As the highly-politicized and angry debate over David Letterman's unfortunate joke about the daughter of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin rages, I am thinking maybe some good can actually come from it. Both sides are already acting stupid and crazy for the sake of their own TV and political careers, but maybe some of us in the audience can be smarter about free speech, mean speech and the state of TV talk today as a result.

For the two people in the world who might not yet be briefed on the matter, at the heart of the controversay are two jokes Letterman made earlier in the week regarding a trip Palin made with her 14-year-old daughter to New York over the weekend.

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In one joke, Letterman said that during the seventh inning of a New York Yankees game, Palin's daughter was "knocked up by Alex Rodriguez." In another quip, he said, the "toughest part" of Palin's visit "was keeping former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter."  Both Rodriguez and Spitzer have been involved in highly-publicized extra-marital affairs.

Wednesday, Palin fired back, saying, "Laughter incited by sexually perverted comments made by a 62-year-old male celebrity aimed at a 14-year-old girl is not only disgusting, but it reminds us that some Hollywood-New York entertainers have a long way to go in understanding what the rest of America understands."

Palin continued, "That acceptance of inappropriate sexual comments about an underage girl, who could be anyone's daughter, contributes to the atrociously high rate of sexual exploitation of minors by older men who use and abuse others."

Letterman responded for 7 minutes and 54 seconds Wednesday night -- that's a long time in TV terms. But, as those who saw it know, he didn't really apologize. In fact, he turned the controversy into a comedic bit.

He did issue what would be called a "clarification" in the newspaper business. He said he wasn't referring to Palin's 14-year-old daughter in the joke, he was referring to her 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, whom he then went on to describe as "the girl ... who was knocked up."

I wish he had just issued a straightforward apology for offense given with the seventh-inning joke. I am not talking about an "if I offended one" smarmy-mouthed, so-called apology. I mean, a carefully worded, "Clearly, I offended people with this joke. For that, I apologize. it was a careless remark."

Look, Letterman signed a contract with CBS that allows the company to punish or fire the comedian for certain actions. That's a matter of contract. But, at another level, this is a complicated free speech issue.

As a democracy we need to let our comedians have full rein to push the envelope of what society considers acceptable. Remember how valuable comedians like Letterman and the cast of  Saturday Night Live were during the election last fall in saying what we all knew to be true about President Bush and some of the candidates -- things journalists couldn't find a way to say within the strictures of mainstream journalism?

Censor the comedians, threaten to fire them for crossing the line from time to time, and you lose part of what makes America such a grand and special experiment in democracy. And by the way, don't think for a second that some of Palin's outrage isn't the result of what happened to her false frontierswoman image last year at the hands of comic performers like Tina Fey and Letterman.

Ever the craven politician, Palin can't limit herself to criticizing Letterman for what he implied about her daughter, she tries to indict other "Hollywood-New York entertainers" who she claims don't understand what "the rest of America understands" -- once again, as if she is the spokewoman for mainstream American values. Palin could have spared her daughter, Bristol, any public embarrassment long ago by either rejecting the GOP vice presidential nomination or by not bringing the pregnant teenager to the convention and putting her in the middle of the media spotlight. And what about the ugly innuendo in her remarks about Letterman?

But there is also a show business aspect to this story, I believe. Letterman, as driven a TV personality as you will find, sees an opening to get back on top of the latenight heap with the monologue-challenged Conan O'Brien taking over The Tonight Show. Letterman has turned up the heat on his monologues and made them edgier in recent nights.

But, sad to say, he appears to have come to equate edgy with partisan and mean. I think that is partly the result of the TV climate in which he finds himself today. Cable talk show hosts like Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly have shown that one fast road to ratings success is through mean, partisan and ugly talk that relies on the nasty remark -- and often innuendo and smear.

And who was it that Letterman invited on his show to ride shotgun the night he ripped then GOP presidential candidate John McCain for cancelling an appearance except Olbermann, who he described as a friend? I have decried in any forum I can find the effects that folks like Olbermann and O'Reilly are having on our national discourse, and I believe we saw some of it spill over into comedy with Letterman's crude seventh inning joke this week.

I'd like to believe that Letterman is better than that, but maybe I'm wrong. His unwillingness so far to acknowledge how ugly the remark was suggests he might be just as bad an attack dog as the other three. And his ratings are up. For the first time in years, he in neck-and-neck with NBC -- beating O'Brien one night and finishing second by only one-tenth of a ratings point on two other nights this week.

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Maybe Letterman, Palin, Olbermann and O'Reilly all deserve each other. And instead of looking for a moral in this ugly spat, I should just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of them savaging each other -- as the ratings rise.

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