David Letterman has apologized for a very bad joke about Sarah Palin’s daughter. Palin has accepted the apology. All’s well that ends well?
Not so fast.
No one escapes this firestorm unscathed. The misdeed that sparked it was Letterman’s horribly ill-conceived joke about Palin’s visit to Yankee Stadium last week: “There was one awkward moment. During the seventh-inning stretch, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.”
By any civilized measure, a horrible joke – and another layer of the mounting evidence, from tasteless jests to hateful insults, that the Palins are fair game for a special level of mistreatment.
But something happened on the way to clarity.
I don’t know if the Palins drove the train or boarded it, but charges mounted that Letterman was absolutely, positively referring to 14-year-old Willow, not the daughter who actually got pregnant, 18-year-old Bristol.
The enabling detail was that Willow, not Bristol, attended the game with her parents. But the real motivation was that a joke about a 14-year-old girl is exponentially worse, creating a far larger offense against the Palins and greater basis for condemning Letterman.
Those clinging to Willow’s presence may not know that comedy writing is a broad, sloppy art that usually does not involve a LexisNexis search before each punch line. The writers may not have known which other Palins were there.
Since none of us were in the writers’ room, I refer to history in responding to the manufactured certainty of Letterman’s darker intent: Never, in more than 30 years of television, has he made an adolescent girl the subject of a sex joke.
But the Palins, understandably weary of being the butt of pop-culture derision – and many conservatives understandably thrilled to see someone “fight back” – shelved any standard of fashioning a response to fit the offense.
In these days when the sledgehammer gets more attention than the scalpel, the storyline of a joke about statutory rape flourished, nurtured by the Palins and anyone seeking to embellish an already disturbing affront.
The Palins properly declined an invitation to appear on Letterman but added this nauseating smirk: “It would be wise to keep Willow away from David Letterman.”
So distorting the joke was not enough. Urged on by fist-pumping fans, the Palins chose to toss in the imagery of Dave as a predator seeking to handle up on Willow himself.
Let’s be clear. I’m all about “fighting back.” In the midst of slanderous attempts to link views like mine to an abortion doctor murder and a Holocaust Museum shooting, I will march tirelessly into battle to meet every attack.
But when my “fighting back” becomes so carelessly overwrought that opponents can cite my excesses and not their original words, my high ground erodes.
This should have been a short, three-act play:
•Letterman tells a terrible joke.
•The Palins properly protest that joke without artificially enhancing it, creating an undistracted environment for the public to share its disgust.
•Letterman apologizes, probably sooner.
Since Letterman’s is the main sin, why have I spent far more time dwelling on the reaction? Because I don’t give a flip about Letterman.
What I care about is whether my side of the political spectrum and our potential candidates address things rationally.
I will continue to defend Palin against the leftist narrative that she is very nearly brain-damaged. But stopping short of anointing her the next Margaret Thatcher attracts the venom of some of her more glazed fans, for whom any criticism is blasphemy.
Excuse me for having a higher wish for her. I not only wanted her well-earned victory over Letterman, I wanted her to win without creating fresh reasons to wonder about her readiness for 2012
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