Learn from the Master
06.13.11 10:49 PM ET
Weiner Should’ve Taken the Letterman Approach
In the past few months, Anthony Weiner has made many stupid mistakes, starting with mistake No. 1: He took pictures of his penis and emailed them to girls he met online over the Internet, which could then be emailed to the world (and Andrew Breitbart). Let’s not even talk about Mistakes No. 2, 3, and 4, which include: taking full-frontal nude shots, exchanging non-explicit tweets with a high school girl, and backpedaling on just about everything he said at his June 6 press conference.
Which brings us to the biggest mistake of all: When it came to his wiener, the congressman should have immediately adopted the Letterman Approach instead of fumbling through the Bill Clinton, the Tiger Woods, the Eliot Spitzer, and the Mark Sanford.
Remember David Letterman’s sex scandal? It’s vague, isn’t it? Happened a year or two ago or something. There was something about a bribe and an envelope and women on set and a wife or long-term girlfriend, and … we can’t remember exactly?
A refresher course: In October 2009, Letterman found a package in his car from TV producer Joe Haldermann demanding $2 million dollars, or else details of Letterman’s.
infidelities would be written about in a screenplay or novel. Letterman had slept with employees on staff, including Stephanie Birkitt (Haldermann’s ex) while he had been with Regina Lasko, whom he’d dated for 20-plus years before tying the knot just six months before the scandal. Haldermann was indicted, plead guilty and went to prison. The reason we can’t remember much about the Letterman sex scandal is that David Letterman demonstrated how to properly handle one: He owned it. His open door, “I’m a guilty jerk!” approach meant that every detail that came out afterward was anticlimactic, and soon faded into obscurity.
These seven steps should hereby be referred to as the Letterman Approach.
(A warning. You can’t go partway on the Letterman Approach. Go whole hog, or do not bother at all. It will backfire, as it has on Weiner.)
1. Admit Everything Before the Press Does It For You.
Before the leaks and girlfriends come out of the woodwork, spill it. Before the envelope containing salacious details makes it into the grubby hands of the media, tell everything.
This was Weiner’s first mistake. He lied when the direct message on Twitter was mistakenly sent to his entire Twitter following. If this had been the only crotch shot in the Weiner collection, it might have been an acceptable lie—“I’ve been hacked!”—but because there was a virtual library of penis and pec shots sent to a plethora of women around the world who stood to make a buck out of his shame, lying was the first mistake. If he didn’t pay them off, they would find a way to get paid via the media.
He also messed up when he said: “Last Friday night, I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as a direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle.”
However, it is clear that the crotch shot wasn’t intended as a joke at all. Strike one.
He also claimed that he believed all the people he had sexted with were of legal age, but it subsequently came out that he had followed on Twitter and traded direct messages with a teenager who seemed pretty sexually attracted to him (and a mite bit obsessed).
Letterman knew better. As soon as he was alerted to blackmail plot, he ‘fessed up. “Now of course, what was it, what was all the creepy stuff?” he said. “The creepy stuff—that I had sex with women who worked for me on the show. My response to that is—Yes I have. Would it be embarrassing? Perhaps it would, especially for the women.” (Notice, he used plural, “women.”)
By doing this, Letterman had gotten ahead of the story and taken it by the reins.
2. Cover Up Nothing.
When Letterman came out about his sex scandal, he could have downplayed the seriousness of the allegations—after all, the case was now criminal and was going to court, and he was more in control of the situation. Instead, he was forthright about all the dirty details. What emerged afterward was therefore not surprising—the women were unearthed (as he had confessed), but thankfully there were no full-frontal Dave shots. He then continued to address the reports at length on his show.
Weiner met this challenge at half-mast. He admitted that there were as many as six women (five have been found so far). The other problem is that prior to the June 6 press conference, Weiner had instructed his flirtees not to talk–-an instruction that they immediately undermined by producing conversations showing these instructions, causing Weiner’s sincere public confession to seem like an insincere bunch of hooey.
In the Letterman Approach, no one is asked to lie on your behalf. They are simply not stupid and understand discretion is in the best interest of all parties. It helps if they come to your defense and talk about how nice you were, too.
3. Admit You Are a Big Jerk.
Weiner did offer a very blunt mea culpa: “You know, I don't know what I was thinking. This was a destructive thing to do. I'm apologetic for doing it. It was deeply, deeply hurtful to the people I care about the most. It was something I did that was just wrong, and I regret it.”
Still Letterman did him one better and called his himself “creepy” and “stupid.” Just tell the world your penis rules you—which most women already know.
4. They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab, I Said No, No, No.
Though Weiner originally said: “This is not something that can be treated away; this is my own personal mistake,” he has since backpedaled and sought a temporary leave of absence so he can get “treatment.”
Rehab is a dumb PR stunt that nobody buys. Weak sauce, Weiner.
5. Say You Are Sorry To Everyone Over And Over.
“I’m sorry.” “I apologize to my wife.” “I’m sorry to my constituents.” “I’m a jerkface.” Say these words 200 different ways; learn them in 20 languages; repeat in as many different combinations as humanly possible. And then do it again.
In this Letterman rule, Weiner followed through at the press conference. He said: “At the outset, I’d like to make it clear that I have made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about the most, and I’m deeply sorry. I have not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friends and supporters, and the media.”
During the press conference he said the word, “sorry” eleven times and the word “apologize” nine times.
But Letterman’s apology went on for several days (weeks?). Even though during his initial confession he said, “I don’t plan to say much more about this particular topic,” the next week he was at it again. This time, he profusely apologized to his staff, and more important, to his wife.
“My thanks to the staff for putting up with something as stupid as I’ve gotten myself involved in,” he said. “The other thing is my wife Regina has been horribly hurt by my behavior. When something happens like that and you’ve hurt someone you try to fix it. … And let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me.”
6. Stick With the Story. (And See No. 1 and No. 2)
The biggest hurdle that Weiner is facing is that the women he’s flirted with are coming out of the closet in drips and drabs and extending the story well past its sell-by date. And each one serves to make him look more like a creep and a liar.
As a result, he’s had to backpedal on much of what he said at the press conference—he’s not going to rehab (now he is), he’s not going to resign (now he’s taking a leave). It makes him look like someone without conviction and as each new leak comes up, it makes his cohorts in Congress look like they have egg on their face: the Dems have to look like they are equal opportunity witch hunters and are calling for his head. At this point, Weiner is all but offering it on a platter.
Perhaps Weiner should consider Dave’s advice, from the third part of his confessions: “I want to remind you of something. This is only Phase 1 of the scandal. Next week is Phase 2. Phase 2, I go on Oprah* and sob.”
*Sorry, Weiner, Barbara Walters will have to do.*Sorry, Weiner, Barbara Walters will have to do.
7. Make Fun Of Yourself And Take All Punches.
In the days—and weeks—following his own scandal, in between earnestly addressing his audience, Letterman would poke fun at the No. 1 topic of the day—himself. Of course, he had an advantage that most public figures do not in that he runs his own talk show.
On October 6, 2009, five days after he broke the story, he appeared on stage grimacing. The news had been all over the tabloids over the weekend. He started with a Sanford reference: “I’ll be honest with you folks, right now, I would give anything to be hiking on the Appalachian trail.”
When the Tiger Woods fiasco happened two months later, Letterman made no bones about the fact that he could just barely afford to poke fun at the disgraced golfer, because, well, you know. It helped his comedy and he became even more sympathetic. “I wish he would stop calling me for advice!” he joked about Woods.
The best thing that Weiner has done thus far was taking questions at the press conference. He could have gone the Spitzer route—made his statement and walked off—but the fact that Weiner stood before the press and answered a humiliating barrage of questions scored him several points with the viewing public—and possibly voters. It achieved the same thing that Letterman’s jokes at his own expense achieved: a little sympathy for the devil.