A few weeks ago, I posted video of Jon Stewart’s first show back after the 9/11 attacks. He choked back tears throughout his opening monologue, and it was a reminder of what things were like in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. The shock and grief rested heavily on the entire country. And many of the normal late night comedians simply stopped recording new shows. For some of them, it was weeks before they returned to regular programming, and nobody missed them. It was a singular moment in American pop culture. It was an ethos I had not experience before 9-11, and one I haven’t experienced since.
David Letterman recorded his first new show six days after the attacks, and it is another one to note. His opening monologue had the same tone as Stewart’s. But what stood out on this show was Letterman’s interview with Dan Rather. The death toll was still not final, and both Letterman and Rather refer repeatedly to the “five thousand” who were killed (the number turned out to be closer to three thousand). Rather was uncharacteristically emotional and fought back the tears throughout the interview. Rather pledged to line up like a good soldier behind President Bush to be used in any way possible to help with the forthcoming war effort. Rather also referred to the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power and the mistake it was not to remove him in the first Gulf War. It is impossible to imagine an anchor at a major network speaking now the way Rather did then. Apart from this footage, it is impossible to imagine that Rather himself would have spoken this way in light of the subsequent “memogate” controversy. It is another testament to the singularity of that moment. The interview is in four parts below.