woody_zimmerman_118_2007Like millions of Americans over the last 75 years, I have enjoyed watching the wonderful films of the great child-star, Shirley Temple. Obviously, she had a world of talent. She was truly America's Sweetheart and one of Hollywood's biggest stars in the 1930s.

Miss Temple received praise for her cheerful singing and dancing in upbeat films that encouraged the public during the darkest days of the Great Depression. "On the Good Ship Lollipop" was her signature song. President Franklin Roosevelt once said, "as long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right."

Shirley Temple also broke new social ground by teaming in several films with the great black dancer Bill "Bojanges" Robinson. Racial taboos at the time forbade physical contact between a black man and a white girl or woman, so scenes in which Miss Temple and Mr. Robinson held hands while dancing were cut from their films in several southern states. Nevertheless, the Temple films set a new model for full inclusion of non-white actors in the Hollywood milieu.

The racial issue did not produce the only negative response to Shirley Temple's films, however.   Novelist Graham Greene wrote a 1938 review for the magazine Night and Day of her appearance in Wee Willie Winkie. Said Mr. Greene:

"Her admirers - middle-aged men and clergymen - respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."

This outrageously prurient statement was not greeted in 1938 with the same sophisticated equanimity that it might receive from popular culture today. Instead, Miss Temple and her mother - aided by 20th Century Fox - sued Night and Day and Mr. Greene for libel in a British court. Their successful lawsuit resulted in a huge fine that crippled the magazine and forced it to close.

As they say - that was then and this is now. An entire political segment of our country - primarily on the Democrat side - has spent much of the past year making salacious remarks, filled with sexual innuendo, about the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, and her family. This was deemed "fair" in the context of Mrs. Palin's inclusion as the vice-presidential candidate on the 2008 Republican ticket - especially since the governor's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was found to be with child by her boyfriend, Levi Johnston, during the campaign. Obama-leaning reporters obsessed on Bristol Palin's unmarried pregnancy as though such a thing had never happened before in a single American family. (Shocked! is wot they were...)

The unwritten rule that candidates' children are off-limits to reporters and journalists was repealed in Mrs. Palin's case. Democrats simply ignored the no-kids rule, to the outrage of the GOP. Savvy observers noted that Mrs. Palin's bright, fresh persona and good looks seemed to terrify Democrats, who evidently decided that her destruction was essential. She was viciously attacked for her sexy appearance and "sluttish" family. Reporters who wouldn't know child-raising from a barn-raising said she neglected her family to advance her political career. Indeed, she was subjected to criticisms that no media figure would dare direct at a female Democrat.

Comments on Mrs. Palin's son, Trig, who is afflicted with Downs Syndrome, were the most disgusting of all, as feminists scolded her for failing to abort when the child's disability was discovered, pre-birth. A compendium of all the denunciations hurled at Mrs. Palin and her family would take more space than we have here.

Since the election, the campaign to trash and destroy Mrs. Palin has continued. The latest celebrity to joyfully pile on was late-night "comedian" David Letterman, who joked in his June 8th monologue that Mrs. Palin stocked up on "slutty flight attendant lipstick" during her recent visit to New York. He also yukked that Mrs. Palin's daughter was propositioned by former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and "knocked up" by Alex Rodriguez during a Yankees baseball game.

Letterman later insisted the daughter-joke was about 18-year-old teen mom Bristol, but the Palin daughter at Yankee Stadium that night was 14-year-old Willow. (Oops!) The governor furiously accused Mr. Letterman of encouraging a culture that countenances statutory rape. Mr. Letterman tried to smooth things over by claiming that it was just a "tasteless joke" - i.e., an application of the unwritten rule that comedians can say anything (tasteless or otherwise) if they call it a "joke".

I'm certain I wasn't the only one who noticed that Mr. Letterman tried to prolong the uproar that followed. He could have ended it by simply apologizing for his comments about Mrs. Palin's family. How hard is it to say? - "I apologize to Governor Palin and her family. I shouldn't have said that. It was wrong of me." Which daughter he meant to defame is beside the point. In the end he gave a flaccid ("I can't believe I offended anyone...") apology, but the furor raised his TV ratings significantly during that week. No doubt someone on his staff made sure his name was spelled right in all the news reports that damned him with faint praise.

Don Imus was forced off the air because he made a stupid, tasteless remark about some female basketball players. So far, nothing untoward has happened to David Letterman. (Don't hold your breath.) In a recent article, the blogger Slate argued that both Letterman and Palin used the situation to grab higher ratings. The blogosphere is rife with speculation about who "won" the battle between the sophisticated comedian - he the fearless champion of truth, degeneracy and the American way of sleaze - and the trashy hayseed politician who wants to muzzle good clean fun. We live in a surreal time.

In my day, such public comments about my wife or daughter - even spoken in jest - would have prompted me to invite the speaker to step outside to discuss the matter like a man - if, indeed he was one. We'll probably never know if this was Todd Palin's impulse or not. In some ways, public issuance of such an invitation might have been the simplest resolution of the matter. Of course, Mr. Letterman's advanced age (62) might have discouraged Mr. Palin from challenging him to fisticuffs (or dung-hurling at five paces) outside the CBS studios. Old guy or not, David Letterman is a lecherous swine who is waaay overdue for a serious butt-kicking.

However entertaining a literal Palin-Letterman dustup might be, a famous Eddie Murphy line from the film Trading Places seems apropos: "The best way to hurt rich people is to make them into poor people..." Thus, the "Temple Sanction" - i.e., a lawsuit for libel (see above) - seems like the better remedy against David Letterman and CBS. A rumble on the asphalt would only boost his ratings, while a big monetary award - and the ugly publicity that might accompany a lawsuit - could land a serious blow. Mr. Letterman might even go the way of Imus if enough sponsors flee the sordid spectacle.

Merriam-Webster defines libel as: a written or oral defamatory statement or representation that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression; a statement or representation published without just cause and tending to expose another to public contempt.

Mr. Letterman's disgusting comments defamed Mrs. Palin's daughter. Whichever one he says he meant to defame is immaterial. You don't get to proclaim that a teen-aged girl has had adulterous sex with a grown man, even in jest, unless you have evidence. Bristol Palin is not fair game, for the indefinite future, just because she made the mistake of conceiving a child out of wedlock at an earlier time in her life. (I'd like a show of hands from all parents who side with DL on this.)

Mrs. Palin is a politician, not a child film-star, but she still has a right to defend her family from defamatory remarks that hold them up "to public contempt." Try to imagine the uproar if David Letterman made similar cracks about Barack Obama's daughters or his wife. Enough is enough. I'm not sure when we lost our way on common decency, but it's time to look for the way back.