LOS ANGELES — Thank heaven for Joy Behar.
Although many wondered what sort of questions vocal Republican and presidential detractor Elisabeth Hasselbeck would have for Barack Obama on his groundbreaking visit to “The View,” it was Behar who left the normally loquacious president tongue-tied and saved the show from becoming an a.m. whistle-stop.
Despite what has been a politically rocky year, Obama radiated his signature unflappable serenity, which though reassuring in a world leader can be a talk-show host’s worst nightmare — “The View” especially thrives on flap. Not surprisingly, the president was more than up for the task of patiently explaining how he hopes to stem unemployment or delivering a soliloquy on how a stable Afghanistan is crucial to the war on terror.
But when Behar asked him if he thought Mel Gibson needed anger-management classes, Obama was literally, and possibly for the first time ever during a television appearance, at a loss for words. “I haven’t seen a Mel Gibson movie in years,” he finally said, making it clear that he had no clue about the star’s current scandal.
Providing a bit of comic relief during the second half of Thursday’s show, Behar led into a pop-culture quiz during which it was revealed that although the president did know Lindsay Lohan was in jail, he had no idea who “Jersey Shore” star Snooki was.
Which may have been the most reassuring moment of the whole hour.
It also made it clear that if you have any hope of controlling your show when the president is visiting, you need to stick with what you do best. Which in the case of “The View” is a sassy mix of politics and pop, with a wide streak of standup humor.
Yes, Barbara Walters is a serious journalist (and gamely came back to the show after having heart surgery to be part of the Obama visit), but what gave the women of “The View” their inside the Beltway cred in the first place was their ability to discuss the issues of the day the way ordinary Americans do, with a mixture of information, insight and argumentative blather. When you have the president, and you ask about joblessness and foreign policy, you’re not going to get any of that. You’re not even going to get a real answer, you’re going to get the presidential message. That’s what presidents do, which is why the presidential resume tends to not include stints in standup or journalism or talk-show hosting.
Obama on “The View” offered the tantalizing possibility of observing the president from a more personal angle, something he offered at the beginning of his presidency, with appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show With David Letterman.” But he is the president, after all, and so serious questions must be asked, so respectfully they often weren’t questions at all — even Hasselbeck’s question about unemployment made it all too easy for the president to point out that saving jobs might seem very important to her “if your job was one of those saved.”
Once we all adjusted to the sight of the commander in chief sitting where Kathy Griffin so recently sat (and was grilled much more fiercely) the hour threatened to become too state-of-the-union for 10 a.m. until the ladies began to do what they do best — make the political personal. Which does not in any way diminish the importance of “The View.” The juiciest insider-Beltway news came from the most frothy question of them all — turns out the president will not be attending Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Because, ahem, he wasn’t invited.
Obama spun it well enough, saying that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton wanted the wedding to “be about Chelsea” and that it was “tough enough to have one president at the wedding. You don’t want to have two,” but still … he wasn’t invited?
That should keep all those smarty-pants Washington journalists and political columnists ruminating for weeks.