Howard Kurtz: David Letterman Apologizes, Again, and This Time It's Serious
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
David Letterman apologized to his wife Monday for having multiple sexual relationships with members of his "Late Show" staff, telling his audience that she "has been horribly hurt by my behavior."
Adopting a more abject tone than when he disclosed his sexual misbehavior last week, Letterman made clear during a taping that his disclosures have created difficulties in his seven-month marriage to Regina Lasko. He described his conduct as "stupid."
"When something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it," the comedian said. "And at that point, there's only two things that can happen: Either you're going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you're going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed, so let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me."
Letterman's show of contrition came on a day when Robert "Joe" Halderman, the CBS News producer accused in an extortion plot against him, mounted a counteroffensive, with his lawyer arguing that the indictment "makes no sense."
"It's not only the motives, intent and conduct of Joe Halderman," the lawyer, Gerald Shargel, said on NBC's "Today." "It's the motives, intent and conduct of David Letterman, as well. I look forward to cross-examining David Letterman."
While declining to discuss the details of the case, Shargel said that "in the history of extortion attempts, there's never been, as far as I know, someone paying by check. . . . Joe Halderman is not an extortionist."
When Letterman revealed what he called his "creepy" behavior Thursday, he focused mainly on what he described as an attempt to blackmail him. Monday's remarks seemed designed to help repair his public image and mend fences with his family and staff.
"I'm terribly sorry that I put the staff in that position," Letterman said. "Inadvertently, I just wasn't thinking ahead. And, moreover, the staff here has been wonderfully supportive to me, not just through this furor, but through all the years that we've been on television and especially all the years here at CBS, so, again, my thanks to the staff for, once again, putting up with something stupid I've gotten myself involved in."
Letterman married Lasko in March, but has been dating her for more than two decades, and their son, Harry, was born in 2003.
A grand jury indicted Halderman on Friday, charging that he threatened to disclose the sexual relationships and deposited a bogus $2 million check from Letterman, allegedly in exchange for his silence. Halderman pleaded not guilty.
Adding to the pressure on Letterman, a "Late Show" intern from the early 1990s was quoted as saying she willingly had a sexual relationship with Letterman, raising questions about the extent of his extracurricular activities.
Holly Hester told TMZ.com that Letterman broke off their relationship after a year, telling her the age difference between them was too great. "I was madly in love with him at the time," Hester said. "I would have married him. He was hilarious." Although Letterman is an entertainer and not a politician, the fact that Hester was an intern raises uncomfortable echoes of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
In taking on Letterman on Monday -- Shargel called him "a master of manipulating audiences" -- the lawyer was clearly hinting at an argument that the talk-show host and Halderman were engaged in some kind of business deal that went awry. But Manhattan prosecutors have two wiretapped hotel conversations between Letterman's lawyer and Halderman. A person familiar with Letterman's version of events says the talk-show host did not participate in those meetings at New York's Essex House.
The prosecutors also have the one-page letter that Halderman left in Letterman's limousine last month, which they say threatens to expose his personal life in a screenplay unless the comedian paid him a substantial sum. Shargel confirmed to NBC's Ann Curry that Halderman has been "enduring financial problems since his divorce."
A key figure in the case is Stephanie Birkitt, Letterman's assistant, who had a sexual relationship with him before he was married, the person familiar with Letterman's side confirmed. Birkitt later dated Halderman and moved into his Norwalk, Conn., home. Halderman's approach to Letterman came after he and Birkitt had broken up.
An unknown factor at this point is how many subordinates Letterman had sex with. The person familiar with Letterman's side said the comedian was careful to make his televised confession expansive and open-ended, noting that no woman has surfaced to say she felt pressured to have sex with the boss.
Still, the case has become a New York tabloid frenzy, with such headlines as "DAVE'S LOVE GRUDGE."
"Dave must go," New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser wrote Monday. "If not, CBS will have lost any remaining shred of credibility, not to mention common decency."
Some of Halderman's colleagues remain incredulous. CBS correspondent Byron Pitts said he covered the Sept. 11 attacks with Halderman "and he was rock solid. . . . In this age of big egos, Joe was always just Joe. A good and decent man. A guy you'd love to have a beer with, play a round of golf with or go into a war zone with."
Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive, said she was "shocked" by the charges. "He's one of these guys you could send on any story, from features to war zones, and he'd always come back with the story and make deadline," said McGinnis, now associate dean of the journalism school at Stony Brook University. "The Joe I knew was a very smart and talented producer."
But MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who once worked with Halderman, wrote in a blog post: "You know when somebody gets arrested for some horrific or moronic crime . . . you hear somebody say 'that's not the guy I knew'? Not this time. This is exactly the guy we knew at CNN in 1981."
Contacted Monday, Olbermann said that Halderman "lied to people. A lot. Personal betrayal. There was no weeping when he left. . . . I used to say he reminded me a lot of John Belushi, only without the weight or the humor."