New Rules

Bill Maher Sets Things Straight

Michael Henningsen
14 min read
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When ABC debuted “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” in 1993, America had never seen anything like it. Bill Maher, proffered an edgy, outspoken take on American and world politics that was a refreshing change from stuffy, Sunday morning programs like “Meet the Press,” which were designed, it seemed, to give stuffed suits something to watch before NFL pregame shows that made them feel in-touch with the innerworkings of government. Granted, the guests were sometimes less than spectacular and often appeared to be in way over their heads. Maher himself would ask after the show's cancellation eight years later, “Can I really have a conversation with Carrot Top about gun control?”

But it was a comment Maher made on the program shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 that made the headlines. While observing that American foreign policy might have something to do with al Qaeda aligning its terrorist ideologies against us and in response to the right-wing mantra that said terrorists were cowards, Maher intoned that it was, in fact, the United States who had been the cowards, “… lobbing missiles from 2,000 miles away.” Whether the statement was true or not, it created a firestorm that prompted White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to remind “all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” Amid rabid, ill-informed criticism and the decision by some ABC advertisers to boycott and affiliates to drop the show, “Politically Incorrect” was eventually cancelled and Maher was compelled to apologize. If nothing else, though, Fleischer's response to Maher's comment served to inform America that their Constitutional right to free speech was, in effect, rescinded when it came to dissent against the Bush administration and American foreign policy.

Eventually, of course, most Americans came to understand the concept of “blowback,” in which our own actions and dealings on foreign affairs had a long history of coming back to bite us in the collective ass, especially with regard to our funding and arming of Saddam Hussein against Iran and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda against the former Soviet Union, and our subsequent decision in both cases to cut and run once the dirty work was done.

Maher returned to the airwaves in 2003, with a new show and a new network. “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO has been a hit since its inception, and offers rare and thoughtful straight talk on American politics. The show features a weekly roundtable of guests ranging from right-wing nut job Ann Coulter to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and just about everyone in between that has something intelligent to say about politics.

On the eve of the 2004 elections, the Alibi had the opportunity to speak with Bill Maher about his new show, the bumbling Bush administration, the most recent presidential campaign and his upcoming appearance at Popejoy Hall.


After the events of September 11, 2001, I wrote and published an editorial that basically said some of the things you said on your former show, “Politically Incorrect”—essentially that as Americans, we should look at some of our own foreign policies before we start mowing down brown people …

Wow, how'd that work out for you? How's that workin' for you, as Dr. Phil would say. (laughs)

… the result as in your case was the loss of some advertisers and a fair amount of hot water from critics, bosses and others in the media. What is your impression of the current state of free speech in the United States?

I don't think it ever really went away. I just think that at times when people are freaked out, you have to fight harder for it. And you seem to be gainfully employed … so, I just think that proves that free speech, as always, needs fighters. It's not something you can take for granted—that's the lesson.

If you could personally appoint the president, who would it be? How about Oprah? She could give everyone a car.

You know, I've always been a big fan of Colin Powell as a president. I was very disappointed when he almost ran and then didn't. And I admire him for staying [on the Bush administration]. I know some people are saying, “Oh, he should have quit,” but thank God he didn't quit, you know, because he's like the last sane guy in the building. If he had quit, there'd be nobody there who was talking reasonably, and I don't think he enjoys it much anymore, I think he does it because that's what a good soldier does. He says to himself, “Yeah, if I quit then it'll be Cheney and Rumsfeld talking to each other.

Is there any viable solution to the Iraq debacle?

I've been trying to hold off on that, because even though I wasn't a proponent of going in, once we did, my opinion was, “Hey, it's America's peace. It may have been Bush's war, but it's America's peace and we've got to try to make it work.” Well, the problem is that they botched it so badly, that I don't think you can know if this experiment is going to work. So, actually, my opinion has turned around now to, “Look, if it's never going to work, then why just keep throwing good money after bad, why keep throwing good soldiers after dead ones? And I really don't think it's going to work now.

I think we do need to set a date and get out of there. I know Bush keeps saying, “You know once you set a date, the terrorist just have to outlast you by one day. …” Well, I keep saying, “You know, they'll outlast us no matter what date we set.” You are never going to outlast insurgents in their own country. They could fight us for 100 years, and believe me, we don't have the patience for that. I think the dye was cast in Vietnam as early as 1967-68, and yet we stayed there for another five years, and what was gained from it? What changed? Nothing. Just more dead bodies. So I think sometimes you have to know when to leave a party. If I was president I would say to the Iraqi people, to these so-called Iraqi patriots who are so thrilled that they're free, I'd say “You've got to fight for it. Where is the Iraqi George Washington , Thomas Payne, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Paul Revere—where are those Iraqi's who are willing to stand up to the rebels and insurgents and make their country into the country we were so sure they wanted to make it into?

Can the United States repair its reputation in the world, or are we forever doomed to be looked upon as dividers, conquerors and instruments of corporate greed?

Yeah, I think that's what this election is about. What John Kerry is saying in veiled terms is sort of that, like “Look, if we want to get our reputation back and if we want to get a fresh start and we want to have countries that are even willing to look at us again, you know, “Take a another look at us. We realize you may have switched brands, but just take another look, would you? …” (laughs)

That's sort of what has to happen. And I don't think there's anything wrong with a candidate saying that we're not going to change Iraq until we change America, and we're not going to change America until we change the administration. I just don't think that's the worst sort of sales ploy …

How do you manage to maintain a friendship with Ann Coulter, when her worldview, politics and value system is basically that of a crazy person?

Yeah, well, first of all, she does seem to be getting crazier. I mean she was crazy to begin with, but like, normal, right-wing crazy. And now, it is getting to the point where that's a harder question to answer. However, believe it or not, when you're just out drinking with her, she's really a fun girl. And we have always known not to talk politics when we're just out having fun. We just talk the gossipy end of politics.

What are your thoughts on John Stewart's recent appearance on “Crossfire”?

No, but I certainly heard about it.

What kind of effect do you think shows like yours have had on the mainstream media? Do you think they wish they could be more like you? Or do you think they wish you would get hit by a bus?

Oh, I don't think they think about it much at all.


About my show? I think one of the problems with mainstream media is they're arrogant and they think they have all the answers. I'm not saying that what John [Stewart] said [on “Crossfire”] was wrong, but I have said many times in the past that, to me, the much bigger problem with the confluence of media and politics is the politicians who go on fluffy shows and get to be fluffy. I don't care if you're a comedian; when you have the man who is running for office on your show, it is your responsibility to ask him hard questions and not let him get away with just falsely humanizing himself. So, I think John Stewart has a good message, I think he was the wrong messenger.

Do you think that George W. Bush's insistence on mixing politics and religion in his daily life conflicts with the Constitutional notion of separation of Church and State?

I absolutely do. I think any reasonable person who studies the founding fathers comes away with the idea that they were not religious in the way that George W. Bush is. As a matter of fact, there's very little about George Bush that reminds one of the founding fathers. The founding fathers were, after all, European in their thinking; that's the world they come from. They were very well traveled, very well read, very erudite and cosmopolitan. They were nothing like George Bush—I'm not saying that as a criticism, I'm just saying that it's a fact. The founding fathers, the one group of politicians that we can all agree were great, were not “good ol' boys.” That doesn't mean George W. Bush couldn't have been a good president, I don't think he was, but he certainly did not resemble the founding fathers in any way. And if you go down the list of who they were and what they believed in, you know, Washington was a nominal Anglican, but he didn't go to church and certainly not for Communion. Adams was a Unitarian. Jefferson was a deist—he was so hateful of religion that he wrote an edited version of the New Testament with the miracles eliminated [The Jeffersonian Bible].

On the other hand, you have Lincoln, who was rather religious, but he didn't wear it on his sleeve. They came to him during the Civil War with a Religiosity Amendment, and he immediately nixed it. It's a very recent thing—since President Carter—that politicians can wear their religion on their sleeves.

It really scares the shit out of me …

It's one thing to be religious, which I am not and have no respect for, but it's even scarier when these people are Born Again. Born Agains believe that the rapture—you know, that shit—they really believe that the world is going to end, and many of them are so arrogant as to believe that it's going to end in their lifetime, they'd like to have that happen. And this affects our policy in the Middle East because these Americans believe this tribulation is upon us. It's one thing to have faith, but it's another thing when it's so important to your life that it affects public policy. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. quotes James Watt, Reagan's Interior Secretary, as having said in a Senate hearing of his stewardship of the environment that “I don't know how many generations we'll be around. …” (laughs) So if that's your view, that the world is going to end anyway so we might as well use the land as we see fit, that's a very scary development.

In your opinion, are issues like abortion or gay marriage sufficient to base one's vote on?

Not in my opinion, but to plenty of people in Bush's base, that's what the whole thing is about, those wedge issues. Again, this is scary because we're in a very perilous time right now and we need to be thinking our way out. And for people to be guiding the ship of state by anything other than rationality is very dangerous. The Romans use to read entrails before they'd go into battle, you know, split a chicken open and have some high priest or something come in and look at the way the organs were laid out, and that would determine whether they went to battle or not. And we're not that much better if we're basing those decisions on our own silly superstitions. You've got to guide the ship of state with a compass.

What was the biggest mistake John Kerry made during his campaign?

He didn't challenge Bush on any of the lying assertions that were made about him. He didn't call him out on it. But I guess that was their strategy; that it looks presidential if you don't get down and dirty. I would have much rather heard him challenge at least some of those assertions, which wouldn't have been hard to do. I mean, we were just talking about the environment. Every time Bush made a big deal about how he was the guy to keep us safe, Kerry should have said, “You know safety comes in many ways. Are we afraid of terrorists? Yes. But terrorists probably won't kill you. But I'll tell you what very well may kill you 20 years from now: it's the coal in the air, it's the mercury in the air, it's global warming. And this president has done a miserable job of protecting you from the things that are most likely to kill you.

What was the biggest mistake George Bush made during his campaign?

Running. We should just say to George W. Bush, “Look, you've made your point. You got to be president” and if he wins, we go back and say, “Very good, you got the second term your father didn't. Now resign and enjoy the ranch.” But as far as a tactical mistake, considering how weak a hand they were actually playing, it's a miracle they were able to stay in the race.

Why, in your estimation, would anyone who's not filthy rich, invested in a large corporation and/or mentally retarded vote to elect George W. Bush to any office on this earth?

Well, the answer to that is what we were talking about before: it's religion. Most of Bush's support is religious based. In a very telling interview I saw a few months ago, a typical, nice woman somewhere in the South whose husband was mangled in Iraq and who had every reason to hate Bush was asked by a reporter just what you asked, “Why are you voting for George Bush?' And she said, “Well, he's a Christian.” And that's it. When you hear those words with that accent, it says it all. Some ridiculous number of Christians now—like 45 percent—are Evangelical, and that's a base. There are lots of places in this country where Bush and the Republican ticket didn't even have to fight to win. George Bush could have slaughtered his family on the six o'clock news and, believe me, Wyoming and Alabama would still have voted for George Bush. I would love to see a day when this electorate is not so dominated by rednecks from red states.

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