On Friday, David Letterman launches his new series, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” with his first guest: former President Barack Obama. During the hour-long Netflix show, Letterman will yuk it up with the former commander in chief in the first of a reported six-episode run.
Coming on the high heels of the Golden Globes’ Mourn-In, #Me Too, Time’s Up Platitude Party, Letterman’s return to the small screen left me baffled. While Letterman is no Weinstein, the Indiana native’s previous workplace behavior equally merits censure from the sisterhood: He had sex with numerous female “Late Show” staffers.
Maybe They Won’t Remember I Confessed Under Pressure
Letterman confessed the extramarital affairs to a studio audience—and presumably first to his wife and son—in October 2009. But his mea culpa came only after Letterman testified before a grand jury of his affairs and a fellow CBS employee’s attempt to extort money from Letterman in exchange for his silence. The bizarre blackmail twist provided the golly-gee homespun humorist some shelter from a proper reckoning at the time.
When he returns to prime time later this week, Letterman may hope that memories are short, that the public will remember him solely as a victim of blackmail, or, at a bare minimum, believe the sex involved merely a private matter. But it was just two months ago The New York Times revisited Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes (and possibly rapes) from 1990 and before. Matt Yglesias, a former “pillar of the Clinton political world,” as The New York Times put it, wrote on Vox.com, “I think we got it wrong,” and that Clinton should have resigned over his alleged sex crimes.
At the time, as Yglesias explained, “most Americans embraced the larger argument that perjury in a civil lawsuit unrelated to the president’s official duties did not constitute high crimes and misdemeanors. But looking back through today’s lens, this whole argument was miscast. The wrongdoing at issue was never just a private matter for the Clinton family; it was a high-profile exemplar of a widespread social problem: men’s abuse of workplace power for sexual gain. It was and is a striking example of a genre of misconduct that society has a strong interest in stamping out. That alone should have been enough to have pressured Clinton out of office.”
Letterman Also Abused His Power for Sexual Gain
While not as powerful as Clinton, Letterman’s position as one of the late-night kings of comedy presents a similar “high-profile exemplar of a man’s abuse of workplace power for sexual gain,” and yet another example of the decades-long problem the entertainment industry ignored until recently.
After all, at the time that news of Letterman’s affairs broke, so too did stories of the prevalence of the problem on the “Late Show” set. Former “Late Show” writer Nell Scovell exposed the truth in an October 27, 2009 article for Vanity Fair, “Letterman and Me”:
Without naming names or digging up decades-old dirt, let’s address the pertinent questions. Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I saw anything at the time? Sadly, no.
But, as Scovell noted at the time, most media stars were defending Letterman, who was one of their own. Following Letterman’s confession, “The View” founder Barbara Walters remarked that Dave “is a very attractive man” before, as Scovell put it, Walters “offered a blanket excuse for his in-house affairs: ‘Where do you meet people? In the workplace?’”
To her credit, Joy Behar, as Scovell’s Vanity Fair article highlighted, “took a tougher stance and argued that his behavior might have created an atmosphere that’s uncomfortable for other female employees.”
Now we keep hearing from them that Hollywood and the whole entertainment industry are taking a tougher stand. Whether Letterman can survive the new governing ethos will well depend on whether his decade-old affairs were not just consensual but welcome—and remembered as such.
Disclosure: I never found David Letterman funny.