This month, outspoken HBO political commentator and comedian Bill Maher brings his insightful wit to the South Beach Comedy Festival
Prolific comedian, actor, writer and producer Bill Maher is celebrated for his political satire and sociopolitical commentary. After hosting the late-night television talk show Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central and ABC (on which Gerald was a guest three times), he is now the star of Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. Last summer, the New York City native also debuted an Internet-exclusive talk show on Amazon.com entitled Amazon Fishbowl, the first ever episodic program on a major website.
His frankness, however, famously cost him his ABC show. On air, along with conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza, Maher said, ‘We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly. Stupid maybe, but not cowardly.” Lost in all the brouhaha was the fact that D’Souza had raised the topic, and Maher was merely amplifying what D’Souza had said. Still, so soon after 9/11, he was attacked by right-wing pundits, and advertisers such as FedEx and Sears, Roebuck pulled their ads. The show was cancelled on June 16th, 2002. Six days later, Maher received the President’s Award-for ‘championing free speech’-from the Los Angeles Press Club. In a recent broad- ranging interview with Maher, who will appear in Miami on January 20th (his 51st birthday) as part of the South Beach Comedy Festival, we discussed politics, social issues and religion.
OCEAN DRIVE What do you think of the Barack Obama phenomenon? Is he just a blank canvas onto which people project whatever they want?
BILL MAHER: Well, they did that with George Bush. Actually, that comparison is unfair to Obama, because he is not like George Bush. But also, he doesn’t have a very long record. People are starved for a leader; we are bereft of them. Well just have to see how Obama plays out in the primaries, when he is asked real questions and is under scrutiny. Anything’s possible in politics.
What do you think about the Rumsfield memo [a leaked memo in which the ex-Defense Secretary called for major changes In Iraq tactics two days before he resigned)? is it just covering his ass?
It's a little late to cover his ass. You would need military camouflage to cover his ass. These officials wake up to things so late, they just don't know what other people are talking about or have been writing about. Bush once said he didn't read the newspaper, and I made fun of it. But it really wasn't funny, and the last leader to do that was Louis XIV. He went around France and people would say, The kingdom is so great.' Bush would just have to read one of [New York Times writer] Thomas Friedman’s columns once in a while instead of listening to the ass kissers around him.
So what is the solution in Iraq?
There isn’t one. No one in either party has one Packing up and getting out is no easy answer. All the people who predict what will happen in Iraq make me so angry, because none of them have been right so far. We aren’t even that good about predicting what will happen two or three months down the road. Remember blowback [the theory that US. actions often lead to unintended consequences)? If we leave, what will be the blowback? Will there be a worse bloodbath? Possibly. But it's going on anyway. And what does it matter except in U.S. lives? They are going to wipe each other out, if it happens in a spasm of violence or more slowly. They have already killed everyone who could build a country, or those people have fled, or they have been radicalized. Only a nest of vipers is left, apart from us. I don't know how many more U.S. lives will stave off the inevitable. The talking heads act like they know the answers. These people only care about power and who is in power. And bringing in Syria and Iran to help us is a joke. We threw them into the 'axis of evil,' tried to get rid of their leaders-who are bad-and there is simply no way they are going to help us. The people we thought were going to throw flowers when we arrived were there, but they are all gone now.
Switching gears, ex-Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar has his Aspen home for sale for $135 million. The top- 10 listed homes in America average $74.5 million. Corporate titan Barry Diller's compensation was $295 million last year. The gap between the ultrarich and the poor has never been bigger. Do you favor a heavy tax on the rich?
Hmm, I have to go now (laughs). The government already takes half. Even over a few hundred thousand, they take half. I don't know if the government should take more than that. A larger tax is not a bad idea, especially on the ultrarich, and the amount should be on whatever is more than I could make.
So what is causing the problem between rich and poor?
Well, even though we elected the Democrats, there is no far left to address these social issues. There is a far right. But besides [Bernie] Sanders (the first socialist elected to the Senate) or Ralph Nader, there is no far left. No one talks about cutting the defense budget by a few hundred billion. You never really hear talk about shifting the tax burden. Politicians always talk about the middle class but never the poor. John Edwards does, but he’s about the only one. I like Edwards, Biden, Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is a blight on our record that such progressive countries as Pakistan and Chile have had female leaders and we haven’t. You know what the U.S. and Kazakhstan have in common, beside the Borat jokes? The vote for women was approved in both countries on August 26th, 1920. We have finally caught up to Kazakhstan.
You mentioned Nader. Did he cost Al Gore the election?
Nader didn’t cost Gore the election. Gore cost Gore the election. There is always someone else in it, and they can’t count the votes right anyway in this country, so you have to win decisively, that’s the rule. Gore was the sitting Vice President in an administration that had guided the country through relatively good prosperity, and he should have defeated a nothing candidate from Midland, Texas. The son of a mediocre President. I mean, his father wasn’t Alexander the Great. The Democrats lose by going after the NASCAR voters, by goose-stepping, by moving to the right, by pretending to be conservatives, by being ashamed of the liberal word. That is exactly what Hillary is doing now. And as for Kerry, he was not a good candidate, but he could have been a good President.
So what is the hang-up here? Why can’t we invoke ‘liberal’ anymore?
Many people would support a liberal. Seventy-nine million who could have voted in the last Presidential election did not. Most who didn’t vote are progressives. Poor people can’t get the time to vote and are so discouraged by their life, and their needs are so dire that they can’t imagine that voting for Kerry or Bush will change anything. And guess what? They’re right. Kerry wasn’t even talking about raising the minimum wage. These voters can be energized, but no one is speaking to them. Evangelical Christians organize and their faithful follow, but progressive people are asleep at the wheel.
What about 2008?
I like Hillary. But she isn’t electable. Giuliani would be a strong candidate and would do well in the general election, but he can never get the Republican nomination. He has a liberal social résumé, divorced his wife, lived with a gay man and dressed up as a woman.
What about your own politics?
I come from parents who were liberal Democrats (a Jewish mother and Catholic father), and every right winger says I’m liberal, but I have many viewpoints that aggravate my liberal friends. For the last 28 years, since Republicans have sold themselves off to pharmaceutical companies, the Christian right and big money, I have voted Democratic. But they don’t represent me. They are just slightly better than the other clowns. (He did vote for Dole in 1996 against Clinton, but says it was a sentimental vote for my parents’ generation. Clinton had that election locked up. Ed Rollins (a Republican strategist) told me that if it was a prize fight, he would have stopped it’)
Moving on to one of your favorite topics, religion. Atheist? Agnostic? What role should religion play in America?
The government’s position should be that we have no God officially. We are a secular country. But have you seen the new documentary Jesus Camp? It’s a little scary when people like this think they have the truth. Remember a few years ago when General Boykin said that our God was better than Allah? It’s silly to say you know the absolute truth. I don’t know. To say, ‘I know 100 percent,’ is too arrogant. It seems like nothing else is out there, and it is supersilly to think that some humanistic God ever existed. That’s no more sophisticated than paganism. It is equally silly that the three major Western religions wear as a badge of honor the idea that, We are monotheistic.’ That has all the characteristics of the sun god and all the other silly gods.
Have you noticed that almost all religions are dominated by men? Is it about power?
They are male-orientated because religion is simply a tool. Priesthoods use religions to retain power over women. For instance, when The Passion of the Christ came out, I didn’t think it was anti-Semitic. Jews didn’t put Jesus to death. He was put to death by a priesthood, because they guard their power, and he was a rival to the Jewish priesthood. Any priesthood would have done the same thing.
A few quick final questions. Are you still for privatizing some of social security?
Ending corporate welfare?
Legalizing gambling, prostitution and drugs?
Yes, to all three.
Yes, all drugs.
Still a big PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] fan?
How about the pharmaceutical and health-care industries? You’ve often said they make money out of curing people who are made sick by consuming society’s unhealthy food. True?
Yes. I’m not a vegetarian. I’m more concerned with food’s purity. I never eat chicken unless it’s hormone- and antibiotic-free. Just don’t eat the poisonous food they feed us, because the pharmaceutical companies then get to treat the symptoms with their drugs.
What about vaccines, do they work?
No way. I would never get a flu shot. It gives you the flu. By the time you get a vaccine made months earlier, it doesn’t prevent the flu. You just need a strong immune system.
Last question. Where do you see yourself In five years?
Still on HBO, if they want me. Look, I just turned 50. Every decade you are a new person. I don’t know where I’ll be, but it will be someplace interesting.