Palin vs. Letterman

It turns out that the new political feud isn't Rush Limbaugh vs. Barack Obama or Dick Cheney vs. Colin Powell. As Rick Klein notes in ABC's indispensable The Note, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and David Letterman are locked in a battle over jokes made at Palin's expense this week while she was on the East Coast.

The jokes included a line in Letterman's famous Top 10 list, this one devoted to Sarah Palin, in which he joked about Palin having a "slutty" look and another joke in which he described Palin's daughter being "knocked up" by Alex Rodriguez at a Yankees game.

As one can imagine, the comments drew immediate outrage from the Palins.

Letterman, who has become increasingly political and critical of Republicans over the years — even though his most remembered moment may be his emotional praise of Republican Rudy Giuliani shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 — tried to explain away the joke by stating he was talking about Palin's older daughter, not her 14-year-old.

The Letterman situation demonstrates two truisms in politics.

The first is that when you're explaining, you're losing. In Letterman's explanation, he admitted it was in poor taste, though he stopped short of an apology.

The second is that, rightly or wrongly, we treat female politicians in a wholly different fashion than their male counterparts. The actions, words and even wardrobes a female candidate chooses are analyzed to death — witness Hillary Clinton and comment after comment on her pantsuits, or the reaction to her tearing-up in New Hampshire ("Was it real? Was it a staged attempt to garner sympathy?"). Male candidates running against women find themselves being very careful in any criticisms they may make; as the Hillary Clinton vs. Rick Lazio or Elizabeth Dole vs. Erskine Bowles campaigns showed, anything seen as unduly negative can quickly backfire.

As the saga continues, it will be interesting to see how Letterman reacts. I'd be willing to bet that, should he choose, he'll find that a little class goes a long way.

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