acknowledging his own desire that Biden run. No non-partisanship there, which will make visits from other candidates all the more interesting.
None which is to say that Colbert Night Three was without some lunatic humor as well. The monologue showed him loose and loopy and revealed no sign of him easing up on The Orange One. More than a year before the election, he said, means “we’re just nine years away from the end of the Trump presidency.” Trump’s surge has been so great, he noted, “he’s turned his own bar graph into luxury condos.”
At one point in Colbert’s monologue, he began to fall out of the camera frame — only to discover on investigation that Washington Redskins legend Joe Thiesmann was operating Camera 2. A mini-gaggle of football greats was on hand, including Pittsburgh Steelers’ Franco Harris, Chicago Bears’ Richard Dent, Cleveland Browns’ Jim Brown and Steelers coach Bill Cowher. Maybe it was to offset the Steelers-Patriots game on another network Thursday evening, maybe it was to promote CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl 50; whatever the case, it was unexpected and funny.
Colbert also took the opportunity to ask guest No. 2, Uber chief exec Travis Kalanick, to explain “surge pricing.” That was hilarious all by itself. (BuzzFeed reported earlier this evening that during the interview, an audience plant from the New York taxi industry interrupted the conversation and said that Uber is “ruining” the taxi industry. Colbert reportedly allowed him to speak, but the scene was edited out of the telecast.)