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'In Phase 2, I go on Oprah and sob.'
'In Phase 2, I go on Oprah and sob.'

Rick Salutin

The Scarlet Letterman's revenge Add to ...

T he Scarlet Letterman? David Letterman has struck the latest blow in his country's 400-year-old battle with sexual puritanism.

Bill Clinton landed the previous punch, by not quitting as president over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But he also conceded the larger point by publicly declaring, " I have sinned." That larger point isn't about whether sex involves morality; it often does since it involves human interaction. The issue is whether that morality will be rigidly puritan, cloaked in feverish public judgments, denunciations and mortifications. In my view, the real pollution of U.S. public life was never the particular acts, nor the attempted cover-ups that followed, but all the phony, staged remorse. Feh.

David Letterman took a different tone: calm and wry, though public and regretful. What he "got out in front of," as the public-relations mavens put it, was really the tabloid hysterics, which is puritanism's modern garb. He dismissed this elegantly as "In Phase 2, I go on Oprah and sob." I consider that line a body (or bawdy) blow against puritanism, and pretty bold. He also clarified a tricky question: What's left as private, in our age of self-exposure? The answer: his feelings about himself, which he implied but didn't detail, and his dealings with his wife. All he said, with restraint, was: "I've got my work cut out for me."

I've never been a big Dave fan. His striving to be cool and unengaged struck me as uncool, and his "political" jokes rarely took a stand. He was in the tradition of apolitical political humour, going back to Bob Hope. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report showed him up. That began to change when he reacted with apparently genuine annoyance to John McCain's snub of him for Katie Couric's "real" news show during the election last year - as if he was trying on an authentic reaction. Now this. Personally, I don't think 62 is too late to get smarter and grow up more. It should happen to all of us.

Actor Douglas Campbell died this week at 87. He was one of the many Scots who came to Canada and stayed, including Canada's first prime minister and Toronto's first mayor. Individual Scots did extremely well in the British Empire but at the cost, you might say, of their own nation's hopes. Some, like Douglas, saw Canada's relatively bare national canvas as an opportunity to realize part of those forgone collective dreams. So he didn't just act and direct at Stratford; he started the Canadian Players, to tour fine theatre in distant and culturally unserviced parts of the country.

I first saw him at Stratford in 1958, when I was a teenager. He played what Christopher Plummer has called the greatest Falstaff ever - and I view Falstaff as Shakespeare's sublimest creation. Years later, I wrote a play modelled on that performance, although I didn't realize it till long after the production, when I ran into Douglas in a bar. We agreed to do further work on the play together. Then he acted in another play of mine. It was daunting for someone with his classical training to go into those little unkempt Canadian theatres of the time, and I could see it took courage. After that, he suggested we have regular lunches, just to "keep it all going."

He had a fierce yet gentle sense of justice. He was a pacifist - a conscientious objector during the Second World War - and a vegetarian in the bargain. As a transplant himself, I imagine he'd have hated our current government's mistreatment of new citizens detained unfairly abroad, if they're not white, or are Muslim.

In Toronto last night, Canadian-born actor Eric Peterson, with whom I've also had the luck to work, received the Gordon Pinsent lifetime award of excellence. By relocating himself as he did, Douglas helped make Eric and others possible. He made you proud to be a member of the same species.

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