Oprah, Uma … Luther?

LutheranAnnMargretMuch 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.

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  • http://fallibilismandfaith.blogspot.com JD

    This post is a case of mission failure. Not just the usual biased policing, but shameless one-sided advocacy.

    Shales is a columnist, an opinion columnist. He has a relaxed view on consensual sex; Mollie does not. Yawn, yawn.

    Talk about hypocrisy. Arrogate to yourself the posture of super-objective media critic so you can fault the media for advocacy under the guise of objectivity … only to build a platform for “conservative” advocacy.

    Time to stop reading, maybe.

  • MDP

    As that comment shows, if you question anyone for doing anything, you will be labeled a hypocrite; doubly so if you have a non-relaxed view of anything, and the person you’re criticizing has that relaxed view. If Mollie’s guilty of anything, it’s trying to perform the jello-nailing task of pointing out that based on his previous statements, Letterman might be considered a hypocrite.

    Turns out stating your biases up front is no longer good enough. Good to know.

  • Jerry

    Venn diagram

    I’m in love.

  • Bern

    Hypocrisy is hypocrisy . . . but the court jester is NOT the Congressman (or the Senator, or the Governer(s) for that matter). I think I’ve said this before elsewhere: if you talk the talk you need to walk the walk, but MORE so if you are in the business of representing anyone other than your own self. Or if, like Mr. Spitzer, you were in the business of enforcing the law–he had quite a reputation for hardball–and used that as a platform to become an executive in goverment. Ditto for Mr. Foley who used his supposed beliefs to get elected.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Letterman and Polanski (and defender Whoopi) prove that the early Christians were right: that being “on stage” is –because of its encouragement of narcissism– one of the most dangerous professions as regards one’s salvation as well as dangerous to those who listen to much of anything they say off the stage or copy anything they do. Probably that is why, according to some histories- actors were considered on a level with prostitutes (possibly because so many were).
    But today we treat “on stage” people as gurus of wisdom and their pontifications as worthy of notice and analysis -with politicians seeking their endorsements and favors.
    Just maybe the Letterman case and the massive Hollywood support for Polanski will wake up the American people to the fact that the worst people in the world to listen to for advice or wisdom of any kind are frequently the creatures of the entertainment media.

  • str

    I never understood why people of little or no moral standards could hold others accountable for failing high standards.

    And why is it that congressmen and the like have automatically conform to such high standards (unless their name is Bill Clinton, of course). Representatives of the people are taken from the people and thus are just as crooked as the people.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Ann-Margret is Lutheran? That explains everything!!!

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  • Dave

    I’m in love.

    You’re easy.

  • Jerry

    Dave, you think I’m easy? Try finding someone in the media who is math literate:-)

  • Brian

    For what its worth, David Letterman’s background is United Church of Christ. His “home church” would be St. Peter’s UCC in Carmel, Indiana. He probably said “Lutheran” either because he genuinely isn’t really clear on his own background (doubtful) or he was just using a short hand that more people would understand than “United Church of Christ.”

    (see http://www.stpeterscarmel.org/narrative%20text.doc for a quote from his dad about the pain of leaving the old church building for a new location)

  • Chris Bolinger

    I missed that Cheers episode. Anyone have a link to it? It sounds awesome.

  • Philip

    Nicely done, Mollie. Why Letterman picked on Lutherans is anybody’s guess. Probably what Brian posted is what really happened. Maybe he has a vendetta against Lutherans. Maybe a Lutheran girl dumped him years ago.