LettermanGate: One Week Later

David Letterman successfully navigated his way through three explosive crises -- personal, professional and legal -- by simply telling the truth.
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It is now nearly one week since 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.


Last weekend, the New York Post heavy-panted its way through a largely empty 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 couch.

The Daily Beast unveiled the down-and-dirty on Joe Halderman, the "rogue" CBS 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 jury.

And unlike Gov. Mark Sanford, who justified his 5000-mile field trip to rendezvous with his secret Argentine "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.

This essay originally ran in the October 8th, 2009 edition of USA Today; Bruce Kluger is co-author, with David Tabatsky, of the new book, Dear President Obama: Letters of Hope From Children Across America]