Much to my parents’ chagrin, I resisted early bedtimes from a very young age. So they would let me stay up and watch Johnny Carson. When Carson retired, I moved to Letterman. Somewhere along the line he lost me. He’s just seemed off for, well, a decade. And now I have Craig Ferguson, who I greatly enjoy. Here’s a sample.
Recently, as you know, David Letterman told his audience that he, a 62-year-old man with a wife and five-year-old son, had slept around with various employees. Now, I’m actually old-fashioned enough to think that Letterman shouldn’t have waited 20-odd years to marry his girlfriend. They just got hitched a few months ago. And I’m backwards enough to think that sleeping with multiple partners is wrong. And it’s really bad when they don’t all know what’s going on. So those are my biases going into this thing.
Let’s begin with the early coverage, after Letterman made his confession on air. It wasn’t just about sex with employees but also that, allegedly, someone had tried to extort money from him on account of his sexploits. Here’s the Los Angeles Times on the matter:
The audience, both at home and in the studio, was still reeling, lost in the echoing chasm between what Letterman said — over the years, he has slept with his employees — and how he said it — a humorous recounting of threat by tell-all screenplay.
At least they didn’t have to worry about the poor star who had to walk into that ringing vacuum — Harrelson, no choir boy, can take care of himself.
Keep that choir boy thing in mind. This rather light and breezy treatment was par for the course in much media treatment. And check out this little bit:
Reminding us that he is a man motivated by “Lutheran, Midwestern guilt” and repeatedly referring to the charges as “terrible stuff” and “creepy stuff,” Letterman explained how he called his lawyer and then authorities who informed him it was blackmail.
Reminding us? Reminding us? I think I speak for the Venn diagram of Lutherans and people who watch Letterman when I say that his Lutheranism is complete news to me. And I’m one of those people who pays attention to these things. I can tell you, for instance, that Bruce Willis was confirmed a Lutheran. I know which Lutherans dated Elvis (Yes, Ann-Margret, I’m talking about you). I can even tell you what fictional Lutherans are out there (e.g. LCMS-member Woody Boyd on Cheers facing a crisis of conscience because his ELCA fiance doesn’t believe the Book of Concord is in line with the Scriptures).
So when I say I never knew that Letterman claimed any affiliation with Lutheranism, I know of what I speak. And the fact that usually people joke about Lutheranism in the opposite fashion (e.g. “All the Catholic, half the guilt!” etc.), makes me think it’s awfully convenient for him to discover Lutheran roots at this time. Not that I don’t encourage him to move beyond the guilt phase into knowing forgiveness for his sins, of course. All of which to say, that I’m not sure what the Times means by this “reminding us” business.
So let’s move on to the various analytical pieces on Letterman. When the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz penned his look at a later Letterman apology (this one to his wife on Monday night’s show), it focused greatly on the legal aspects of whether Letterman did anything wrong. And while I think it’s important to ascertain whether any of his employees claim they were wrongly coerced into sex, it might be good to just look at the moral angles apart from that. I mean, some people think that any power imbalance as great as that between a 62-year-old man who pays the bills and his fresh-faced, just-out-of-college interns is cause for sexual harassment alarms. Some people think that cheating on the mother of your child is wrong. It’s not just about whether it’s illegal, is it?
Or let’s go one step further and look at Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales’ take on the thing. It’s a bit bizarre; headlined, I kid you not:
Let’s Remember That Letterman’s a Clown, Not a Cleric or Congressman
Okay, so here we get a distilled look at the general theme that only conservative pastors and Republican congressman can be charged with hypocrisy. The article is largely about how his apologies to Paris Hilton and Gov. Sarah Palin were more embarrassing (because they were so unnecessary, natch) than his apology for sleeping with the help. But there’s so much more:
One of many sad things about recent stanzas in the ballad of David Letterman is that now, in all media, Dave will be lumped in with other sexually misbehaving celebrities, even though he stands head and heart above most of them. …
Some of those who’ve seen the current Letterman mess as a golden opportunity to trash and attack him claim that it’s fit retribution for the jokes Dave has made about naughty-boy politicians and their sexual high jinks. Letterman can continue to lampoon sleazy political figures with no real fear of hypocrisy, however, because a TV comic is not an elected official responsible for the well-being of the nation or its citizenry.
Letterman’s monologue is not a nightly sermon full of moral lessons preached to politicians or the public. His stance is that of the proverbial court jester, a clownish figure with a mandate to prick the powerful — not set himself up as a model of virtue.
Could Letterman’s misbehavior be compared to the disreputable legislator who ranted and railed against homosexuals, and worked to deny them the right to marry and other civil privileges — and then was caught soliciting anonymous sex in an airport men’s room? That’s socially destructive misconduct with the potential for inflicting harm, pain and injustice on a portion of society and on society at large. Letterman’s misadventures contain potential harm, pain and injustice only for the individuals specifically involved — and since there have been no allegations about the sex having been nonconsensual or any partners having been underage, it’s all unpleasant but hardly some sort of threat to the public welfare.
This is just obtuse. Of course Letterman — and all court jesters, if that’s what you want to call him — are preaching moral lessons. You can do that and prick the powerful, you know. And does anyone really think that, say, former Rep. Mark Foley had more influence on national politics than David Letterman?
And notice that last line about how his partners weren’t underage? Well, turns out Shales doesn’t have a problem with underage victims either, speaking of hypocrisy.
But more than that, why is hypocrisy the only sin — or one of the very few sins, at least — that the mainstream media recognize? Why can’t sleeping around on the mother of your kindergartner just be a sin straight up? Why can’t society look askance at a powerful old man paying the law school bills of an employee half his age who he’s cheating on his wife with? Why won’t those kids get off my lawn?
One bright note in the media coverage, I suppose, was this Associated Press piece that did point out the silliness of Shales’ article:
Turns out David Letterman doesn’t just live on a TV show. He also lives in a glass house, where for years he’s hurled comedy zingers at misbehaving politicians, even as he brashly engaged in hanky-panky of his own. . . .
During an indignant rant [against former N.Y. Gov. Eliot Spitzer], he called for the scandalized governor to step down.
“I mean, can you imagine,” said Letterman, “if this happened to me how fast they’d have my … (backside) out of here?”
That’s a nice quote.