America began its life by throwing off a king and has been crowning them ever since. We have a King of Pop, a King of All Media, a King of Beers. That Johnny Carson was dubbed the King of Late Night, at first blush, says less about him than about our national case of regis envy.
But in Carson's case the title may for once have been apt. What we lost when we became a republic was a sense of the slow sweep of history. Our Presidents serve for four to eight years--even F.D.R. went just over 12. Carson ruled the Tonight Show for nearly 30: enough time for a baby to be born, grow up and have babies of her own; enough time to span a real historical era. He took to the air in 1962, weeks before the Cuban missile crisis. He departed in 1992, just months after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The greatest Presidents have mere administrations. Johnny Carson had a reign.
So even though Carson was simply an entertainer, when he died Jan. 23 of emphysema at age 79, the reaction was like that to the passing of a head of state--specifically, Ronald Reagan's last year. On Tonight, Carson did a dead-on impression of Reagan, but the resemblance did not end there. Both men defined how to accrue and wield power in the mass-media age. They were two of the last broadcasters: Carson, compared with today's niche entertainers; Reagan, contrasted against today's red-and-blue-fixated political micromarketers. Both were Midwesterners transplanted to California who merged their coastal charm and Middle American affability.
Of course, Reagan was loved and hated intensely, whereas Carson enjoyed the benefits of never having, say, fired thousands of air-traffic controllers. Reagan took a side unapologetically--Carson ribbed him on a 1978 show as "a little to the right of the Orkin exterminator." Carson held his politics close and kept his jokes nonpartisan. (A rare time that he did anything remotely political was when he hosted Reagan's 1981 pre-Inauguration gala.)
But like the Great Communicator, Carson was a paradox of warm and cool, a man who made millions of Americans feel they knew him and yet was an enigma even to close associates. He was zealously private and distant to most, always approachable, rarely approached. Carson was in danger last week of posthumous teddy-bearization, with eulogists praising him as "calm" and "gentle." That wasn't even true of his TV persona--he laced his humor with sarcasm and sexual danger, and he batted Ed McMahon about like a piñata. In private Carson was standoffish and in his marriages admittedly no saint. His jokes about his serial monogamy endeared him to viewers, but you don't rack up three divorces by being a harmless sweetie.
What impressed people as "calm" was really a presidential strength: control. Carson was the master of the small gesture, and he would figuratively disarm himself by resting his hands in his pockets. That only made him stronger. He could hold us with both hands literally behind his back. His next-to-last program--on which he teared up as Bette Midler serenaded him with One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)--was one of his most memorable but least characteristic, because we almost saw him let loose the reins.