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The Devil in David Letterman

On the Monday morning talk-show circuit, Shargel said it was absurd to believe that Halderman would ever try to extort someone and accept a check. He also told the Times that day that he has evidence of sexual harassment that he will share “in a court room.” (He had a boost from the front page of Sunday’s Post, which breathlessly described Dave’s “restricted office” with a foldout couch and a kitchen—“all the trimmings for a bachelor on the prowl.”) On Tuesday, reports surfaced that Birkitt and Letterman had gone hiking in Montana, and that she told Halderman she was Dave’s best friend, and that Letterman tried to keep her on the payroll during law school and offered her a job as his lawyer once she graduated. The next day, a blind source told the Post, “This wasn’t about money, not money alone. This was revenge. It was about making Letterman miserable.”

Then came a bombshell from a friend of Halderman’s, TV medical correspondent Dr. Bob Arnot, who appeared on Thursday’s Good Morning America and supplied the world with the image of Joe discovering Letterman and Birkitt in “very passionate embrace” in Dave’s car one night in August—a scene that, if true, suggests not everything ended between the two when Letterman said it did. To beat the extortion charge, Halderman and Shargel apparently aimed to convince people that Halderman wasn’t after money; he was simply a jealous lover seeking revenge. They also intended to dish enough dirt about Letterman to persuade him to agree to drop the charges against Halderman. On Thursday, Shargel told the Times, “This is not a parlor game. My client is facing fifteen years in jail. If Letterman gets muddied up, so be it.”

Inside the Ed Sullivan Theater, the staff is gossiping. “Of course everyone is sitting around going, ‘I wonder who else he’s sleeping with?’ They play the game—‘Do you think he did this? Do you think he did that?’ ” says one source. People talk about Birkitt, who is on paid leave. “They’re all like, ‘My God, how much was she making?’ And they’re saying she wasn’t even at work for a couple of years while she was at law school—how much was she being paid at that time? They didn’t think about it at the time because it wasn’t an issue. Now that it comes out that they had a relationship all that time, they’re thinking about it.” (A spokesman for the Late Show has said that Birkitt worked part-time while at law school, and paid her tuition in part with a loan that has since been repaid.)

Some staffers say Dave should have spared everyone the trouble and just paid Joe. “Some people are thinking, ‘Aw, man, I can’t believe Dave did this to us. We were just winning in the ratings, we were really doing good, and he had to come out and make this a pissing match between him and Joe?’ ” says the source. At the same time, “There’s this circling-the-wagons mentality of everyone who worked there,” the source says. “It’s like a kid saying, ‘People are saying bad things about my daddy.’ ”

Others are focused on whether Letterman is artistically compromised. “Does it affect his ability to make a joke about President Clinton or whoever it’s going to be?” says Burnett. “I guess we’ll have to see. But if the trade-off here is Dave navigating his way through that in his own unique way, I’ll take that over just another Bill Clinton joke every time.”

Birkitt has been scrupulously silent. She is said to be mortified by what has happened—both the extortion attempt, which she is said to have known nothing about, and the revelation of the affair. “Joe is an adult. Dave brought this on himself,” says a source who knows all three people. “Stephanie is the sweetest girl. She’s the one who is going to get damaged, and that’s not fair.”

Competing images have emerged of Halderman—courageous, award-winning newsman; desperate, spurned lover; and conniving mercenary. They may all be true. “Those aren’t mutually exclusive,” says one source who knows Halderman. “You can be a great journalist and a lowlife frat boy.” If all Halderman wanted was to embarrass Letterman, observers have wondered, why ask for the $2 million? Why not simply come forward with the evidence of Letterman’s affairs? The answer, perhaps, is that Halderman believed this was a perfect crime—that Letterman was such a recluse, so private, so invested in his image, that he would never allow the revelations about Birkitt to become public. But what Halderman hadn’t counted on was that the other side of Letterman, the self-loathing Letterman, won out. It always does. “Dave is like, ‘No one fucks with me. You fuck with me, you die,’ ” says a source. “All Dave cares about is his career.” At home in Norwalk, having posted $200,000 bail, Halderman is awaiting his next court date.