How Letterman Controls a Crisis

When David Letterman sat down at his desk like he does every night after his monologue and told everyone he’d conducted affairs with women he worked with, the world did not end. No one at CBS called for his head on a platter. His live studio audience did not get up and walk out of the room. As far as we can tell at this moment, his advertisers have not elected to pull their ads from his show. We’ll see on Monday, I suppose, whether his ratings will be affected, but my guess is the safe one: if there is any change, it will probably be an increase in viewers curious to see what else might happen live on his program.

Let’s be clear here: no one likes cheaters, no one is cheering on philandering bosses, no one is giving a high five to yet another high profile scandalous affair. But there is a clear difference between what is happening right now to David Letterman and what has happened in the past to other adulterous public figures. And that difference can, in part, be attributed to Letterman’s handling of the situation. It really was the best of all possible confessions.

Watch this video if you haven’t yet.

Blackmail. Secrets. DA involvement. This is dark stuff. But it actually is pretty funny, hearing him tell it. This audience is giving more laughs than I’ve seen in a late night program lately. Letterman even asks, a little coyly, “Now why is that funny?” Oh, you know why, Dave. It’s funny because you framed it as a story about a blackmailer, someone who is given a pathetic sniveling voice when you do your imitation of him. And because you started the story sharing a brutal piece of honesty: We have all done terrible things. It could have been us getting in our car and finding that blackmailer’s note. Okay, sure, maybe we wouldn’t have $2 million to cough up, but we all have something we would keep hidden at any cost.

Don’t lie to me. You know it’s true.

So Dave Letterman tells us his side of the story, on his show, to his audience who already loves him. He confesses everything and is strikingly honest. What is there for us to be angry about? No one, as far as we know, has come forward to say they were forced into having these affairs with him. We can’t yet accuse him of being a predatory man who uses his status to solicit sex. Some might say that his public confession will bring undue shame to his family, but the story was going to break one way or another; wasn’t it better that Letterman did it himself on his own turf? Would a soulless statement from his lawyer have been a better way to go? You’re crazy if you think so.

Remember Clinton? His sin was not born of an affair (he’d had plenty before Monica), but we found sin in his dodging of the truth. Lying to his country (his audience) was a bigger deal not just legally but socially. The same is true of all politicians’ affairs.

Some will call Letterman a hypocrite for mocking the men who are caught “hiking the Appalachian trail” and then having affairs of his own, but those accusers are missing the point. We don’t laugh at those men because we hate extramarital sex; we laugh at those men because they built their careers around the fact that they are upstanding family men who would never act in such a way. Dave Letterman is a comedian. His public persona has never relied on that image. It might be hypocritical if he told people not to make jokes about his situation, but he’s not a hypocrite for conducting affairs. Hell, some might even applaud him for confessing now, far in advance of the story becoming public. That’s not something a politician would do, right?

The fact is, we’re tired of seeing a guy in a suit standing at a podium on the steps of some government building, stone-faced wife at his side, and reading from a prepared statement that sounds like every other prepared statement, while detailed stories of all the horrible stuff he did rolls into the newswires. We are, perhaps surprisingly, very forgiving. We prize honesty, humbleness, and good humor above the “done thing.” While no one condones the transgressions of someone like Letterman, his candor was a refreshing change of pace and a reminder that transparency is not just a buzzword. It works.