“Don’t let people bully you, man,” Jimmy Fallon exhorted his guest on Thursday night. “You’re Marco Rubio! You can do whatever you wanna do! You’re running for president!”
It was understandable that the host of The Tonight Show would try to buck up the confidence of Florida’s junior senator, who has been trying to cast himself in a breakout role in the ongoing tragicomedy of Donald Trump’s headlong race for the GOP presidential nomination.
“To make Marco feel comfortable during the interview,” Fallon had joked in the monologue, “we’re gonna have five other guys interrupt him every time he talks.”
Looking perhaps a decade younger than his 44 years, as well as deeply uncomfortable and oddly diffident, Rubio seemed unsure of himself—the opposite of an Alpha Male—as he made his way to the chair beside Fallon’s desk, peering beseechingly at the late-night comic as if asking for permission to sit down.
Fallon immediately threw the senator a curve by putting his feet on his desk, inches from the candidate’s face, to show off the same sort of black, zippered, high-heeled boots that Rubio sported at a recent campaign event, inspiring a barrage of mockery and ridicule from his Republican primary rivals.
The super-PAC-supporting former Florida governor Jeb Bush—once Rubio’s friend and mentor, but lately his bitter antagonist—even made an ad detailing the senator’s politically expedient belief-alterations, and featured the notorious footwear clicking heels to the parody tune, “These Boots Are Made for Flippin’.”
“Do you like my boots?” Fallon teased, thereby launching an extended conversation about the backlash, and Rubio’s anecdote about buying a similar pair in college, only to have them ruined when he attended a foam party that “washed the dye out.”
There was more chatter about the boots, and Rubio’s reluctance to wear them again, prompting Fallon to urge, “I think you should bring them back out!… It’s fashion-forward!”
Finally Fallon declared with a nasty grin, “I’m actually tired of talking about your boots”—a dismissive line he hardly would have sprung on Trump or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton. They moved on to other anodyne and apparently humanizing subjects—Rubio’s proposal to his wife of two decades atop the Empire State Building; his father’s labors as a humble bartender; and so on.
It didn’t help Rubio’s presidential aura that his slot on the show matched his also-ran position in the polls: Unlike frontrunners Trump and Clinton, who were Fallon’s headliners last week, Rubio followed an extended, occasionally raunchy appearance by New Hampshire native and Bernie Sanders supporter Sarah Silverman.
Silverman’s jokes about her ladyparts—which might have been bleeped by airtime (this report is based on viewing an early-evening live feed)—were not calculated to impress evangelical Christians in Iowa.
“Now they can’t watch the show tonight,” Rubio said about his four children. “That last segment—there were a couple of points there I feel like I have to skip over.”
Rubio added, in a sad-sack tone that may or may not have inspired audience sympathy, that his kids “told me not to come on the show. They said, ‘They’re gonna boo you, Dad. They’re gonna boo you when you walk out.’”
Actually, the studio audience politely clapped and cheered, or else obediently followed the instructions of the applause signs, as the business-shoed candidate made his foray into the treacherous jungle of late-night television.
It’s difficult to know how, or if, it was worth the trouble to break away from campaigning in New Hampshire, where Trump is polling way ahead and Rubio is in fourth place, just ahead of Bush, in the run-up to the Feb. 9 primary. The Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses seem almost as bleak, with Rubio running a distant third behind Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“What if you don’t win? Is it still possible?” Fallon asked.
“Oh, sure!” Rubio responded brightly and unconvincingly. “We want to do as well as possible.” He added, more credibly, “Let’s not talk about that.”
He made a wan pitch to viewers in Iowa and New Hampshire to “vote for Marco Rubio”—he sounded a tad gloomy—and insisted that he has no interest in being anybody’s vice-presidential running mate.
His second choice of a job, the candidate said, is commissioner of the National Football League—“which is more powerful than president,” Rubio said. “You have a lot of power. You can suspend people.”
“You’re a dreamer, man!” Fallon retorted.
The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio played football in high school and college.
“I would have been in the NFL had it not been for my lack of size, speed, and talent,” he joked.
It was a canned quip, oft-repeated, but it seemed to take on a certain metaphorical relevance during Rubio’s awkward visit to 30 Rock.