Letterman classes up his sex scandal

The "Late Show" host offers a candid apology and reveals himself as basically human

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published October 6, 2009 7:06AM (EDT)

David Letterman is sorry. He's sorry to his staff, sorry to his wife and -- heck, why not -- still sorry to Sarah Palin. Such was the "Late Night" host's sex scandal apology during Monday night's show. As things kicked off, he stood before a roaring studio audience. Someone shouted "We love you, Dave!" and then Letterman launched into his opening monologue: "Right now, I would give anything to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail. I get in the car this morning and the navigation lady wasn't speaking to me. Ouch!"

After the obligatory jokes there was the obligatory apology (video below). Sitting behind his desk, he explained: "When you're blackmailed, its a crime and you're a victim." It seemed he was going down the martyr route -- but, no, he was simply putting things in fair perspective: "Now, being a victim, and if your behavior is responsible for hurting people, that's a separate part of the equation." Those hurt people include his current female staffers who have been relentlessly harassed by the press: "I would like to set the record straight. No, I am not having sex with these women. Those episodes are in the past. My apologies for subjecting them to that vulnerability and to being browbeaten and humiliated." In case that wasn't clear enough, he went on:

I'm terribly sorry that I put the staff in that position. Inadvertently, I just wasn't thinking ahead. And, moreover, the staff here has been wonderfully supportive to me, not just through this furor, but through all the years that we've been on television and especially all the years here at CBS, so, again, my thanks to the staff for, once again, putting up with something stupid I've gotten myself involved in.

It's an appropriate apology. Assuming that his affairs were consensual and that he didn't offer post-coital job promotions, the major impact on the workplace comes as a result of the public revelation of the scandal (which, let's remember, is a result of alleged extortion). Regardless of whether it was a hostile work environment before, it's certainly an uncomfortable one now. Imagine being a lady staffer at "The Late Show" as newspapers headlines trumpet, "Dirty Dave's Harem" and "The Mate Show: David Letterman's studio 'love nest.'" No matter if Letterman had a reputation for courting female employees before, he does now.

A friend raised an excellent point in an e-mail to me: "His apology to his staff raises an under-covered feminist issue: Bosses who are hound-dogs taint the reputation of their women subordinates who don't sleep with them," she wrote. "I won't mention names, but when I had a boss like that, a lot of people assumed that of me, yuck, and I fucking hated it. To this day, I think people think that helped me." There is no question his staff is currently playing a game of whodunnit; all female employees are now suspect. That's especially true for those who have climbed the ranks, and many have at the "Late Show": Three of the five executive producers are female and Letterman has a reputation for promoting women. How sad that instead of celebrating that, many will start questioning it.

After Letterman made public amends to his staff, he turned to the subject of his wife for the first time since the scandal broke. This is where things become painful: "Now the other thing is my wife, Regina," he said. "She has been horribly hurt by my behavior, and 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." He continued in this matter-of-fact manner and stared straight into the camera: "So, let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me.” Well, that was honest and basically human, wasn't it? Say what you will about his personal choices, but in this he was a class act.

That said, it was nice when Letterman's partner was left out of this, just as it's refreshing to see a politician's spurned wife skip the stand-by-your-man press conference. Surely a seasoned P.R. person decided it was critical for Letterman to deliver a traditional mea culpa. But these sorts of nationally televised apologies are never about the wife -- they're about public opinion. Anything that goes toward legitimately healing their relationship happens in private. Here's hoping that's happening, too.

In a Letterman-esque transition, I'll conclude all this seriousness with some funny business. After delivering his many apologies, he offered a final one: "Now, also, because what can it hurt, once again I'd like to apologize to the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. I'm terribly, terribly sorry."

Tracy Clark-Flory

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