I think the whole David Letterman-Sarah Palin controversy presents an interesting question of line-drawing in an era where there is increased interaction between political figures and the entertainment world. When I was a kid it was a notable development when Richard Nixon went on Laugh-In and said “Sock it to me?” These days, it is common for candidates to go on Saturday Night Live, late-night talk shows or other venues, and earlier this year President Obama appeared, as a sitting president, on The Tonight Show. Governor Palin herself made a cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live during the recent presidential campaign.
Politicians have long been the target of jokes and humor; it comes with the territory. As our culture has become coarser, the humor has been coarser as well. I don’t think Letterman’s comment associating Governor Palin with a “slutty flight attendant” look is either funny or accurate, but I also don’t think it crosses the prevailing line in modern American culture. (I have to confess that I enjoy “insult humor” and think that “Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog” and South Park are often very funny.) I think Governor Palin understands that prevailing line, accepts it, and has shown some deftness in deflecting such attempts at humor in a self-deprecating and winning way.
It’s not unfair, however, to insist that entertainers show some common decency in deciding who should be the subject of their barbs. I think Letterman crossed the line by targeting Governor’s Palin’s daughter for tasteless humor of a crude sexual nature. Most teenagers are highly sensitive about themselves; they feel awkward and inadequate by nature. I can’t imagine the embarrassment Governor Palin’s 14-year-old felt when she heard Letterman’s comments. I don’t believe Letterman’s excuse that he was talking about Governor Palin’s 18-year-old daughter, but in any case I don’t think that excuse would make any difference even if it were true. Any children of public figures who do not themselves take steps to affirmatively enter the public eye should be viewed as off limits with respect to any humorous comments — much less comments about sexual activity, appearance, or other highly personal matters.
I therefore don’t have a problem with Governor Palin or others strongly criticizing David Letterman for crossing the line with his comment. Such criticisms are not a sign of benighted attitudes or a lack of a sense of humor, but rather an effort to protect innocent kids from unfair comments and to keep our public discourse from sinking irreversibly into the mire. I would not be surprised if Letterman feels shame and perhaps even humiliation at his lack of good judgment. It would be a good thing for our culture if more entertainers experienced such feelings from time to time when they cross the line, and adjusted their future comments accordingly.