And that, says "Early Show" national correspondent Hattie Kauffman, is why he sat for an hour with Oprah Winfrey on her show, trying to rehabilitate his image.
Leno insisted he wasn't the one "pulling the strings" that led to his being returned to the "Tonight" helm and O'Brien being forced to step aside. And he told Winfrey he was "devastated" when he lost his coveted "Tonight" role to O'Brien.
Leno says nobody could have seen the whole scenario coming. "This is almost the perfect storm," he observed. "You have two hit shows -- 'Tonight Show' No. 1, Conan No. 1. -- you move them both to another situation, and what are the odds that both would do extremely poorly?"
When NBC moved Leno to a five-nights-a-week primetime slot and O'Brien took over "Tonight," ratings for the latter suffered greatly, and Leno's show fared so poorly that affiliates complained bitterly about the small audiences it was delivering to their 11 p.m. newscasts. That led NBC to rearrange things again, setting off the brawl between Leno and O'Brien.
David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel also got into the act, with Kimmel at one point joking that Leno has "$800 million, for God sakes. Leave our shows alone!" He was referring to his show and "Tonight" with O'Brien.
Leno's good-guy image took such a hit, Winfrey's online poll had 96 percent of respondents saying they sided with O'Brien.
But Leno told Winfrey he wasn't responsible for pushing O'Brien out. "If the numbers (ratings) had been there, it wouldn't even be an issue."
Meaning, Winfrey asked, he would "never have been asked to go back" to "Tonight?
"People think you're behind-the-scenes, pulling strings," Leno said. "There's no strings to pull."
Leno portrayed himself as the victim, Kauffman points out, because, when he first lost "Tonight" to O'Brien, "It broke my heart, it really did. I was devastated. This was a job I always wanted."
Oprah's couch is a proven place to sell books, announce love, and make a comeback.
So -- did Leno win back a nation's love?
"He connected with the American audience," says Hollywood publicist Michael Levine. "Of course, we have to see how this soap opera plays out."
Still, says Kauffman, the question remains: Has the storied 'Tonight Show" been too tarnished for Leno to bring it back?
Asked whether NBC could have handled things differently, Leno cracked, "Anything. Anything they did. If they had come in and shot everybody, I mean, it would have been, 'Oh, the people were murdered,' but at least it would have been a two-day story!"
O'Brien's NBC exit package is said to bar him from giving any interviews for now.
Satirist Andy Borowitz gave his unique take on the late-night wars to "Early Show" co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez Friday: