If David Letterman had to be blackmailed over past sexual misconduct, he could not have chosen a better time. His on-air disclosure of the "terrible things" he'd done, and the subsequent threats he faced from a would-be extortionist, came four days after Roman Polanski's arrest on a three-decade-old warrant and mere hours before the front-page of the New York Times front-page story revealed additional details about the "aid" Senator John Ensign gave to his mistress's husband.
Letterman reportedly makes "well over" $30 million a year. Even if we round down, the blackmail demand was less than 7 percent of his annual salary, the equivalent of about $2,700 for a man who makes 40 grand: not a bad price for silence.
But Letterman, despite whatever idiotic (or worse?) things he may have done with women on his staff, was wise enough to realize that silence isn't permanent and peace of mind can't be bought.
This is a lesson John Ensign could have learned earlier. After all, Letterman's not the first man who's been tempted to pay hush money. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino turned to authorities when a woman threatened to accuse him of rape if he did not pay her money demands. So did Bill Cosby when a woman claiming to be his illegitimate daughter threatened to ruin his Huxtable-honed reputation. When faced with a choice, these men manned up. They ripped off the band-aid.
Not Ensign. As facts about the aftermath of his extramarital affair continue to drip, a troubling picture emerges of payments made to Doug Hampton, Ensign's former staffer and the husband of his mistress, Cindy, also an aide. That $96,000 tax-free gift to Hampton's parents -- supposedly made "out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends during a difficult time" -- was already "hinky," as Letterman might say. But now we learn that the payment came on the heels of Ensign's offer to pay the Hamptons a hundred grand as severance to leave his employ. Hampton's notes from the conversation memorialize another part of the quid pro quo: "No contact what so ever with Cindy!" Even worse? Revelations that Ensign helped Hampton secure a position with a political consulting firm from which he'd go on to lobby his former employer.
Here's another lesson Ensign should have learned: When you choose to buy silence, you tarnish yourself. Once the deal is struck and the payments made, who can tell who hurt whom? Are the Hamptons opportunists who shook down a C Street politician whose career hinged on his squeaky clean image with value voters? Or is Ensign the bully who ended the careers of a couple who were once the Ensign's best friends, casting them off with a pittance of a gift and false promises of future professional help? Who knows. And, really, who cares? They're all tainted by the stench of cover-up.
Roman Polanski could learn something here, as well. He also did bad things. The lurid details of just how bad were never litigated in court, but he plead guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen-year-old. Whoopi Goldberg can claim it's not "rape-rape." And that paragon of sexual morals Woody Allen can sign a petition claiming Polanski was treated unfairly by the prosecutor's office and judicial system. But the time to make those claims was more than thirty years ago. When you spend three decades hoping your problems will just go away, you lose the moral high ground. And a $500,000 civil settlement with the victim settles only her private civil case, not the state's separate criminal prosecution.
I don't know what David Letterman did to get blackmailed, but I'm not sure it matters -- at least not on this point. He didn't run away, and he didn't reach for his wallet. He owned up. He didn't allow himself to be controlled. It might be too late for Ensign to learn anything from Letterman's "little story," but I hope Polanski's defenders in the entertainment industry were watching and pass on some advice to their friend: Rip off the band-aid. Stop fighting extradition, come back to the United States, and say what you should have said thirty years ago.
Follow Alafair Burke on Twitter: www.twitter.com/alafairburke