The Letterman lesson: Use truth as a weapon
LettermanGate first burst onto
TV screens, front pages and
Blackberrys nationwide, and the
media remain in unapologetic
full-throttle. Having already
wrung every drop of dirty
dishwater from this odd tale of
sex, checks and affections,
reporters continue to survey the
outer fringes of the story’s
seedy landscape, hoping to tap
a fresh reservoir of bodice-
ripping, scurrilous slime.
expose that dubbed Dave a “skirt-chasing funnyman” while depicting his private
office at the Ed Sullivan Theater as a door-swinging sex-den, complete with fold-out
News producer-turned-alleged extortionist, whose clumsy attempt to blow the lid off
Dave’s randy past earned him a phony $2 million check and a very real bill for
$200,000 in bail.
And TMZ.com—ground zero for all that is knock-yer-socks-off-shocking—posted an
interview with a heretofore unknown Letterman intern, complete with the usual
unspectacular quotes (“I was madly in love with him”) and predictably blurry jpegs.
And yet for all the ink and bytes devoted to this bizarre saga, here’s what I find most
compelling: that David Letterman successfully navigated his way through three
explosive crises—personal, professional and legal—by simply telling the truth.
Unlike the similarly cornered Sens. John Edwards and John Ensign, Gov. Elliot
Spitzer and (sigh) Bill Clinton, who initially body-blocked media inquires about their
affairs with everything from finger-wagging resentment to faux-humility to flat-out
denial, Letterman confessed to his past philandering instantly (“I have had sex with
women who work for me on this show,” he revealed), and he did so proactively,
rather than in the crouch of self-defense.
Unlike the bathroom-cruising Sen. Larry (“I am not gay”) Craig, who responded to
charges of “lewd conduct” at a Minneapolis airport by claiming that cops had simply
misread a little innocent stall-footsie, Letterman approached authorities the moment
he knew he was being shaken down, and even testified to the facts before a grand
And unlike Gov. Mark Sanford, who justified his 5000-mile field trip to Argentina to
rendezvous with his secret “soul mate” as something more spiritual than your typical
sleazy tryst, Letterman copped to the all-too-ordinary sordidness of his office-fling
history, even calling his own actions “creepy.”
This is why David Letterman will be forgiven his workplace hanky-panky. Because,
in the end, what people (and, should it go this far, juries) admire most is straight
talk, and that is precisely what Dave dished out last Thursday evening—along with
a few laughs, of course.
Which brings up an interesting question: Did Letterman effectively duck more
serious scrutiny of his trespasses by donning his customary goofball persona and
beating the media to the punch by beating himself up first?
Probably—but the fact is, this is wholly consistent with the Letterman America has
been inviting into its bedrooms for more than a quarter-century. Not only has he
routinely used his late-night forum as his own personal scrapbook—talking about
his heart surgery, his speeding tickets, the birth of his son—he’s also been the first
to bust himself for the occasional idiocy—such as mistakenly targeting the wrong
daughter of Sarah Palin in an off-color joke last June. He apologized immediately.
CBS and Worldwide Pants (Letterman’s production company) will undoubtedly
continue to investigate this matter, if only to determine whether David Letterman
crossed the line—or broke a law—by engaging in sex with subordinates. But unless
something else erupts—and it would have to be something pretty big—you can file
the story of Dave’s Deviant Dalliance where it belongs—as yesterday’s news.