Cheering for Letterman’s confession

Why the host's bold statement should be the template for philanderers everywhere

Topics: Broadsheet,

Cheering for Letterman's confession

“Do you feel like a story?” David Letterman asked his audience last night. That’s how it started. But what followed wasn’t a witty anecdote involving Madonna or Sarah Palin. It was an admission of adultery and of being blackmailed. (Video posted below.)

Coming in from a commercial break, Letterman detailed how one morning a few weeks ago, he’d discovered a package in the back seat of his car containing a letter. It read, “I know that you do some terrible, terrible things.”

The audience, still assuming this was just another jokey setup, continued to laugh. But as the story progressed, it became darker and weirder. A “phony” $2 million check to ensnare the blackmailer, testimony before a grand jury, the blackmailer’s eventual arrest. Letterman then cleared his throat and said, “The creepy stuff was: I have had sex with women who work with me on the show.” He paused again and continued. “Now, my response to that is, yes I have.” And what did the audience do when their cantankerous, beloved and married host sat before them confessing to his dalliances with his colleagues? They applauded.

There were no Mark Sanford-style tears. No John Edwards-esque denials. No John Ensign-y contrite admissions that it was “absolutely the worst thing I’ve done in my life.” No shame or blame.

Just some straight-up, self-deprecating honesty. What a pleasant change of pace.

Not everyone is laughing or applauding today, however. Michelle Malkin said on Fox & Friends that “it’s hard not to have a smidge of schadenfreude,” and the BeliefNet Prayer and Simple blog called Letterman’s actions “an unethical abuse of power” and “a sordid and sick obsession for conquest.” And you don’t have to look too hard to find commentators (often with a decidedly pro-Palin bent) willing to call Letterman a “cheating scumbag.” 

His accused blackmailer, Robert Halderman, a 51-year-old Emmy Award-winning producer for CBS’s “48 Hours,” had until recently been living with former Letterman assistant Stephanie Birkitt. According to Gawker, among Letterman’s special favors to Birkitt were paying her for law school classes. Whatever his motivation, Halderman allegedly threatened Letterman that his world was “about to collapse” from his “ruined reputation.” 

Yet it seems highly unlikely anything of the kind will happen. Unlike a number of public figures whose peccadilloes have been trotted out for the world to scrutinize, Letterman isn’t a public servant. He didn’t conduct his dalliances on the taxpayer’s time or dime. So who cares? His show has been inching up in the ratings of late and his reputation is as an entertainer, not a moralist.

However, the man who has made great sport of the indiscretions of others, saying on his show that Mark Sanford “put himself above his family,” is certainly now fair game for his fellow titans of late night. But beyond the comic jabs he may have coming, there seems little further retribution in store.

Letterman has in the past taken his private crises directly to his audience — he’s discussed the plot to kidnap his son and before that, his brushes with a stalker.  And although most people who aren’t Mike Duvall don’t go around bragging about their on-the-job conquests, Letterman has, even prior to last night’s admission, expressed a droll candor about his relationships. A few weeks ago, when Anne Heche was a guest, she asked him about marriage. He dryly replied, “It’s, you know, everything I hoped it would be” and added, “Some marriages, a pitifully small few, seem to work.” The television icon, who didn’t say when these sexual relationships with co-workers occurred, has been with the mother of his son, Regina Lasko, for 23 years, and married her last March. Last night he said he was going public with the story of the extortion attempt to “protect” his family.

It may be tacky and a potential H.R. violation to mess around with co-workers, but good luck living in a world where people don’t do it. Work and sex go together like beer and sex. Beyond that, where David Letterman puts the contents of his Worldwide Pants isn’t anybody’s business.

It’s not merely that Letterman is amusing, or has never set himself up as the voice of moral authority, or even that the attempted financial crime against him engenders sympathy. It’s that there’s zero indication he did anything that didn’t involve consenting adults. There’s zero indication of harassment or even duplicity toward his wife. Maybe it’s not how you or I would roll, but it’s his life.  Even as he referred to his actions as “creepy,” he was direct and unapologetic and unregretful. And any one of us who’ve ever had a private life knows it’s not for anyone else to judge. “Yes, I have had sex,” he said. Cue applause.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>