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Inside Politics

Johnny Carson's political legacy

By Judy Woodruff
CNN Washington Bureau


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For 30 years, Johnny Carson gave Americans a reason to stay up late.

Johnny Carson: The life and legacy of an American icon.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Before politicians rushed to book face time with Jon Stewart or announced their candidacy on David Letterman or Jay Leno...there was Johnny Carson.

Carson played host to seven United States Presidents and "thankfully for comedy," he said, eight vice presidents of the United States.

Often called "the king of late night," Carson was an equal opportunity needler, mocking politicians from Dan Quayle to the Kennedy family, and everyone in between.

He even gave former President Richard Nixon a second chance at making a television debut.

He welcomed the powerful, making them seem a little more like the rest of us.

"The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson was the venue for Bill Clinton's mea culpa after his poorly received too-long convention speech in 1988.

In just one week, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton went from being the butt of jokes to a media darling, after his appearance on The Tonight Show where Carson gave him a chance to show some self-deprecating humor.

In no small part thanks to Carson, CNN at the time cited Clinton for the "fastest turnaround ever" on its weekly "Winners and Losers."

But, Carson's sharp wit could also contribute to a candidate's downfall.

As The New York Times reported on Monday, it certainly did not help former Sen.Gary Hart when Carson began including him in his monologues.

"Mr. Carson's jokes about Mr. Hart's extramarital activities were surely not the only reason his political fortunes evaporated in 1988, but they were repeated often enough to have played some part," said the Times writers.

But for the most part, Republicans and Democrats alike appreciated Carson's equal opportunity jokes. And not even Carnac the Magnificent could say where Carson's own politics lie.

Along with his biting humor, Carson also brought grace and civility to the often competitive world of television entertainment and the even more competitive world of politics. And, perhaps that is his political legacy.


Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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