The first Letterman apology was issued to his family and staff for having had sexual relations with multiple female staff members. The second apology went out to Sarah Palin and family after Dave made an indefensible joke about Palin's 14 year old daughter.
Letterman Apology #1
This apology was issued after the host of the Late Show revealed that he had been having sexual relations with a female staff member and was being blackmailed.
I'm terribly sorry that I put the staff in that position. Inadvertently, I just wasn't thinking ahead. And, moreover, the staff here has been wonderfully supportive to me, not just through this furor, but through all the years that we've been on television and especially all the years here at CBS. So, again, my thanks to the staff for, once again, putting up with something stupid I've gotten myself involved in.
Now the other thing is my wife, Regina. She has been horribly hurt by my behavior, and when something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it. And at that point, there's only two things that can happen: Either you're going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you're going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed, so let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me.
On the next show he added another dimension to the apology:
It did not occur to me last week when I was discussing having had sex with women who worked on the show that then what would happen is reporters and newspaper people and radio and TV would start pounding the staff and saying, 'Well, what do you say? Are you and this and that?' It was very, very unpleasant. And I would just like to set the record straight: No, I'm not having sex with these women. Those episodes are in the past. So my apologies to subjecting them to that vulnerability and being browbeaten and humiliated. It never occurred to me....
See how this last Letterman apology was delivered in the video below.
Letterman Apology #1 Evaluation
These Letterman apologies, issued through a series of on air statements at the outset of his Late Night talk show, is generally regarded by most observers as a very strong apology—it was delivered not at a press conference but on his own show and in the context of an ongoing investigation and pending trial against someone who was trying to extort money in return for not leaking the information about the affair.
However, the apology does lose a few marks for occasionally reverting back to playing the role of the victim, which detracted from the point of the apology:
But through all of this, you have to say to yourself, 'What really happened?' And what really happened was you can't be victimized by criminals. So, you have to go ahead and push back if you're being pushed by, by something illegal like this. And through all of the heartache and the attention and the embarrassment, I still feel like I did the right thing.David Letterman
Despite his attempt to share blame for mistakes, Letterman's apology was widely regarded as brave, open, explicit and honest.
It should also be noted that Robert "Joe" Halderman (the alleged extorter) is largely responsible for creating the circumstances that lead to the Letterman apology, as the host himself admits:
I was worried for myself. I was worried for my family. I felt menaced by this, and I had to tell them all of the creepy things that I had done....The creepy stuff was that I have had [relations] with women who work for me on this show. My response to that is yes, I have. Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Yes, it would, especially for the women. It's been a very bizarre experience. I felt like I needed to protect these people. I need to protect my family. I need to protect myself. Hope to protect my job.
In essence, this is not a case in which the mistake was openly acknowledged followed by a proactive apology—it emerged as a reaction to a clear threat and as an effort to avoid further consequences, pain and suffering.
APOLOGY RATING → 8.5/10
Letterman Apology #2
During one of his Late Night monologues, David Letterman delivered a tasteless pregnancy joke about Sarah Palin's 14 year old daughter, Willow. It turned out he actually meant to refer to Palin's 18 year-old daughter Bristol. His explanation and apology follow:
And then I was watching the Jim Lehrer 'Newshour' this commentator, the columnist Mark Shields, was talking about how I had made this indefensible joke about the 14-year-old girl, and I thought, 'Oh, boy, now I'm beginning to understand what the problem is here. It's the perception rather than the intent.' It doesn't make any difference what my intent was, it's the perception. And, as they say about jokes, if you have to explain the joke, it's not a very good joke....Well, my responsibility - I take full blame for that. I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke. It's not your fault that it was misunderstood, it's my fault. That it was misunderstood.
Here's a short video of the Letterman apology in question:
Letterman Apology #2 Evaluation
This second Letterman apology tried to explain the joke, but, as the Late Night host acknowledged, if you have to explain it...
In any case, he did appear to accept responsibility for the mistake and offered another heartfelt apology. Sarah Palin had been the brunt of Letterman's jokes for quite some time, so the apology must have been a humbling experience for him.