03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rethinking David Letterman: Exactly How Are We Supposed to Feel About All This?

I want to believe Maureen Dowd when she says the whole David Letterman affair is simply about "the erotic pull of proximity." But I'm not sure I'm there yet.

After a week of breathless reportage about the comic's admitted flings with female staffers -- and it's a sign of the media times that it feels like this story has been around so much longer -- one thing is obvious.

We have not yet, as a pop culture-breathing, tabloid-fueled nation, decided how we feel about powerful older guys seducing the young women who work for them.

I agree with MoDo on one thing; this is not a Polanski-level offense. Given what we know and how those involved are reacting, it doesn't seem likely anyone was forced to do anything they didn't want to happen.

But this is an example of a powerful entertainer having sexual relationships with young women who depend on him for their income and their careers. Much as I hate the idea of delving deeper into the details of these relationships, we don't know enough to say whether Letterman broke any laws or crossed any lines.

Brilliant as Dowd's column was -- dotted with dazzling pop culture references to Hannibal Lecter and Mad Men -- it seems to me she gives Letterman an awfully wide benefit of the doubt. This may be the first time I've seen a column gently defending an entertainer by noting two TV executives married subordinates. And Dowd, who has appeared on Letterman's show several times, doesn't spare a line to let us know how she feels about the guy personally, and whether those feelings have affected her conclusions.

And though Dowd downplays any connection to Bill Clinton, this reminds me exactly of the moment the Monica Lewinsky allegations were confirmed. Once again, an admired public figure admits a relationship with a woman many, many years his junior, who worked for him, after circumstances compelled the admission.

Most men, lacking the armor of celebrity, wealth, comedic genius and fan affection, would be less esteemed in the public sphere. Does Letterman get a pass, as Clinton did from many feminists, because we like him so?

I've written a brief analysis for a friend at TV Week collecting opinions from columnists around the country, and I don't think Letterman's show is in danger, unless there are substantially skeevy new revelations coming about his conduct. Any ratings bump probably won't be sustained enough to translate into advertising dollars and surely doesn't compensate for the public humiliation factor.

If anything, the constant media attention may help the accused suspect -- this morning, the Today show was still leading with the story -- whose strategy seems to consist of trying to scare everyone involved into avoiding a trial.

And to those whose knees are already jerking to pile on the "who cares?" comments, I would only say this: Such incidents help us all decide how we feel about this stuff if and when it happens in our own lives -- a teachable moment for some, a cautionary tale for others.

Right now, I'm feeling a little disappointed in a performer who always seemed to have a strong moral compass. And maybe a little disappointed in the people making excuses for him, too.