Apologies are becoming as much a part of Late Show with David Letterman as Top 10 lists. In June the host apologized, twice, for joking about one of Sarah Palin's daughters getting "knocked up." On Oct. 1, Letterman, prompted by a failed blackmail attempt, revealed that he had had sex with female employees. He followed up two shows later with a sober apology to his wife. And for good measure, he joked, "once again I'd like to apologize to the former governor of Alaska."
Letterman took heat when Howard Stern is criticizing your treatment of women, you know you've screwed up and the questions came thick: Would viewers turn to Conan O'Brien or Jay Leno, if CBS didn't have to get rid of him altogether? And could Letterman tell sex jokes about politicians anymore?
No one knows the answer to the first question (much will depend on what other shoes drop in the case against his alleged extortionist), but Americans don't have a long track record of denying themselves amusement to punish celebrities. Woody Allen still makes movies, Rush Limbaugh remains on the air, Don Imus is back on TV, and Michael Jackson inspired greater mourning than most world leaders would.
As to the second question, in one sense the rules are different for celebrities than for politicians. But in another way, Letterman is exactly like a pol. With politicians and personalities alike, we tend to overlook transgressions, barring an actual crime, if they deliver for us, be it laughs or pork. Of course, we are always ready to be deeply outraged by moral failings of the people we didn't like to begin with.
That's all the more true of Letterman, who has been a target of conservatives for his attacks on John McCain during the campaign, his perceived friendliness to Barack Obama and, of course, the Palin jokes. A columnist at the conservative New York Post called for Letterman's immediate firing, and pundit Michelle Malkin said on Fox News, "It's hard not to have a smidge of schadenfreude for somebody who's shown contempt for women in public ... especially over the campaign, and how he's treated Sarah Palin and her family." (Still, post-Palin, Letterman has had his best ratings in years against O'Brien.)
This is not to defend anything Letterman did. That his creepy his word relationships were consensual (as far as we know) does not change the fact that he had sex with women he had the power to fire or that he cheated on his longtime girlfriend (now wife). But now that he's become fodder for the great American political-blather machine as did the newly reignited Roman Polanski rape case and Chicago's Olympic bid the degree of his transgressions is largely beside the point. There are too many people who are too invested in having a certain opinion of him ever to judge him impartially.
Whether Letterman rises or falls, he is guaranteed his own chapter in the Holy Book of Partisan Grievance, that august tome through which, with every new controversy, culture warriors feverishly flip for examples of the other side's hypocrisy. You wanted Imus fired for what he said! Well, you defended Limbaugh for his drug use! What about Bill Clinton! What about Newt Gingrich! Dan Rather! Mel Gibson! On and on, back through time, like warring ethnic clans tracing the righteousness of their spite to payback for the reprisal for an atrocity in the 13th century.
Early on, Letterman handled his embarrassment in a way politicians in scandals could learn from: quickly, directly and without excuses. But there could still be fallout, personal and professional. He might alienate some traditional-minded former Leno viewers. Even barring sexual-harassment lawsuits or intern eruptions, don't expect Obama to be booked on the show again anytime soon.
Context is everything, though, and Letterman has always maintained a public persona as and I say this with affection a jerk. Entertainers suffer when their scandals undercut their image (see Peewee Herman), but Letterman has usually kept as chilly about his personal life as he keeps the Ed Sullivan Theater. If you boycotted the work of every heel, liar and philanderer, you'd opt out of much of the creative output of human history.
And the idea that Letterman is a hypocrite if he jokes about political sexcapades after his own? I'm not sure that flies. Comedians don't joke about sex scandals because they themselves are morally pure. They do it because sex scandals are funny. Letterman's is too, and maybe as hypocrisy insurance he's already been skewering himself over it.
But Letterman may benefit from the fact that we're hypocrites at least to the extent that we compartmentalize our entertainers' morals and values from our own, and from their performances. David Letterman may indeed be a creep, but lucky for him, he's a funny one.