Crude insults are not humor

One doesn’t have to be a fan of Sarah Palin and her family to be offended by David Letterman’s utterly tasteless, senseless remarks about her trip to New York City. Somewhere in there may be a clue as to why NBC picked Jay Leno instead of him to replace Johnny Carson on the Tonight show all those years ago.

Letterman told his television audience that Palin, her husband and daughter had attended a New York Yankees game where the daughter had been "knocked up" during the 7th inning pause by Yankee star Alex Rodriguez. He also insulted every hardworking airline crewmember outside the cockpit by describing Palin’s own appearance as a "slutty flight attendant look."

Let me note here that as the father of one daughter and the grandfather of four young ladies, three of them teenagers, and the father-in-law of a former longtime flight attendant who missed being on one of the ill-fated 9-11 planes by one day, I was particularly outraged by these mindless remarks.

To her credit, Palin ignored the assault on her own person, realizing her political ambitions have made her fair game. But what parent, even one who understands that in this country politicians can expect rough treatment, would not be angered by the gratuitous off-color assault on their teenage daughter? The Palin daughter at the game was 14-year-old Willow. Palin called the remark "sexually perverted," which seems an apt description for one who apparently thinks the suggested rape of a child or a teenage pregnancy are laughing matters.

Letterman said he would never say that about a 14-year-old. Well, that would indicate at least he knows the consequences attached to an assault, verbal or otherwise, on an underage girl. He said he was referring to Bristol, the 18-year-old who is an unwed mother but who was not at the game — an obvious cop out. But either way, of course, he was out of line. Just because this former TV weatherman hails from the Indiana farm country (as do I) doesn’t mean he should be bombarding us with pig dung in the guise of barnyard "humor" that most Hoosiers on either side of the political aisle would consider unfunny.

Furthermore, this smutty dialog is not fit for national television. Aren’t we getting a bit tired of those who feel somehow their lofty positions give them immunity from the social restraints and standards of good taste and decency that govern most civilized Americans? It is safe to say that had Letterman’s remarks been made with any sort of racial overtone, his job would be on the line. There really is no reason for it not to be now if one subscribes to the notion that a baseless suggestion of immorality about any one no matter their color should bear some consequences, First Amendment guarantees notwithstanding.

Letterman’s remarks may have been written for him but the responsibility is still his. He has complete control of his own material. It is puzzling that after all these years, he has not learned the difference between fair comment and satire and vicious disparagement. What may be more troublesome in all this is that it furthers the incivility of today’s politics, that its nastiness moves us just that much closer to the hate line at the expense of innocent bystanders — in this case children.

Liking or disliking Sarah Palin has nothing to do with this. Those who find her politically unsettling should be as appalled as those who are her biggest supporters. Her daughter’s pregnancy and decision to keep the baby does not make her a legitimate target for scurrilous public bathroom scribbles from morons. Mothers all over the world should be offended.
It may be too late for a Letterman apology but it isn’t for CBS officials to issue a strong disassociation with his remarks. After all, he violated most of the unwritten but understood rules that have protected minor family members from such unfair attacks. They have fired people for less. What this whole matter says about our direction is downright disgusting.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)