I’m not so sure Letterman’s confession – possibly the most-discussed since St. Augustine’s – deserved to be held up as a model for future public figures who cheat on their partners. I agree with Fran Langum (aka Blue Gal) that Ensign, Sanford, and Vitter could learn a little something from Letterman in the “don’t be an effin hypocrite” department. Then again, Sanford could teach Spitzer a little something about how to face the cameras alone, unshielded by the woman he done wrong, and I agree with figleaf that Letterman can be commended for keeping his wife out of it. But I don’t quite agree when figleaf gives Letterman credit for “acknowledging and lamenting the potential consequences but neither whining about nor denying responsibility for those consequences.” And I really take issue when sharp people whose writing I value – such as Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon – seem to take Letterman’s confession at face value:
Just some straight-up, self-deprecating honesty. What a pleasant change of pace.
Yes, it was a pleasant change of pace. It was also a highly manipulative bit of television that worked precisely because it was pleasant, self-deprecating, and funny. It was a masterful example of spin. And so a little amateur deconstruction (no need for Derrida, just a little skepticism) is in order.
Consider how the confession begins. Letterman asks the audience if they’re up for a story. Of course they are! Williams gives a very accurate description/transcription of what comes next:
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.
But a lot goes on between Letterman’s revelation of blackmail and the audience’s approving applause. Not far into the story, he says that he’s been accused of doing some “creepy things.” The audience guffaws because, well, he’s our Dave, right? Why, he’s just a nice cornfed Midwestern boy! He’s the same Dave my very own grandma watched faithfully during the last years of her life!
A moment later, he mentions the “creepy things” again. More laughter. My mom’s take on this is that the audience was tittering with embarrassment by then, but I don’t think that’s quite right, because unlike us viewers at home, they wouldn’t have known the denouement just yet. Besides, it’s only Dave, and he’s not warning the audience to hold their laughter, so his actions can’t really be all that creepy, can they?
Meanwhile, the blackmail story is absolutely compelling. We’re transfixed by the blackmailer’s greed, his audacity, the idea of a $2 million check. (How do you cash one of those, anyway?) In the face of such overweening evil, there’s no way Dave’s pecadillos can even rate.
And so, between the drama of blackmail and the ludicrousness of Dave calling his own behavior creepy and his self-deprecating humor … why, he didn’t do anything so wrong at all! We can keep laughing! Maybe we’re even cheering because our pal who’s always joked about never getting any, finally got some!
Now, I’m not saying that Letterman is the new Leni Riefenstahl. That would be silly. But I do think that he very skillfully framed his behavior in the most benign light possible, and that this has deflected a lot of criticism. He’s also been shielded, as Tracy Clark-Flory points out, by the fact that he’s no Roman Polanski; no one is accusing Letterman of giving Quaaludes and champagne to a child and then raping her. That shouldn’t stop us from thinking seriously about the ramifications of workplace affairs. (Update, 10/11/09: See this follow-up post on the ethical and political problems caused by horndog bosses.)
I’m skeptical that anyone is ever well served by dramatic public confessions of sexual peccadilloes. We rarely need to know about them, unless there’s a real public interest angle such as a governor simply skipping the country for a few days. When people’s sexual misdeeds go public, I’d rather they deal with the fallout in private. But the media will keep serving them up as scandals, and we’ll continue to be fascinated, and as long as that’s the case, we’ll be better off if we don’t mistake great storytelling and droll humor for actual honesty. With clever framing, it’s possible to tell all and still be disingenuous.
(The video keeps disappearing from YouTube, which is why I cited Williams’ description instead. I’m embedding it below but fully expect that this version, too, will be pulled. If so, try going to YouTube and searching on “David Letterman confession.”)