Last night on Late Show, David Letterman took to his desk and delivered a second—or depending on your view of his sincerity last week, first, or first-and-a-halfth—apology to the family of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for a joke he made last week about Palin’s daughter getting “knocked up” at a Yankee game. Sober and snark-free, Letterman reiterated that he meant to refer to Palin’s 18-year-old (and once pregnant-out-of-wedlock) daughter Bristol, and not 14-year-old Willow (who was actually at the game). But, he added, “The joke in and of itself can’t be defended,” took the blame for making it and for its reception and apologized, in so many words. It was a straight-talking, decent speech, and it should end the week’s brouhaha.
The operative word being should.
I’m not referring to how Sarah Palin and her family took the apology. As I write, there’s been no reaction. Last week, Palin pretty much said Letterman was lying to claim that he meant Bristol—she called Matt Lauer “naive” for buying the explanation—and seemed intent to press and maintain outrage. Update: This morning, Palin accepted Dave’s apology thus:
Of course it’s accepted on behalf of young women, like my daughters, who hope men who “joke” about public displays of sexual exploitation of girls will soon evolve. Letterman certainly has the right to “joke” about whatever he wants to, and thankfully we have the right to express our reaction. And this is all thanks to our U.S. military women and men putting their lives on the line for us to secure America’s right to free speech–in this case, may that right be used to promote equality and respect.
But really this controversy doesn’t belong to Palin and Letterman anymore, and both of them only have so much power to end it. That distinction belongs to the army of cable-news and online commenters using it as a proxy for every dispute under the sun, and they are too well invested in keeping it going. Yea, verily, it has been written down in The Holy Book of Partisan Grievance, and it shall be cited henceforth in culture wars to come.
You know how that works. A controversy like this comes up, and suddenly there’s a mad dash to the history books to cherrypick decontextualized examples and catch the other side in an act of hypocritical defense of / outrage against humor. Well, what about when Jay Leno made essentially the same joke last year!, Letterman’s defenders cried. But what about Imus!, Palin’s partisans countered. CBS fired Imus for his remarks! Well, what about all the jokes people made about Chelsea Clinton? Yes, but what about the ones about the Bush daughters? You’re a hypocrite! No, you are!
On and on it goes, the grievance and counter-grievance, the gotcha and counter-gotcha. And thus the discussion over a freaking tacky late-night joke becomes like adjudicating an ethnic conflict in the Balkans, where yesterday’s atrocity is rationalized by a massacre during World War I, which in turn was righteous payback for some atrocity in 1484, which in turn… Good Lord.
Now, look, I’m not exactly impartial in this one. I think Letterman’s joke was tasteless but not beyond the pale, and the Palins had a legitimate gripe about it. (His “slutty flight attendant” joke about Palin, meanwhile, was the time-honored tack of ripping on a politician’s physical vulnerabilities—John Edwards’ hair, Bill Clinton’s pudge—with the added twist that always attaches to female pols, who are either too sexy or too unsexy.)
But I’ll go back to what I wrote back when Imus was drummed off the air: that context, and often intangible factors, matter—in this case, that unlike Imus, Letterman does not in fact have a vast history of making the kind of joke he was accused of. And I believe that knowing this, Palin pressed the outrage anyway, willfully insisting that Letterman was referring to Willow—there was too much advantage to the “he thinks rape is funny” narrative—and tying it into the them-vs.-us politics she took on national tour last fall.
So we’ll see where it goes. In the meantime, there’s still a protest scheduled outside Letterman’s Ed Sullivan Theater in New York today. Anyone think it’ll be canceled? By the way, after Letterman’s remarks, the band played him off with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” a song choice that’s already caused umbrage online. Maybe they can call for Paul Shaffer’s head too.