There's a famous moment in Mad Men where ambitious Pete Campbell, who's figured out Don Draper isn't who he says he was, spills his boss's Dick Whitman secret to Sterling & Cooper's senior partner. The senior partner mulls the disclosure, and then dismisses it.
"Mr. Campbell," says Bert Cooper, "who cares?"
And yet, just maybe, our reaction should be the same at Bert Cooper's.
This is not to say the story isn't valid. The alleged blackmail of a TV icon over sexual escapades at the office? Um, yup, that's a story. And, with regard to the alleged extortion, a criminal matter.
This is not to say workplace relationships are no big deal. Unlike Letterman apparently, we paid attention at our last antiharassment training session. Workplace relationships among peers are dicey, if not outright discouraged by companies; workplace relationships between million-dollar bosses and thousandaire employees are dicier, if not fodder for lawsuits.
This is just to say that for the general public—those who aren't married to or employed by Letterman, which by our count is most of us—there just isn't a lot of "there" there.
None of Letterman's women, apparently very plural, has accused the comic of demanding sex, promising promotions for sex or doing anything worse, or more actionable, than being "creepy," and, frankly, none of the women have even used the word creepy. (Letterman did that himself.)
Nearly as important, nothing about Letterman's role or image prior to the scandal demanded that he keep his Worldwide Pants on at the office. Letterman never held himself up as a model of anything. He never asserted his cracks about Sarah Palin or Cher were coming from a place of moral authority. And he certainly never sold himself as a family man. In fact, prior to the birth of his son, we'd have never even known he had a family, that he wasn't the product of some TV-land lab experiment, if it weren't for his mother's occasional cameos.
Letterman was, and is, a late-night comic. He's not an elected official. He's not a clergyman. He's not Roman Polanski—a reference we even hesitate to make, but for the unfortunate timing of the headlines. What more does the "towering mass of Lutheran, Midwestern guilt" owe us than the painful-to-watch admissions he made on Thursday's Late Show? And, really, did he even owe us that?
Look, we get that Letterman, while not a public servant, is something of a private servant. He is someone whose career depends on men and women whom he's never met inviting him into their homes—and their bedrooms—at 11:35 at night. We get that not everybody's going to be comfortable doing that anymore.
We just think if Mad Men's Bert Cooper were to hear Letterman's story, he'd digest, maybe calculate the potential liability (which, admittedly, wouldn't seem all that high to a 1960s caveman), and then say his line once more without much feeling.
(Originally published Oct. 4, 2009, at 5:00 a.m. PT)