Two truths: 1) Politicians will always be appropriate targets of comedians. 2) Politicians will always try to end up portraying themselves as victims of the media. This past week, a good, professional comedian made inappropriate jokes about a politician's family. The politician was right to call him on it.
The comedian should take a second shot at an apology.
Over the last week, David Letterman and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have exchanged words over Palin's visit to New York last weekend -- and Letterman's Monday and Tuesday night monologues and "Top Ten" list regarding the visit. Palin's New York trip included an upstate visit to the National Women's Museum in Seneca Falls, proceeded to a fundraising parade for autism in Westchester County and concluded with a trip to Yankee Stadium, where she was a guest of Rudy Giuliani. Key fact: Palin's middle daughter, Willow, who is 14, accompanied her on the trip. Palin's more famous older daughter, Bristol (of the Levi and Bristol soap-opera) was nowhere around.
On Monday, during his "Late Show" monologue, Letterman referred twice to certain New York figures "having their way" with Palin's "daughter."
The first joke was relatively mild: "She went to Yankee Stadium with Rudy Giuliani... the toughest part of her visit was keeping Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter." Clearly, the target of the joke is Spitzer, New York's disgraced former governor. The next night, Letterman followed that up with a similarly-themed even rougher comment: "One awkward moment at the Yankee game for Sarah Palin; during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez."
Part of the joke clearly alludes to Rodriguez' well-chronicled love life, including philandering with women such as Madonna and Kate Hudson. But the "knocked up" line also refers to the last year's saga of Bristol Palin, Willow's older sister who announced she was pregnant during her mom's vice presidential campaign.
To people just watching the show or reading these jokes on the page, the immediate allusion is probably going to be to Bristol Palin, who has become a celebrity in her own right -- by speaking out against teen pregnancy and gracing People magazine. But the fact remains that Palin brought her 14-year old daughter with her to New York -- Willow, not Bristol. Responding to statements of outrage from both Sarah and Todd Palin, Letterman had an extensive bit on Wednesday, where he offered a sort-of apology, admitting that a few jokes were in "poor taste." But, he says:
"These were not jokes made about her 14-year old daughter;. I would never never make jokes about raping or having sex of any description with a 14-year old child. Look at my record; it's never happened...Here's where you draw the line: So, maybe these are questionable because the girl, who actually was, excuse me, knocked up, is now 18 years old. So the difference there is 14 years old and of legal age...I can't really defend the joke, OK. I agree, ugly and unpleasant, but I would never never think it was funny to use a 14 year old girl as a joke like this, for God's sake:"
Letterman's defense is fair, but the Palins have a case here. It's understandable that they could think he was making a joke about the daughter who did make the trip to New York or that Willow would think Letterman was talking about her. And Sarah Palin could be excused for feeling Letterman had it in for her, after Monday's "Top Ten" segment on the "Highlights of Sarah Palin's trip to New York City" included this line: "Bought make-up at Bloomingdale's to update her slutty flight attendant look."
Out of context, Letterman's "slutty flight attendant" look was, at the very least, tacky. Added to the other jokes at the Palins' expense and it begins to look like Letterman -- or his writers -- have some issues when it comes to women in general.
Friday morning, Palin kept the pressure up, appearing on the "Today" show to call Letterman's response a "convenient excuse." She also underscored the point that it was Willow who was at the game, not "any other daughter."
David Letterman can't win this fight, and he shouldn't. This was a series of jokes that went awry. He would be wise to offer a full, legitimate apology -- not as part of comedic shtick -- and just move on.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.