Letterman Palin Jokes Cross the Line

While I’m willing to defend HuffPo’s discussing Sarah Palin’s Toenails for reasons outlined yesterday, I think David Letterman’s quip about her “slutty flight attendant look” is pushing it a bit far.

Still, Palin’s a public figure and a grown-up.  Jokes about Palin’s 14-year-old daughter being “knocked up by Alex Rodriguez”?

Way over the line. Even if the butt of the jokes was Alex Rodriguez. Kids are off limits. Period. Whether it’s Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, or the Obama girls, the extent of the commentary permissible is how cute, sweet, adorable, precious, and clever they are. ( If they aren’t cute, you’re not allowed to say so. If you think they’re hot now that they’re grown up, I suppose that’s fine.)

Adult children of politicians who have become public figures by virtue of going into politics themselves or actively campaigning on the issues, like Mary Cheney?  Fair game.  The Bush girls off at college?  Borderline.   Minor children?  See above.

That said, I stop well short of going where same in the blogosphere have gone.  Letterman’s a decent fellow. He’s not a pervert. He’s been doing monologues for a national television audience for thirty years and has a very solid reputation as a professional and as a human being.  It was just a bad joke that crossed a line.  But he should apologize and show a little better editorial judgment from now on.

UPDATE:  Letterman apologizes.  Or clarifies.  Or, well, something:

Camp Palin apparently took the joke to be a crack against Palin’s 14-year-old daughter Willow, who had recently attended a Yankees game, but Letterman insisted today that the real target was 18-year-old daughter Bristol.

“We were, as we often do, making jokes about people in the news and we made some jokes about Sarah Palin and her daughter [Bristol]… and now they’re upset with me…” Letterman says on tonight’s show. “These are 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 girl…. Am I guilty of poor taste? Yes. Did I suggest that it was okay for her 14-year-old daughter to be having promiscuous sex? No.” Saying he hopes he’s “cleared part of this up,” Letterman extended an invitation to Palin to come on the show as a guest.

Making fun of Britol’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy is still rather tasteless.  She’s a technical adult and has taken steps that make her a public figure.  But still. As AllahPundit puts it, “He’d never condone statutorily raping a girl who’s underage. All he meant to do was goof on the idea that Palin’s eldest daughter, a single mother with a baby, is a whore.” (Given that no discussion of money being transacted was involved, I think “slut” is the operative word.)

Here’s a video of the whole clip:

A good line: “There are thousands of jokes I regret telling on this program.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. One Fine Jay says:

    James, I hate Letterman as much as the next guy and the joke is over the line, but I get the impression that Letterman thought he was talking about Bristol, that everyone in the audience thought he was talking about Bristol, and that if there were the malice of joking about statutory rape, it was all in his jokewriters and editors. The cultural knowledge is that Bristol is the “one who got knocked up,” and it seems “they” all knew who he was talking about.

    This doesn’t excuse the fact the he may have intended to joke about Bristol, because in that case it would be open season on Sasha and Malia, and that would be way too much fun.

  2. Triumph says:

    It is disgusting that B. Hussein has endorsed this calumny. This type of Letterman-Obama-Barney Frank behavior is typical of east-coast Hollywood liberals.

  3. Ryan says:

    The Obama girls are hot now that they’ve grown up.

    (Just poking at James’s contractual terms, don’t lynch me).

  4. Furhead says:

    This doesn’t excuse the fact the he may have intended to joke about Bristol, because in that case it would be open season on Sasha and Malia, and that would be way too much fun.

    I agree that everyone probably assumed they were talking about Bristol, but you lost me here. Bristol is an adult now (I think) and has made herself a public figure by going out and doing interviews about how abstinence is unrealistic realistic.

    Sasha and Malia are neither adults nor do they do interviews, unless you include the one interview that the Obamas allowed back during the campaign.

  5. One Fine Jay says:

    The fact that people ridiculed Bristol for her teen preganancy after she was exposed to the public but before she opened her mouth to speak blows holes in your argument that Sasha and Malia are “untouchable.” Try again.

  6. Wayne says:

    “very solid reputation as a professional”

    You got to be kidding. Letterman is the guy that gave Clinton the questions to the pop quiz prior to going on stage. He is the one that ask hardball question of Bush but gave softball ones to Gore. He is a left-wing political hack masquerading as a comedian.

    Those who are excusing attacking Palin’s kids are pathetic. Probably the same ones who were quick to condemn the meanness when McCain liberal daughter was accuse of being overweight or that Al Gore son marijuana use was off limits.

  7. Ted says:

    For far worse, look at any comments on a story posted by CNN regarding Palin. Like her or not, she is an accomplished woman and doesn’t deserve the low blows she continually gets from people like Letterman, everyone on MSNBC or pretty much every left wing blog. Criticize her policies – if you can, but trying to insult her and her family personally is childish.

  8. Morgo says:

    When the Bush twins at 20 years old were alleged to have had Jello Shooters it was six months of non-stop abuse.

    When Vice Presidents have drug addled children on tape snorting coke or driving 100 mph with a pharmacy in the front seat it gets censored, buried and treated like hot plutonium.

    Sam old crap.

  9. Even if Mr. Letterman meant Bristol Palin, this is an extremely crass thing to say. Rather than saying Mr. Letterman went over the line I think it is more appropriate to ask whether he believes there are any lines when it comes to political opponents or other people not on his “good people” list. Pretty repulsive stuff regardless of who the butt of the joke is.

    I wonder how the civility filters in Mr. Letterman’s head, and all those around him, became so atrophied as to think this was ok.

  10. Joshua says:

    Jokes of this nature are tasteless, and give the people who you are making them about just cause to stand up and say that you are out of line. Why David Letterman stooped to such levels is beyond me. Kind of puts him on Rush Limbaugh’s hate mongering level. If Palin is the republican candidate in 2012, I believe my vote has already been cast.

  11. sj says:

    Anybody who willingly puts themselves in the spotlight is fair game. Bristol seems to be as media-hungry as her mother and has even stooped to becoming the poster-child for abstinence. This rightly deserves national mockery, just as Sarah “I read lots of things” Palin does.

    Sasha and Malia are not touring the country and trading in on their parent’s fame for 15 minutes of dubious celebrity. Completely different scenario.

  12. IcePilot says:

    Exhibit 1: What Letterman said about a 14 year old girl.

    Exhibit 2: “Letterman’s a decent fellow.”

    Result: Cognitive dissonance.

    Why: Decent fellows don’t say such things about 14 year old girls……

  13. One Fine Jay says:

    SJ: this has nothing to do with what Sasha and Malia are not doing versus what Bristol is doing. This has everything to do with the fact that a comedian like Letterman issued a joke about a non-elected, publicly known person whose only offense at the time that she was given notoriety was that she was an unwed mother.

    Liberals like to open the door to all sorts of crass behavior but are uncomfortable at the fact that they set the precedent to retaliations from their enemies.

  14. James Joyner says:

    Decent fellows don’t say such things about 14 year old girls……

    Again, the joke was about Rodriguez, not the girl. But, seriously, one bad joke and he’s an asshole forever? And 30 years of doing this doesn’t give him any cred? That seems harsh.

  15. Eric Florack says:

    Comment of the day goes to Morgo.
    He’s got a point, folks.

  16. One Fine Jay says:

    Eric Florack, are you the blogger formerly known as bithead? Coz I swear I recognize you from your gravatar. Must be a Publius thing?

  17. Matthew Stinson says:

    Actually, I found both jokes offensive. There’s something about conservative women that turns liberals into misogynists. And I like Letterman. But both jokes were misogynistic and ugly.

  18. Wayne says:

    “Again, the joke was about Rodriguez, not the girl”

    James I can’t believe you made such a lame comment. If it was all about Rodriguez then why mention Palin or her daughter? It was clearly as much if not more of a shot at Palin and her daughter as Rodriguez. Otherwise he would start off with Rodriguez with maybe a quick reference to Palin.

    “But, seriously, one bad joke and he’s an asshole forever?”

    He has made much more than one bad joke and he certainly has shown which side of the political aisle he is on.

    Also whichever daughter was at the game would be the one at the butt of the joke. It is hard to impregnate someone at the game who is not at the game.

  19. Eric Florack says:

    Eric Florack, are you the blogger formerly known as bithead? Coz I swear I recognize you from your gravatar. Must be a Publius thing?

    Oh, I’m the same guy. Always been the same guy; I’ve never made any particular secret about who I am… and that was true going all the way back to the Usenet days and beyond.

    I started using my real name here and a few other places when I bought a new desktop. Lazy, essentially. And you’re quite right; the gravitar is the same. Well spotted.

    Bithead being Florack is pretty much about as secret as “Instapundit” being Reynolds. A promotional tool, more than hiding from anything. It helped the hitrate on the blog along. Name recognition does wonders.

  20. G.A.Phillips says:

    There’s something about conservative women that turns liberals into misogynists.

    Both male,female,/and?liberals.

    lol……

  21. IcePilot says:

    James,

    “Again, the joke was about Rodriguez, not the girl.”
    (snort!) – file this one in the “it all depends on what the definition of is, is ….” category.

    “But, seriously, one bad joke and he’s an asshole forever?”
    Uh, yeah. In the real world you meet people (luckily, infrequently) who say something that just pegs them, that shows how far they are willing to go in order to attack people they don’t like. Letterman has been doing this for years.

    “And 30 years of doing this doesn’t give him any cred? That seems harsh.”
    Ah, yes! Don’t judge, don’t judge! And if you must, go easy. For who are we to judge….

    Let’s see…
    1. 56 years old – around long enough to know better.
    2. Decorated, vietnam-era veteran (which all veteran’s know means, just, veteran); CDR, USNR-R.
    3. B.S. Math (don’t fall into the “stupid” part of “stupid, red-neck).
    4. Race, sex, religion – none of your damned business. Besides, it’s irrelevant, isn’t it?
    5. Finally, American citizen.

    So, sure, I’ll judge.

    Letterman is an asshole.

  22. Again, the joke was about Rodriguez, not the girl. But, seriously, one bad joke and he’s an asshole forever? And 30 years of doing this doesn’t give him any cred? That seems harsh.

    It’s not an either or, more of a two for one taking swings at both of them. Would he have told the joke using a non-Palin daughter in the stands? If so, whose daughter exactly?

    As to being an asshole forever, again, it’s not necessarily an either or situation. Lots of really funny, really successful comedians really are assholes. As to Mr. Letterman specifically, has he apologized yet? Or is it fair to assume that in the absence of an immediate apology he still thinks there aren’t any lines when it comes to “those people?”

  23. James Joyner says:

    If it was all about Rodriguez then why mention Palin or her daughter? It was clearly as much if not more of a shot at Palin and her daughter as Rodriguez. Otherwise he would start off with Rodriguez with maybe a quick reference to Palin.

    It was part of a string of jokes riffing Palin, two of which had to do with going to a Yankees game. Again, it’s a lousy joke and beyond the pale. But I don’t think he was implying anything about Palin’s kid.

    Lots of really funny, really successful comedians really are assholes.

    There is that, yes.

  24. Furhead says:

    The fact that people ridiculed Bristol for her teen preganancy after she was exposed to the public but before she opened her mouth to speak blows holes in your argument that Sasha and Malia are “untouchable.” Try again.

    I’m not trying to defend anybody that ridiculed Bristol before she was an adult and before she made intentionally made herself a public figure. But I didn’t think that’s what we were talking about – we were talking about Letterman’s joke the other night. True or false?

    As for your notion that two wrongs make a right, that Sasha and Malia should now be attacked because David Letterman made one off-color joke, I don’t agree. In fact, it’s pretty stupid of you to suggest it.

  25. Ottovbvs says:

    The joke was about Rodriguez and everyone thought he was referring to Bristol Palin for godsake. It’s of surpassing irrelevance and the fact that conservative feel they have to get all excited about this supreme trivia is a measure of where they are. Actually I didn’t think his jokes were that funny. The real Palin is much funnier. She’s a natural nincompoop. Obviously the base of the party are in love with her and she could end up being the candidate in 2012. I’m almost inclined to think she might be because the middle/right of the party probably think it’s going to be a rout just as they did in 64 and are willing to let the far right have it’s head.

  26. Wayne says:

    James you have seem reasonable in the past although we don’t always agree and maybe you didn’t phrase it right. Saying the joke was about Rodriguez and not Palin’s kid was outrageous. Yes Letterman couldn’t care less about any of Palin’s kid but does care about Palin. He used Palin kids to take a malicious\cheap shot at Palin. Call it what it was. As you said it was one in many jokes directed at Palin. I stop watching him long ago because his jokes toward the right have been full of venom.

  27. Idiot says:

    It’s really very simple, Letterman is not a pervert, he is an asshole. There isn’t much else to it.

  28. […] Of a 14 year old, no less? And of course it’s OK if they’re conservative.  Joyner adds his two cents. Think the attack on Palin isn’t full-tilt-bozo? They’re even after Palin’s […]

  29. I thought that Susan Ford was hot BEFORE she was grown up. In my defense, I should note that I am younger than Susan, so my love for her was perfectly legal at the time.

  30. lulu says:

    Letterman sleeps every night with a transgendered-looking female. Hey, wonder if this will lead to Conan compiling his own Top Ten list.

  31. JGoodson says:

    Your suggestion to accept Letterman as still funny is disgusting. Is eating just a little bit of poop not as disgusting as eating the whole pile? America is descending quickly into the abyss.

  32. just me says:

    Again, the joke was about Rodriguez, not the girl. But, seriously, one bad joke and he’s an asshole forever? And 30 years of doing this doesn’t give him any cred? That seems harsh.

    I am the mom of a 14 year old girl, and if somebody made a joke about somebody knocking her up to poke fun at the person who did the knocking up, it would still offend me.

    I he made the joke regarding obama’s daughter, would it have been as funny? Would people be laughing? Would the “he was making fun of the player not the girl” defenses work? I doubt it and they shouldn’t.

    As for Letterman I think he is already an asshole, and pretty much always has been so this is par for the course. I think a lot of his humor skirts the line but this one clearly crossed it.

  33. Franklin says:

    Just as an update, Sarah did complain and David said the joke was about Bristol, not Willow. I’m not excusing, I’m just relaying the news here.

    As for Bush’s daughters and the Jello Shooters … this is the first I’m hearing of it so I kind of doubt it was plastered over the news for six months. Get a grip, man.

  34. An Interested Party says:

    I[f] he made the joke regarding obama’s daughter, would it have been as funny?

    Funny that you should present that hypothetical, because there was another president’s 13-year old daughter who was insulted by another comedian…I assume that all the people who are outraged by this were also disgusted when Rush Limbaugh refereed to Chelsea Clinton as a dog, right? Was he an asshole too…

  35. Tailgunner says:

    Bullshit.

    Letterman slimed an innocent little girl just to hurt her mother.

    This is thoroughly despicable.

    Letterman is a disgusting ******* who deserves to be yanked off the air.

  36. Furhead says:

    I assume that all the people who are outraged by this were also disgusted when Rush Limbaugh refereed to Chelsea Clinton as a dog, right? Was he an asshole too…

    Is Rush Limbaugh an asshole? I don’t know, is the sun hot?

    Letterman slimed an innocent little girl just to hurt her mother.

    Bristol is not an innocent little girl, but I do agree that Letterman attacked her to hurt her mother. It would be true to say that people jumped over all over the anecdote of Bristol’s pregnancy to show how poorly that abstinence-only programs work. But it’s just an anecdote; of course, every study that comes out demonstrates the exact same thing.

  37. Wayne says:

    Bristol is not an innocent little girl but Chelsea is? Right. (Sarcasm off)]

    Rush said during the Lewinsky scandal that the Clintons was using Chelsea like she was the Whitehouse dog to protect\deflect them from reporters asking questions about the scandal and you barely seen Chelsea until the scandal broke. After all it would be low to ask them questions with Chelsea there. Remember how much grief the MSM gave Rush for that?

    So those like Furhead claim Rush is an asshole for pointing that out but Letterman comments about Palin’s daughter is fine.

  38. […] James Joyner: Way over the line. Even if the butt of the jokes was Alex Rodriguez. Kids are off limits. Period. Whether it’s Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, or the Obama girls, the extent of the commentary permissible is how cute, sweet, adorable, precious, and clever they are. ( If they aren’t cute, you’re not allowed to say so. If you think they’re hot now that they’re grown up, I suppose that’s fine.) […]

  39. An Interested Party says:

    Rush said during the Lewinsky scandal that the Clintons was using Chelsea like she was the Whitehouse dog to protect\deflect them from reporters asking questions about the scandal…

    No, actually he made a tasteless joke about the Clinton’s having a WH cat and then asked if anyone had seen the WH dog and then showed a picture of their daughter…nice try, though…by the way, according to your logic, one could say that Palin used her youngest child as a prop to showcase her prolife credentials…

    The bottom line is that it is tasteless and shameful to attack a politician’s child to get at said politician, whether it is Limbaugh or Letterman that is doing it…of course, neither of them have much taste or shame, so such behavior is to be expected…

  40. Wayne says:

    AIP
    What did Rush say after he show the picture? Did he not talk about how they used Chelsea to protect Bill and Hillary from embarrassing press questions?

    Either way the pun was tasteless. It is nice to see you condemn both. I wasn’t a blogger back when Rush made that comment but did condemn it at the time and not just because the MSM used it to distract from his message of them using her for protection.

    Palin like almost every other politician has used their families as props and yes her youngest child does give her credentials as prolife. We may actually agree on this next. Just because a family members is used as a campaign prop don’t make them fair game. However there is a point when they get involved that they lose that protection. Cheney daughter or Obama wife talking policy details opens them up to an extent but to attack them personally is still lame.

  41. […] interesting question, indeed.    A week ago, I wrote a post titled Letterman Palin Jokes Cross the Line, both excoriating Letterman for his remarks but defending him from the ridiculous charge that he […]

  42. The Absolute Truth says:

    Everyone who “THINKS” that the joke that was obviously aimed at the ADULT Palin Child was really about the 14-year-old are nothing but sick perverts.

    Keep twisting facts to suit your own perverted needs, you’re the reason why this country is heading down the wrong direction with your Faux-Convervatism.

    The TRUTH Hurts.