Last night on his late-night talkshow, David Letterman acknowledged that shutting up about that whole extortion/sex with staffers thing was not really an option, and addressed it all head-on with an amusing monologue and mea culpa. Was that enough?
I should start by saying that my initial reaction to the news was much milder than Anna North's, although I had to admit all the points she made about power differentials and the effect on the overall office environment are difficult to argue. But between a bit of outrage fatigue (Letterman should probably send Roman Polanski a big fruit basket for ensuring that this scandal came with built-in perspective) and the tiny detail that I once dated my boss for four years (I was his sole employee, so the only workplace dynamics it altered were our own), I just couldn't get too worked up about Dave admitting he had sex with employees. I mean, it's not a good thing, but as far as we know, there were no questions of consent beyond those that arise whenever two people are unequal in status — which are valid to ask, but very difficult for anyone outside of the situation to answer conclusively. We have no real idea how it affected the office environment, and because he was so refreshingly honest and self-effacing about it, it was hard to be angry. Not to mention, dude was the victim of a wackaloon extortion plot, which was actually more interesting to me.
Then I sat down to watch the monologue with my husband last night, and mentioned all that to him. Hubby: "Whatever. I'm sure I'll laugh at his jokes, but it doesn't change the fact that none of this would have happened if he hadn't cheated on his wife."
You know what ranks really high on a list of awkward conversations? The one where the person you've recently vowed to remain faithful to forever goes, "Hello! Adultery bad!" and you're like, "Oh, right, that." It's pretty sad that I've gotten to the point where learning that a powerful, famous man cheated on his partner is such a total non-shock, it barely even registers on me as wrongdoing. (My husband is a much better person than I am, which is a big part of why I married him.)
To Dave's credit, at least he didn't forget that part, peppering the entirely self-referential monologue with jokes — one suspects they would more accurately be described as "jokes" — about how pissed his wife is ("It's chilly outside my house... it's chilly inside my house"), and frankly, how much she deserves to be. Around, the one minute mark of the clip above, Dave feigns changing the subject: "OK, let's look at the news, first of all, Bill Clinton said..." [Grimace.] "Uh, no." Ditto Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer, and the same basic line just keeps getting funnier — though that's partly because Paul Shaffer keeps throatily "Ho ho!"ing like a drunken shopping-mall Santa in the background.
Around that time, I turned to hubby and said, "You know, art doesn't trump bad behavior, but maybe being funny does." (Hubby: "Still cheated on his wife." Me: "Oh, right.") Obviously, Roman Polanski's crimes are not in the same galaxy as David Letterman's offenses, and again, Dave is lucky the comparison inevitably comes to mind this week. But the comparisons to Clinton, Sanford and Spitzer are somewhat more on point — and when we're talking about woefully ill-advised consensual sex, there is a lot to be said for both owning up and joking at your own expense (at least without indicating that you take it all too lightly, which is a line I think Letterman walked quite gracefully). Of course, even those comparisons ultimately fail, because politicians aren't in a position to play it off the same way, with good reason. As Craig Ferguson said in his own monologue on the topic last night, "If we are now holding late-night talk show hosts to the same moral accountability as we hold politicians or clergymen, I'm OUT!" Given that I didn't vote for Letterman and don't expect celebrities to exhibit much moral leadership beyond, you know, not committing felonies, his straightforward admission that he fucked up and seemingly genuine self-deprecating humor about it actually achieve their intended purpose: Reminding the audience that he is still very good at his job, which involves cracking jokes and maintaining a basically likable (if prickly) persona, not saving the world or our very souls.
So, outrage fatigue and my own history of boss-banging aside, I think the main reason I'm predisposed to give Dave a pass is that he's made a good-faith and appropriate effort to restore his credibility as a late-night talk show host, which is exactly what I need him to be. His wife and son need him to be more than that. The employees he slept with — and the employees he didn't — need him to be more than that. The audience doesn't. I think it's great if people take this as an opportunity to have a national conversation about sexual harassment, about the grey areas that come with differences in power between partners, about the effects of a boss-employee relationship on the entire office — and yes, honey, about cheating on one's spouse. But I also don't feel like I need any more input on the matter from Letterman himself; he doesn't owe his audience of perfect strangers any more than he's already given us.
His wife, on the other hand, is probably gonna require a little more effort. One disappointment of last night's show is that it was hyped as including "an apology to his wife" — and is this morning being reported as such — but when he got around to that part, he kinda biffed it.
After pulling a passive-voice acknowledgment of how terribly she'd been hurt, he did acknowledge that he was the one who did the hurting, saying, "When something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it. And at that point, there's only two things that can happen: either you're going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you're going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed." A good start — and a refreshing exhibit of accountability — but he followed it up only with, "I've got my work cut out for me." Hubby and me, simultaneously: "That was not an apology!"
The good news is, we don't need one. In fact, for an apology to his wife to hold any meaning, it shouldn't be done on television, where it would be part of an effort to restore his image as a talk-show host, not a husband. His wife doesn't need him to say it to a camera, she needs him to say it to her face. For the rest of us, unless evidence comes to light that his transgressions were much more serious than we've been told so far, what he's said to the camera should be plenty.
Letterman Apologizes To His Wife and Staff [NY Times]