How Letterman could lose

Coming clean won't matter if dirty details emerge

At the close of David Letterman's stunning on-air disclosure Thursday, the host seemed set to put the whole sordid affair behind him. After a 10-minute explanation of an extortion plot intended to expose his sexual liaisons with female staffers, he concluded, "I don't plan to say much more about this on this particular topic."

But if Letterman thinks he's had the last word, rest assured this controversy is far from over.

Sure, the immediate aftermath has gone well for him. Robert Joe Halderman has been indicted and so-called media experts are in consensus that the late-night host is going to be fine.

But Letterman may find the devil in the details, of which he divulged precious little in coming clean. What will truly determine just how ugly this will get for him is the yet-to-emerge particulars of his sexual exploits.

As judicious as he was in meting out what he wanted his audience to know, it's ultimately not in his control. TMZ and its ilk are raiding Letterman's skeleton-filled closet and leaving no bone untouched; the witch hunt to surface the unidentified women Letterman slept with has already yielded names like Stephanie Birkitt.

Were all of these relationships consensual affairs with women of appropriate ages who, if they choose to come forward, will not speak ill of the man? That more than anything will keep Letterman's reputation unsullied. But anything deviant or inappropriate is a potential career killer; even worse if any audio, photographic or video evidence makes its way into the media.

Even if it turns out Letterman engaged in the most vanilla kind of coupling, his actions will still serve as a national litmus test for sexual mores. Sleeping around while in a relationship, extramarital or not; with an employee, intern or executive; stretching the limits of May-December romances--all will draw different lines in the spectrum that separates prudes from libertines.

What CBS better hope is that Letterman's sexual adventures do not fall anywhere along the continuum of depravity set before the philandering TV personalities that came before him. Textbook dalliance like Frank Gifford? No biggie. Charlie Sheen level? Now you're pushing it. Marv Albert? Don't go there. Bob Crane? Well, maybe Letterman can get his old weatherman job back in Indiana.

The greatest unknown in all of this is Letterman's wife, Regina Lasko, who has lived her life largely offstage. But were she to go public by her husband's side -- a reverse reality version of the new CBS series "The Good Wife," if you will -- that could go a long way. On the flip side, a divorce announcement could be equally devastating.

That said, his first steps to disentangle himself have been brilliant. Never in the annals of celebrity self-abasement has a star so masterfully manipulated the context of the disclosure. Letterman's humor-infused speech turned his studio audience into unwitting shills, their every round of applause reinforcing a sense of support. By the time he actually got to the juicy stuff that prompted the extortion, few in attendance probably even realized the gravity of what they were witnessing.

Emphasizing the blackmail effort allowed him to deflect attention, casting himself as the victim and Halderman as the villain. Had Letterman's interoffice sexual history simply been revealed by the National Enquirer, this would have played out quite differently, leaving him on the defensive.

Getting out ahead of the story rather than fessing up after the fact was just the right move to endear himself to a public weary of a seemingly endless parade of politicians -- Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer -- who are forced to be cornered before spilling their guts, a welcome antidote to Clinton-style evasion.

It may seem a bit apples-and-oranges to compare Letterman with politicians, who are vulnerable because there is a moral high ground inherent in their position as government officials, particularly if they are conservatives who have espoused family values. Letterman is just an entertainer, right?

But it's not that simple. One can be a moral force without being an avowed moralist per se, and comedians fit that bill because their jokes about public figures are a means of casting judgment from a high ground of their own. If Letterman goes after others who have sinned when we know the same of him, his humor will smack of hypocrisy. The only person who may be sweating right now more than Letterman himself are his writers, who are going to now have to craft punchlines that tiptoe around the fault lines of the host's new persona.

As with another showbiz legend, Roman Polanski, there's a tremendous amount of goodwill toward Letterman in Hollywood, which may mean his celebrity friends are already lining up to vocalize their support. And yet don't be surprised if other stars actually break rank and commit the heresy of openly criticizing Letterman. It is going to be particularly interesting to see how TV personalities like Conan O'Brien and Jon Stewart, who have previously professed admiration for Letterman just short of sycophancy, will handle the affair.

It would not be surprising to see Letterman survive all this. The biggest factor in his favor is that the public has demonstrated a capacity to forgive and forget just about anything short of murder or other heinous crimes. Indeed, getting knocked off a pedestal only to be held aloft once again is almost a de rigueur ritual Americans have come to expect from all their icons.

Still, one false move risks personal ruin. Letterman's extended run-in with Sarah Palin over the summer over some ill-conceived japes at her daughter's expense indicated he can be a bit tone deaf as to how he is being perceived.

But Letterman should be as deft at damage control as anyone out there because his own show has been one of the prime pieces of real estate in the image-rehabilitation efforts of other showbiz luminaries, such as the 2006 mea culpa "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards made on his own show. How ironic that the man whose show has helped rebuild a wrecked reputation or two now needs to work similar magic on himself.