By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Don Imus apologized.
Mel Gibson apologized. So did Michael Richards and the Greaseman (didn't do much good).
Politicians do it all the time. Shock jocks, actors and athletes do. Even Bill O'Reilly has done it.
So why can't David Letterman bring himself to apologize?
In another one of those delicious, you-know-you-love-it-even-as-you-roll-your-eyes media flaps, Letterman has been fending off an aggrieved Sarah Palin after she took offense at several of his late-night cracks.
Palin didn't rise to the bait when Letterman derided the Alaska governor's "slutty flight attendant look" on Monday's show. But she did object when Letterman, satirizing the Palin family's visit to New York and a Yankees game, said: "There was one awkward moment during the seventh inning stretch. Her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez."
Tasteless? Well, everyone seems to agree about that. Beyond that, you'll get an argument.
After Palin deemed the "knocked up" line "a sexually perverted comment" aimed at the family's 14-year-old daughter, Willow, Letterman issued a clarification of sorts, saying he was referring to 18-year-old Bristol Palin, who is an unwed mother. "I would never, never make jokes about raping or having sex of any description with a 14-year-old girl," he said on the air, but conceded that the line was "an act of desperation."
But that's not exactly an apology, not even the weaselly "If anyone was offended by my remarks, I'm sorry . . ." variety. And it's far short of what Palin says she wants.
"He doesn't have to apologize to me," she told host Matt Lauer on the "Today" show yesterday morning. "I would like to see him apologize to young women across the country for contributing to that kind of . . . that thread that is throughout our culture that makes it sound like it's okay to talk about young girls in that way, where it's kind of okay, accepted and funny to talk to about statutory rape. It's not cool, it's not funny."
For good measure, Palin also got off a blast at the media for their "double standard" in shielding the children of President Obama ("the candidate who must be obeyed") from attention, but not her own.
Letterman's camp gave no indications yesterday that it intended to respond. If he does have any thoughts about issuing a mea culpa on the air, it won't come until next week. The Letterman show that aired last night was taped earlier in the week, CBS said, before the Palin spat erupted.
Letterman shouldn't apologize, if only to preserve the comedian's prerogative to satirize the powerful and to be offensive on occasion, says Erin Jackson, a rising local stand-up comic. "People read things into jokes that you never meant and never intended," she says. "If [Letterman] got into a cycle of apologizing for a joke or comment, you don't know where it would stop, or how far back you'd have to go to satisfy everyone. I don't think he can be who he is if he started doing that."
Adds Jackson: "When you give it to everyone equally, as Letterman does, as all the late-night people do, you kind of have to take it. It's like demanding an apology from the National Enquirer -- it's better to just get over it."
Maybe so. But Letterman strayed into dangerous territory when he decided to poke fun at a public figure's child. Sen. John McCain learned this lesson in 1998 when he made a crude joke about Chelsea Clinton, then 18. He apologized, both to the president and in the press.
On the other hand, Letterman wasn't talking about race, which has proved to be one of the most dangerous topics for comedy or commentary. Unlike racially charged comments that brought Imus, Gibson, Richards and Doug "Greaseman" Tracht low, Letterman's joke is milder and doesn't rise to a career-threatening level, says Ken Sunshine, a veteran New York public-relations executive. Which means, Sunshine says, that the pressure on Letterman to apologize publicly is low.
In fact, Sunshine says, the Letterman-Palin skirmish has been good for both sides: Letterman gets a booster shot of media-whipped "controversy" at a moment when he could finally be poised to surge past Conan O'Brien and "The Tonight Show" for late-night TV supremacy, while Palin seized an opportunity to appeal to her "base" of conservatives.
"Letterman is a master of this, and he's milking it for all it's worth," Sunshine said, citing similar ratings-boosting "feuds" that Letterman has engaged in with McCain and Oprah Winfrey. "But people often underestimate [Palin] and underestimate her following. She's exploiting this very smartly. She's speaking to her core base that feels maligned. She's playing the faux feminist . . . and the family-values representative. It's extraordinary that she can bring this off."
"Poor Mitt Romney," he adds. "He's probably wondering, 'Where do I get some of this?' "