Speed Reads

Last week of Letterman

Watch David Letterman's finest 8 minutes

David Letterman is retiring on Wednesday, after 33 years on late-night TV, starting on NBC then, after getting passed over for The Tonight Show, launching a late-night juggernaut at CBS. He's had a lot of great moments, transformed late-night TV into something more fun and unpredictable, and made a lot of people laugh and feel less alone. His finest moment wasn't funny, though. It was the Late Show on Sept. 17, 2001, his first after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

If you're just tuning in, in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, New York was terrified and on edge and depressed and unsure of what to expect. It was the week The Onion's first print edition hit New York, and that provided some catharsis for the wounded city, but Letterman did better. He returned to work, Letterman said, because Mayor Rudy Giuliani had "implored us to go back to our lives, go on living, continue trying to make New York City the place that it should be." (It was Giuliani's finest hours, too.) Then he said this:

There is only one requirement for any of us, and that is to be courageous. Because courage, as you might know, defines all other human behavior. And I believe, because I've done a little of this myself, pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing. [Letterman]

The rest is worth watching, too — it's all heart and tears and a crust of comedy. And it's a moment when late-night TV broke through the din and meant something. Letterman is far from perfect — as he tells people, often — but that night he was. —Peter Weber