The most revealing thing about Julie Chen on the Letterman show the other night was not her off-the-shoulder black dress, or the high-heeled shoes that give her an awkward waddle, or even the phony "fly-by" wave to the audience that made her more beauty queen than anchor gal.
No, the most revealing thing was when the round-eyed Julie talked about her 4-year-old Charlie, and how she and her husband, CBS president Les Moonves, don't lie---at least to their son.
"We do not lie to our son. If he asks me where babies come from, I tell him; where's Michael Jackson? He's dead, I don't lie to him, but I..."
Julie would have gone on, but the audience laughed as Letterman did a double take.
"Was that bad?" a clueless Chen asked Letterman. "Was that bad?"
Letterman said it was just odd that those two questions--on babies and Michael Jackson--were the ones in which absolute truth would have occurred to her.
It was a rare candid moment that revealed the state of Chen's moral GPS.
I wrote about Chen
last September, when she revealed that she had eyelid surgery to make her look less Asian than she was--as a career move.
But I was surprised she still felt that the basis of the criticism about her had to do with her denial of her heritage.
That's a part, sure. But a small part, really.
The objectionable thing is she may have had a discrimination case against her then-boss at a Dayton, Ohio TV station, who told her she'd never make it to the anchor desk because of her Chinese American eyes.
But Julie didn't act and failed to speak out, until "her secret" could help her with her talk-show's ratings.
I guess she didn't have a story about child molestation, anorexia, or how she replaced the MSG in her food with some other white stuff, like crack or heroin. That would have been a Rob Ford-like ratings grabber.
But she had a claim to victimhood. Discrimination!
And her response was--get eye surgery? That's the kind of thing that makes my eyes round.
Watch David Letterman's interview with Julie Chen here:
It's hard to imagine that Martin Luther King's response to discrimination would be to advocate "skin-whitening for negroes."
OK, Julie's no MLK. If she were Rosa Parks, she'd be camped out in the back of the bus, batting her eyelashes with her thumbs up.
As a career broadcaster myself, I know how hard it was to navigate through the politics of race in the industry.
Even Letterman was surprised.
"This is crazy stuff," Letterman said. "The conversation you had with the guy in Dayton, is that legal? Did you ask somebody to..."
"That's a great question; I was 25," said Chen. "Uhh, he's my boss, and I just didn't know how to respond. You're right...is that discrimination?"
Judge Letterman: "I think it is discrimination. Isn't it?"
Said Chen, softly, "Yeah."
Then Letterman made a joke to relieve the pressure: " Is anyone telling him to have surgery?"
It served as a setup for Chen to deliver a punchline: "I think he needs a lobotomy."
She probably could have performed the lobotomy on him herself, had she become the doctor her parents probably wanted her to be.
It's clear to me that Letterman was fishing to see if Chen had even considered talking to a civil rights lawyer first, instead of her showbiz agent.
So I did it for her, as a public service for any folks out there considering the choice between a fight for justice versus plastic surgery.
I reached out to three top-ranked lawyers who are experts in the field.
One, a high-ranking civil rights official, said this:
Asian American legal stalwart Dale Minami
, the man who led the charge to vacate the WWII conviction of Fred Korematsu, said Chen may not have had enough to bring a lawsuit back then.
Said Minami in an e-mail: "Not enough. News directors are allowed to make subjective judgments about a journalist's effectiveness as a communicator....If the news director said that her eyes were "too Asian," there could be a case."
On whether Chen should have sued: "Given where she is now, I'd say no, because of the difficulty of proving intentional discrimination based on race or gender. The other reason is that until recently, suing a station is the kiss of death for your future."
Unless, of course, you marry the president of a network as insurance, and use that to build up your sense of entitlement.
But what if the Chen saga actually began today with a news director somewhere calling you into the office, not to talk about the content of your report, but your "look?"
New York attorney Mariann Wang
said it would be a difficult and complex case, but an Asian American would definitely have a case. Said Wang in an e-mail: