When was the last time in the history of late-night shows that the featured guest and host chatted about "capital ratios," "credit default swaps" and "toxic assets"?

The answer is never until last night when President Barack Obama appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno to try and reassure Americans that he had a plan and good people in place to get the country out of its economic crisis.


For all the ease with which Obama sat in the chair nearest Leno's desk, right leg crossed over left, looking as smooth and cool as Tony Bennett as he sold his economic proposals for 35 minutes of air time, what a remarkable moment in TV history it was.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has disputed assertions that it was the first time a sitting president appeared on a late night show, claiming President John F. Kennedy did so once on the Jack Paar Show in the early 1960's. But Gibbs did not provide a date, and neither the Center for Popular Television at Syracuse University nor any of the other archives I contact this week could find a prior appearance.

Either way, what a fascinating hour of TV Obama's visit provided as the President skillfully used the late-night entertainment venue for his own political agenda with full co-operation from Leno.

How full?

Here's the first question: After only 59 days in office, "is it fair to judge you so quickly?" Leno asked.

"Washington is a little bit like American Idol – except everybody is like Simon Cowell," Obama replied flashing an all-charm smile and delivering a perfectly scripted punchline to the perfectly scripted straightman set-up from the comedian.

Obama went on to say, "The American people understand that it took us a while to get into this mess, and it will take us a while to get out of it…. I think they are going to give us some time," he added.

No one can toss beachballs bigger and softer than Leno. Before the session ended, he was asking such questions as, "So, how cool is it to fly in Air Force One?"

As pathetic as that might make Leno seem, it isn't nearly as bad as the way he performed through the bulk of the interview, setting up Obama time after time to swat down those who would criticize the president for contradictions at the Treasury Department and in the White House this week over the controversial bonuses paid to A.I.G. executives.

Leno started the A.I.G. portion of the conversation telling Obama that he thought the president looked "angry and stunned" when he found out about the bonuses. One of the lingering questions of the week is when exactly Obama did find out about the bonuses. Furthermore, you have to wonder how Leno knew when the president heard and what he looked like when he did so.

But never mind, this is show business, right?

"Yes, stunned is the word," Obama said, easing into the language of parable to explain, "There was this company named A.I.G…and some smart person in this company said…"

Tell us a bedtime story, please, Mr. President.

Obama went on to say: "The question is who in their right mind when the company is going bust decides we're going to be paying a whole bunch of bonuses to people? And that I think speaks to a broader culture that existed on Wall Street, where I think people just had this general attitude of entitlement where we must be the best and the brightest, we deserve $10 million or $50 million or $100 million payouts."


As was the pattern throughout the evening, Obama continued as long as he wanted without any follow-up questions from Leno.

"And the immediate bonuses that went to A.I.G. are a problem," the President continued. "But the larger problem is we've got to get back to an attitude where people know enough is enough and people have a sense of responsibility, and they understand that their actions are going have an effect on everybody. And if we can get back to those values that built America, then I think we're going to be okay."

The theme of the evening: Give my administration some time – and don't panic, because we're going to be okay.

The nearest Obama came to losing his easy-going, totally-in-control cool demeanor was when Leno brought up the mounting criticism of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The question was a soft one again delivered so that Obama could knock it down, but the president seemed to have forgotten it was in the script.

"Look, I'm the president. So ultimately all this stuff is my responsibility. If I'm not giving him the tools that he needs to move things forward, then people need to look at me," the president said after a moment of hesitation. "One of the things I'm trying to break is a pattern in Washington where everybody is always looking for someone else to blame. And I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job."

Leno's opening monologue was sharp and relevant with several references to the economy and the president. His best line: "A lot of people were surprised that the president came to NBC. You'd think by this time he'd be tired of big companies on the brink of disaster with a bunch of overpaid executives."

In the final analysis, outside of the monologue and a one-song appearance by country singer Garth Brooks at the end of the hour, Leno and NBC essentially handed the show over to Obama to use as he saw fit for his political purposes.

"Mr. President, I must say this has been one of the best nights of my life," Leno said at the end of the interview.

I'm glad that it was good for Leno. I'm not sure what it meant for TV and its intended purpose of serving citizens first rather than politicians – even when it comes to presidents and entertainment programs.

(Above: NBC Photo of Barack Obama and Jay Leno on the Tonight Show)