When David Letterman confessed last week to having had sex with women who work on his show, the real shock wasn’t the affairs themselves (I mean, honestly people) but rather the language he used to describe them.
“I have had sex with women who work on this show,” he said.
He didn’t euphemize. He didn’t dissemble. He didn’t confess alcoholism, drug addiction, or personal weakness. He didn’t appeal to Jesus or the state of New York; didn’t define simple verbs, praise his in-laws, haul out his wounded spouse or dwell on how much he’d let everyone down. It was the most skillful handling of a sex scandal in the modern era.
Compare Letterman’s frank confession to the horrifying spectacle of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford ‘fessing up to infidelity last spring:
“OK. You all ready? Everybody ready? I won't begin in any particular spot….I used to organize hiking trips…I was a campus representative for Eastern Airlines…what I have found in this job is that one desperately needs a break from the bubble…let me lay out that larger story that has attracted so many of you all here…It's going to hurt…let me first of all apologize to my wife Jenny…I would also apologize to my staff, because as much as I did talk about going to the Appalachian Trail…I want to apologize to anybody who lives in South Carolina…I, in a very profound way, have let down the Tom Davises of the world…I'm here because if you were to look at God's laws…But I guess where I'm trying to go with this is that there are moral absolutes…And so the bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife.”
Or, to take a more succinct example, that of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2008:
“I want to briefly address a private matter. I have acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and that violates my—or any—sense of right and wrong.”
And here’s what other cheaters had to say: “I had a liaison with another woman,” ( John Edwards); “I violated the vows of my marriage,” ( John Ensign); “I’m not perfect,” ( Rudy Giuliani); “Shamefully, I engaged in an adult consensual affair,” ( Jim McGreevey); “This was a very serious sin,” ( David Vitter); “There are things in my own life that I have turned to God and have gotten on my knees and prayed about” ( Newt Gingrich).
All of these men had sex. But none of them plainly mentioned the fact of it, as if “seriously sinning” somehow softens the blow. In politics, in the post-“I did not have sexual relations with that woman” years, the conventions for confessions have been ultra-moralistic. Scandal-plagued politicians strenuously avoid any mention of the act itself—icky!—preferring to focus on families, constituents, and the Ten Commandments.
• Gallery: Blackmailing the Stars • Tracy Quan: The New Rules of Bedding the Boss In entertainment, it’s different—thank God. Celebrities seem to be recording most of their illicit sex these days, and few seem less than delighted when the tapes or photographic evidence become public. Those who try to manage the situation generally do so at their peril, as in the recent case of the video, posted by Gawker, showing actors Eric Dane and Rebecca Gayheart fumbling around naked with Kari Ann Peniche, a former teen beauty queen and current known mess. “Although the participants are nude, the tape is not a ‘sex tape,’” wrote their lawyer, Marty Singer, in perhaps the worst public statement ever.
We have no idea what happened between Letterman and these women. And some critics, including the National Organization for Women, have suggested these relationships created a toxic work environment. But in the battle for public opinion, Letterman’s matter-of-factness over the last week, his unfailing use of the word “sex” every time he mentions his transgressions, has worked to his considerable advantage so far. It’s as if the comedian has learned from all the sex scandals he’s mocked in the past. The speech (a nine-minute story about the extortion plot followed by a short admission that the “creepy” acts of which he was accused did, in fact, happen) drew rave reviews from critics the next day.
“It neutralized it,” said Berkeley Professor George Lakoff, a specialist in cognitive linguistics. “There is so much now around not just having sex but all of the unusual forms of sex—strange sexuality, emotional issues around sex—that the act itself turns out to be kind of neutral. It wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t Client No. 9. Every man in the Midwest has sex.”
Letterman’s matter-of-factness over the last week, his unfailing use of the word “sex” every time he mentions his transgressions, has worked to his considerable advantage so far. It’s as if the comedian has learned from all the sex scandals he’s mocked in the past.
The speech left so little for other late-night comedians to work with that the best Jay Leno could do in his early-bird time slot Friday night was to make a lame joke about being happy he was out of late night, and basically tell viewers to go watch Letterman.
One of the more tiresome memes to come out of this ordeal is that Letterman is now a hypocrite because he spent so many years making fun of (his fellow) philanderers. But the comedian has always been brutally self-deprecating; has, even at the height of the Clinton hanky-panky, always held himself up as the ultimate bumbling scoundrel, just as flawed and scandal-prone as anyone else but also undesirably goofy—an unsexed dweeb. “I know what you’re saying: ‘I’ll be darned, Dave’s had sex,’” he said by way of a closer Thursday night.
• Lloyd Grove on Letterman’s Alleged Blackmailer As Maureen Dowd wrote in her column Wednesday, Letterman can’t and won’t be held to the same standards as the cads he’s savaged. “A politician no matter what has to be careful in terms of how he languages something because the one thing that can be thrown at politicians and not comedians is: ‘My children are watching,'” said Joel Silberman, a media fellow at the New Organizing Institute and a communications aide to many Democratic politicians, including Ned Lamont. “While it’s unfortunate that we live in a society in which one’s sexual peccadilloes are food for public consumption, I thought Letterman handled it with a bit more honesty and directness, and got rid of it.”
The scandal is far from dead, of course. The New York Post and others are still in dogged pursuit of new details and more mistresses. Letterman also has long trials ahead, both at home with wife Regina Lasko and also in court, against alleged extortionist Joe Halderman, a longtime producer at 48 Hours (another surprise from this story: Who knew 48 Hours was still on the air?). The late-night host has seen enough public figures destroyed by private indiscretions that he wisely made a few jokes about how he hopes to keep his job. CBS expressed support last week and has been mum on the topic ever since—perhaps, as Nikki Finke was the first to point out, because Chief Executive Les Moonves and his boss Sumner Redstone are both first-class philanderers, the former having swiped his second wife from the CBS Early Show, while still married to his first.
But, barring new revelations, it looks like The Late Show could carry on unscathed. As it should. After all, it’s just sex.
Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.