“An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.”
– Simon Cameron US financier & politician (1799 – 1889)
The utter timelessness of that remark, made by this 19th Century East Coast political boss, has never been made more obvious than by recent events in our current government, and it seemed to be the underlying theme of Bill Maher’s return to HBO on Friday night with the eighth season of Real Time with Bill Maher.
I must admit, I’d been awaiting Bill’s return with dread – seriously, since I’ve been a long-time fan of his and considered (or did, until recently) him a hero of mine, a voice of my generation, as he and I are almost of a similar age. Last year, Real Time was, more than once, a bit slow off the mark. Bill ended Season 6 in November 2008 on the high of the Election, and every episode from the second half of that year (from his return at the beginning of September until the finale on November 14, 2008) got stronger each week. The pinnacle episode from that season was the one which aired on Hallowe’en, when Bill completely demolished the Wall Street Journal’s John Lund’s lame defense of Sarah Palin’s qualifications to be Vice President of the United States.
Bill used a totally unforgettable zinger, and one I never fail to remember each time this woman’s face and mouth pop up on the television screen.
“Come on, John,” Bill said. “This is a woman, who – under normal circumstances – you wouldn’t even want to have lunch with.”
But last year’s 7th season began shakily and didn’t take off until June, when the infamous anti-Obama editorial surfaced. I’d always viewed that surprising editorial with dismay and more than a bit of skepticism, especially since, the previous week, Bill had used his complaints about Obama as a critique of the Right who were, essentially, complaining about the same things. I was tetchy about that, wondering more and more, if the motive behind that as a bit of attention-seeking in a media world suddenly over-populated with political pundits.
The season ended awkwardly in mid-October, with Bill looking tired and a little bit jaded and tying himself up in knots regarding remarks made about doubting the efficacy of vaccines, first to Bill Frist, then to a panel consisting of Chris Matthews, Alex Baldwin and Martin O’Malley, which ensured that the final episode of the season ended in uncomfortable confusion.
Bill kept his presence known through various tweets during his hiatus, few of which made for made for anything less than uneasy thinking. The tweet made at the time of the President’s West Point speech, pithily and pettily remarked that ‘Barry’ sounded just like Bush. The one made when Obama spoke about the underpants bomber was, again, another ‘Barry’ remark, rather snottily implying ‘same old same old’ yet again. And then there was the tweet made two days after the Haiti earthquake, complaining about this story’s domination of the news.
Whilst I understood the sense of what Bill was trying to say about the last tweet – the fact that the news media in America today takes a story and obsesses it, literally, to death from all angles – the first two stuck in my craw heavily. I didn’t like the ‘Barry’ references. Too many ‘Barry’ remarks are made regularly about the President, and they always seem to come from disaffected, disenfranchised, Rightwing, bitter, old white men; plus, six months earlier, Bill was whining about wanting Obama to be more like Bush, and once he did what Bill perceived to be Bushian, he was demanding the contrary. That Bill perceived Obama’s remarks about the would-be terrorist to be more of the same-thing-different-day scenario, dismayed me, and made me wonder if, indeed, we’d both been listening to the same speech. He’d heard nothing at all about what I called ‘the Obama doctrine’, about engaging with these young men, who are captured in such attempts, treating them within the legal tenets of our civil law, and trying to make an effort to understand their distrust of the West and their unease with Western society.
Besides, it was during Bill’s hiatus that the peculiar “fashion for Obama-bashin'” reached its height, especially during the healthcare arguments, which resulted in a deep crevice being forged within the Democratic Party by certain elements of the Progressive Left, some of whom naively united with hard Right activists to try to kill off the proposed healthcare bill for their own agendae. Add to that, the fact that Bill had used most every media opportunity to brag about the fact that it was he who showed various Democrats that it was, indeed, all right to criticize and criticize strongly various of the President’s actions. In fairness, it wasn’t Bill’s fault that various people who make up the Progressive base took this criticism to a pejorative art form, in complaining about everything the President did or didn’t do, say or didn’t say, even thought or didn’t think – as if they’d know.
Suffice it to say, with all that in mind, I was not looking forward to this week’s debut.
Suffice it to say, I was wrong.
I’d been mad at Bill many times before, but this time, he’d been away on hiatus for such a time this time, with so much happening, that I’d forgotten Bill has a distinct way of making me think about the things he puts so controversially, that by the time he endeavours to explain himself, it’s I who’s kicking myself for failing to see the sense in the situation anyway.
And, blimey, he’s only done that again.
I got a soupcon, earlier this week, of Bill’s Real Time mood when he appeared on Larry King Live on February 16th. I watched the feed online the subsequent night and fell under the Maher spell yet again. This was the Bill I’d loved and admireds as a great wit and voice of reason, interlaced with humour. Everything he discussed with King, he did so with verve and panache, but made points cogently laced with a strong dose of good, old common sense. He derided the Teabaggers and their new golden boy, Scott Brown – ‘the guy with a truck’. Let’s see, Bill reckoned, how quick the guy with the truck is to side with the blatant corporate interests and the banks too big to fail now he’s seated in the Senate. He rightly bemoaned the fact that the Democrats’ poor showing regarding healthcare reform came from their singular inability to sell the product to the American people as something extremely beneficial for them.
Pass the Senate bill, Maher urged. It’s not perfect, but it contains some good things, and he proceeded to list them. Besides, he urged, pass it, and build on it with amendments and reconciliation. This sounded interesting, I thought at the time. He’s speaking sense again.
He nailed it for me with a zinger of an observation about Rush Limbaugh as a voice of the Right:-
“Rush Limbaugh!” Bill scoffed. “What does he do for a living except scare white men as they climb into their trucks at lunchtime.”
Bingo! Bill’s back.
Living in the UK, I can’t get to see Real Time live, as most people can in the US. The show airs at 9pm EST – 2AM here in the UK – and for some reason, none of the British networks seem aware of Bill. The Daily Show airs from Tuesdays to Fridays here, a day late in transmission, on one of the free cable channels affiliated with one of the five main networks; so everyone is aware of Jon Stewart; but for some reason, Bill’s a non-starter on this side of the Pond. So I usually don’t get to see the show until one or two days after the Friday airing, depending on when Graboid put the download of the show online.
Playing it safe, I always ask a friend in New York, who’s a fan of Bill’s to precis the show for me. She gave me a cautious thumbs-up this week, so I settled down to watch the proceedings Saturday evening.
Well, the Brits have a saying: “Start as you mean to finish,” and if this is any indication of the way Bill means to finish this year, I’d say he’s punching up and aiming high.
This was easily the best episode of Real Time I have ever seen.
Bill kept his monologue brief, centering it mostly on Tiger Woods’s escapades during the past few months, with remarks about ‘Tiger’s wood’ and wondering if the sexual counselling he’d receive in Mississippi meant he’d have to have sex with his cousin. There was also a mention of Joe Stack, the kamikaze pilot who ploughed into an IRS building in Austin; but the monologue was kept brief because Bill had scheduled a longish interview with TARP’s Elizabeth Warren, making her second appearance in six months on the program, in order to talk about regulatory reforms in the banking industry.
This interview showed Bill at his best. I’d not seen him so incisive and focused in an interview since 2008. He even managed to inject some timely humour in the situation by revealing that he’d had some money invested with Lehman Brothers and asking Warren to ‘hold him’ in comfort for his loss, which she, good-humouredly, obliged.
The ethos of this interview was Warren’s talking about proposed reforms in the banking industry and how singularly difficult this was proving, how Congress was basically tied up in knots due to the fact that there were still so many politicos so intrinsically tied to lobbyists.
“The lobbyists aren’t coming to Capitol Hill once a month or once a week or even once a day,” Warren said. “We’re talking about K Street people visiting various lawmakers several times daily.”
It was imperative that the Consumer Financial Protection Act be passed and passed soon, she intoned, although she admitted she didn’t know in what form or how watered down the act would be.
I was absolutely flummoxed to find that the US didn’t have any sort of Consumer Financial Protection Act. This sort of thing has been in force in the UK since Thatcher’s day; indeed, it was instigated by Thatcher, as a means of consumer protection when she so ‘wisely’ deregulated the banks in the 1980s. But then I thought that, until the late 90s, we really had no need for anything like that. After all, we still had Glass-Steagall in force, until Bill Clinton so ‘wisely’ signed its repeal.
Very good and strong interview, with a good rapport between Bill and Warren.
The panel for the season debut consisted of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell and Family Guy and The Cleveland Show’s Seth McFarland.
They were all good panellists. Spitzer and McFarland had been on the show the previous season, and it was easy to surmise why they were there again – Spitzer for the upcoming emphasis this year on the deficit and matters Democrat, and McFarland for being the latest head demanded by the de facto Republican Presidential nominee for 2012, Sarah Palin, for an alleged slight against her and her family, in particular the youngest child she uses as a sympathy fixture and a prop, Trig.
One subject flowed seamlessly into another, as a good conversation should, with little or no interruption in applause from the audience. If anything, this lack of audience participation was indication that they were there to listen, and that they found what was being said interesting and provocative.
Spitzer used his position as a former elected official, a name-and-rank Democrat without a particular constituency to please to level criticism in the appalling stalemate in government of the past year squarely at Congress’s feet. He was quick to interject that, although the President has tried, Congress hasn’t tried hard enough; and that the deeply-ingrained partisan atmosphere had been ripening for the past thirty or forty years at best, until coming into rank fruition during the first year of Barack Obama’s administration.
Furthermore, Spitzer reiterated, the Democrats – and he included himself amongst that equation – just weren’t good at communicating a message in terms that the general public would understand. This is something I’ve been tearing my hair out about for ages, and something Laura Flanders alluded to a couple of years ago in her book “Blue Grit.” The GOP learned earlier on, through studies done by operatives like Frank Lutz, that the average American – i.e. the one who’d stand to gain most from a Democratic Administration – has the mental and reading comprehension of a 10 year-old. So, the GOP printed campaign literature and manifestos in language a fifth-grader could understand; it worked with its operatives to train them to speak simply and plainly to get a basic message across. Flanders observed people at Republican gatherings and noted how all or most of them, afterwards, would marvel at how clear and concise the speakers or the literature was – in a language they could understand.
In a nutshell, it’s as I’ve perceived for the better part of the last six months: Obama’s treating us like a nation of adults. He’s speaking as he would his intellectual equals, but the majority of Americans, satiated with faux wealth and plastic greed of the Bush years, augmented by the fear nurtured by the neocons in the wake of 9/11, still want that Big Daddy President who talks tough and isn’t ‘afraid’ to ‘fight.’
The image of perceived weakness led into a discussion, first centering around the threat of filibuster and how the minority Opposition party can hold the majority, ostensibly in control, by the proverbial short and curlies, simply by the threat of one Senator to filibuster – and the threat doesn’t have to be made in person; a Senator can simply phone in his displeasure, and the Democrats will run for the hills.
The solution, according to the panel (and, indeed, according to any reasonably intelligent citizen pleb watching this kerfuffle), is obvious: use the old gambler’s ploy of calling the Opposition’s bluff.
Make them filibuster. They threaten, Harry Reid and co sit back, put their feet up on their respective desks and say, “Fine. You do that.” And you follow the time-honoured Senate tradition of filibuster – no meal breaks, no drinks (except water and milk), no bathroom breaks. The Senator filibustering reads the newspaper, reads the phonebook, reads the Bible – hell, reads the Koran! – he just keeps talking and labouring his right to filibuster in order to delay the legislation impending.
And, taking advantage of the 24/7 cable news saturation, the whole damned thing should be televised, allowing everyone of any doubtful persuasion to see, in real time, what willful obstruction of government looks like.
It wouldn’t be heroic, like James Stewart’s idealistic Mr Smith, who was protesting something viably bad …
Instead, it would be a supreme act of cowardice, laced with cynicism, solely for the purpose of de-legitimising this Administration.
Spitzer is sharp, and his talents should be being used by the party in power; but McFarland has the makings of a statesman, as well, in his mettle. The filibuster discussion morphed into how Republican spin had cleverly managed to convey to the public the ‘weakness’ of the current Administration, especially regarding terrorism and terrorist suspects. Norah O’Donnell deftly pointed out that the Obama administration had actually managed to secure and prosecute more terrorist suspects than the Bush administration had done, and, indeed, they carried on the practice, begun under Bush, of according most of these suspects civil trials. There had been three military trials for suspects, O’Donnell pointed out, and two of those suspects had been released back to their home countries.
Of course, Cheney’s name came up, as did the fact that he admitted on last week’s This Week what amounted to an open admission of favouring torture, and this brought up the proposed terror trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and its venue of New York City. If there be any criticism I have to make about the discussion in general, it’s here. Bill still insists that the reasons behind removing the trial from New York City is all about the Democrats bowing to the will of the Republican spin machine. Sorry, but I distinctly remember Mayor Bloomberg, initially, being in favour of Holder’s intent to hold the trial in New York City, and Bloomberg is a Republican. But once he and Democratic Senators Schumer and Gillibrand had been assailed by various and sundry residents local to the venue, as well as various city departments concerned with the costs and the logistics of the trial, it was they who suggested a change, and Holder who is obliging. That other Republicans cynically took advantage of this situation to proclaim a security alert or whatever, is pure grandstanding and posturing of the worst partisan degree.
The blatant hypocrisy behind the Republican spin machine and its total irrationality was the reason for Seth McFarland’s appearance, and this was linked, indirectly, to the White House Chief of Staff’s recent controversial comment picked up by one Sarah Palin. It was the use of the word ‘retarded’ and the portrayal of a character in McFarland’s Family Guy series who has Down’s Syndrome.
Bill was at pains to remind the audience and the panel that he’d got into a spot of bother some years before on Politically Incorrect when he compared mentally challenged children to dogs. There’s liberal use of the word ‘retarded’ in this clip from about a decade ago, included its use by an actress whose young nephew has Down’s Syndrome.
But, as McFarland reiterates, this isn’t really a term by which anyone should describe people with Down’s Syndrome, rather it’s a word which has entered colloquial vocabulary meaning an act which is less than intelligent or backward, retrospective in outlook.
As good as this part of the discussion was – and I applaud Bill for using the word ‘retarded’ twice during the broadcast, first, to illustrate the context of actual freedom of speech, and, secondly, to show how this word can be effectively used to describe certain situations which have nothing to do, whatsoever, with any mentally-challenged person – I felt it lacking to a certain extent.
The panel could have driven home the point more forcefully in two ways:-
1. By reminding everyone that the Emanuel remark was taken out of context to the extent that it actually ended up being a lie, picked up by Palin, but handed to her, indirectly, by one of the most Progressive members of the Democratic Party, Jane Hamsher. Hamsher was present at a White House meeting between Rahm Emanuel and various members of the Progressive media, when someone disclosed to Emanuel, that certain Progressive groups were entertaining running television ads were being commissioned by and paid for by these groups to run against Blue Dog Democrats who were more than a bit iffy on healthcare reform. In other words, Democrats would be running negative adverts against other Democrats. For real.
Emanuel went ballistic and termed such action “fucking retarded.” The action, not the people proposing it. But by the time Hamsher had returned to her Firedoglake blogosphere, she’d connivingly managed to convey to all and sundry who comb the internet that Emanuel had referred to liberals, to the Progressive base as “fucking retards.”
For Palin, mistress of the victimised spin, it was a gift that keeps on giving. In a fair and balanced way, which would have made Fox News look silly, and which would have enhanced Bill’s independent credentials, Hamsher should have been called out for this naivete. Not only did it give the likes of Palin a necessary weapon, it made the Democratic Party look divided, to say the least.
2. Bill’s often made no secret of his correspondence with Levi Johnson. In this instance, he should have pointed out forcefully that Palin, herself, as disclosed in Johnson’s interview in Vanity Fair and his interviews on CBS, often would refer to Trig as “the retarded baby.”
Bill’s fourth panel guest (and the inevitable celebrity) was comedian Wanda Sykes.
Wanda was brilliant and showed astutely why sometimes in the course of modern conversation, crudity can be blazingly essential.
As everyone familiar with her knows, Wanda is a black, gay woman. I must admit, I thought the reason for her appearance would have something to do with the recent hearings initiated on Capitol Hill regarding the repeal of DADT. It did, but Bill’s first question was anticipated by Wanda and answered succinctly.
In attempting to ask her how she gauged Obama’s first-year performance in Office, she cut the question short and stated shortly and definitely that everything levelled at Obama in the way of criticism during his first year as President had everything to do with one thing: race.
I stood up and applauded at that point. That needed to be said and needed to be heeded – by the Left as well as the Right. That Sykes didn’t directly allude to the Left in particular, rather keeping the criticism within the realm of the Right’s nuttery, didn’t mean she wasn’t aware of the criticism emanating from the Left regarding Obama or the fact that, at more times than not, it was unduly excessive. There were loads of names with which various groups and individuals had seen fit to label the President during the course of the year – socialist, communist, conservative, nazi – but they all conspired to be various disguises of the same ugly word. As Sykes aptly pointed out, “nazi” is just an n-word substituted for another n-word, just like the racism claims levelled at the Right is euphemistically defined as the cognitive dissonance of the Left. Sykes isn’t just witty, she’s canny.
In the ensuing and inevitable debate about the repeal of DADT, something Eliot Spitzer said niggled me a bit. Spitzer opined that he didn’t see why Obama didn’t just do what Harry Truman did when he de-segregated the army: do so by Executive Order. That shocked me, simply because Spitzer, as a lawyer and the ex-Chief Executive of a major state (who would have, on occasion, made use of the Executive Order facility, should have known better.
Executive Order legislation can only be repealed by another Executive Order, and legislative acts can only be repealed, likewise, by other legislative acts. Therefore, as DADT is an act of Congress, Obama could not repeal this with an Executive Order. It simply wouldn’t be Constitutional. Clinton, whose Administration cobbled together DADT with the collusion of Congress, could have and should have issued an Executive Order allowing LGBT citizens to serve in the military without discrimination due to sexual orientation. That this would most certainly have been repealed by the ueber-faux religious Bush regime is a given, but how easy it would have been to reinstate in the Obama administration, although it could have risked becoming a political yo-yo, I suppose.
The panel discussion ended on the topic of the Teabaggers and how, in their wake, the Democratic Party seemed to be losing momentum, thus bringing the discussion full circle to the original topic at the beginning of the segment and touching briefly on the mainstream media coverage concerning the Haitian earthquake, for which Bill had received considerable criticism during his hiatus because of the tweet he’d made.
Although Bill tried to link the events in Haiti with the way the evening news broadcasts focus chiefly on the main news event of the day (after day after day) to the exclusion of all other things, Spitzer and the rest of the panel demurred and disagreed, especially in relation to this tragic event. I would have rather seen more emphasis given to the irresponsible 24/7 cycle’s role in heightening the attention and importance given to the Tea Party movement, which – as Bill stressed in his first New Rules editorial of the season – is little more than a cult and should be treated that way.
I don’t know if this pass on the media’s role in over-emphasizing certain newsworthy items was due to O’Donnell’s presence or not, but one of the more consistent features of Real Time last season was Bill constantly chiding the news media for giving excessive attention to things which clearly didn’t deserve it – flogging a dead horse, if you will, for the sake of ratings and bums on seats – but it deserved to be mentioned, O’Donnell or not, because as much as Fox aided, abetted and supported the Teabaggers throughout the year, their inception can be credited solidly to a subsidiary of NBC: CNBC and the hedge fund trader-turned-commentator, Rick Santelli.
The best line of the night was found in the season’s first New Rules segment, in response to this picture, posing this question:
Bill’s response? “No … and the only person who misses you is the guy who threw the shoe.”
This is Bill at his acerbic best – sharp and off-the-cuff quick wit, ending with a prescient observation of the Tea Party movement as a cult who projected a particular image on the President as something and someone he’s clearly not:-
Brilliant, perceptive, humourous and to-the-point in an often biting way – if Sarah Palin were capable of really understanding satire at its best and most provocative, she would be well advised to watch any of the repeats of this season premier HBO are offering this week; but this would well be above and beyond her ken, when compared to the crudity and ‘rudity’ of Rush.
Based on a few minor omissions and slight mis-statements in the broadcast, I should give it an 8 or a 9 out of 10, but I’m so glad to see Bill back, on form and at the top of his game, I’ll give Real Time’s season opener a full-on 10 out of 10 and keep my fingers crossed that he keeps the standard high and aims higher for the rest of the season.
This is the Bill I like and trust. Welcome back. You’ve been sorely missed.