David Letterman’s Hate Speech

Having been a New Yorker in the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t ever watch the David Letterman show. It seems an insipid and bitter celebration; a shadow of past glory when network TV featured brilliant entertainers and commentators like Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, and on into the middle of the night Tom Snyder interviewing Marlon Brando, who, in one very brief aside, seems to threaten his life for smoking a cigarette.

The creative arc of these shows ended long ago, but the marketing agents tooled the conditioned reflex. The Letterman show also manifests the descending glory of the greatest city in the world; he is Norma Desmond in the city’s final close-up — an aging actor in a city suddenly without its purpose. Like “Saturday Night Live,” when the great cast of Killer Bees and Samurai chefs went off into the sunset, the show went on and on and on after the moment and the generation had long passed.

After Letterman’s performance the other night, the network might try to come up with a new idea for late night. In his introductory comments, Letterman called Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who had attended a Yankees game that day with Rudy Giuliani and been honored by a special needs group, a “slutty flight attendant.” But there is more: He said she had problems with her daughter when, between innings, Alex Rodriguez “knocked her up.” Palin’s 14-year-old daughter, Willow, was at the game with her.

This suggestion of criminal rape of a politician’s child is pure hate speech, the kind of thing found and heard in rural pockets of the old Ku Klux Klan, the kind of poisonous ramblings of a mind unraveling, like those found on the website of a dying, disturbed neo-Nazi flailing in his very last days for connection by attacking the Holocaust Museum.

It goes well beyond the caricature and polemic of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. Their attacks generally go to the politician’s person, character and policies. To go after a politician’s children, as some have gone after the Palin’s daughter, who found herself in dire straits at age 17, is previously unheard of. To go after a 14-year-old child is preposterous.

From the beginning, some in New York City, like Letterman, have seen demons in Sarah. But it is hard to imagine that many in Alaska, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas or anyplace else between New York and California today would find his comments amusing.

Maybe Letterman is just too far away from the strong force; this happens in the tailings. Maybe he and the non-Rudy New York he represents are just too long in the valley, terrified of women and seeking the inner bully: a condition I think psychologists call “anima polluted,” but there is a much better phrase about a cat.

But the Palin political phenomenon represents a new American condition, and so do Letterman’s comments. It is a regional political phenomenon. Those in the red states love her. But a certain political class in New York — but not Rudy’s New York — hate her. They really hate her, and they hate what she represents, and what she represents is heartland America.

There was a day in America when the greatest writers — Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Willa Cather — would move to New York at their peak, but their writing would always return to the heartland. Even a few decades back, when “Saturday Night Live” was funny, New York’s greatest editors, like Harper’s Willie Morris and Esquire’s Harold T.P. Hayes, were Southerners. The heartland and the city were one, and the city without the American heartland was without substance and soul. It was just a bunch of restaurants. Even Norman Mailer, who ran for mayor of New York City, found a wife in Arkansas and was so fond of his father-in-law that he wrote an interpretation of “The Son” of the New Testament for him. But that was not Letterman’s New York, and that day is long past.

The Shadow is fierce with Sarah. This could actually tell us something very important about ourselves as Americans today. This ferocity of feeling about Sarah, and the press attacks and TV interviews set up to embarrass her, are manifestations and reinforcements of this, and could mean that we are today beginning to internalize a conflict like the one we began to externalize more than 100 years ago with those hated Others, the Soviets. But this time we are projecting the same internalized hatred onto the American heartland.


Visit Mr. Quigley's website at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com.