Real talk with Bill Maher

The talk show host sizes up Hillary and Obama, and explains why he's so over McCain.

Published February 16, 2007 12:30PM (EST)

HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" starts a new season Friday night, and it could be the dawn of a new era for the politically incorrect comedian. After the show's last 13-week run saw plummeting poll numbers for President Bush and Republicans thanks to the disaster in Iraq, plus the Mark Foley and Ted Haggard sex scandals, the season ended with a cliffhanger: The Democrats won back Congress just as "Real Time" went off the air in mid-November.

Now that he's back, is he ready to grapple with a world in which the players and idiocies he's been savaging since the show debuted four years ago have totally changed? "But they haven't," Maher insists, quickly lambasting Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Democrats' inability so far to stop it. And he's off.

Maher has been a window through which we can try to assess the state of our political culture: Are we ready for pointed humor about everything, including Bush's terrifying and inept "war on terror," or not? The 51-year-old provocateur was an early casualty of the climate of intimidation that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, when he was pilloried for disputing President Bush's suggestion that the al-Qaida hijackers were "cowardly," and he eventually lost his show "Politically Incorrect" over the flap. It was the hysterical reaction to Maher's comments that Ari Fleischer was talking about when he intoned creepily: "They're reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."

Don't cry for Maher; he landed on his feet with the award-winning HBO series, which is meatier and smarter and has a better roster of guests (I'm biased; I was a panelist last season); an all-around better fit for the range of topics he wants to cover than his nightly ABC gig was. And while fans of the show might wish they got "Real Time" in something larger than 13-week doses, Maher is thriving on the schedule, most recently working on a documentary on religion with "Seinfeld" creator and "Borat" director Larry Charles, titled "A Spiritual Journey." No, he hasn't found religion; Maher will be spoofing it, although he insists he's not an atheist. "Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don't need. But I'm not an atheist, no," he told the Onion AV Club in a 2002 interview. "I believe there's some force. If you want to call it God. I don't believe God is a single parent who writes books."

Salon talked to Maher last week, on his first day back in the office to plan his new season, about why Hillary Clinton could make a good president (but so far has refused to do his show) and whether Sen. John McCain, a Republican Maher once admired, has officially sold his soul.

You finished the show last season right after the Democrats took back Congress, which was predicted in the weeks before, but not a done deal.

That was a huge change.

Yes, things have changed.

[Laughs] But they haven't.

Well, that's what I wanted to ask you. Were there any big news events since then where you said, "Damn, I really wish I had a show this Friday"?

I've been away; I've been out of the country for most of the time. My head has been on one subject -- we're making a documentary. I'm sure there have been issues that came along --

But you were busy.

I'd be hard-pressed to name them right now. What were they?

The politics of the surge is something I wanted to ask you about.

Yes, that did anger me terribly. Whenever I get that anger, that feeling in my gut, I do wish I was on the air, I do wish I had a platform to vent. And it made me very angry that this man, this president of ours, knows better than the whole goddamned world what to do. The ego of that.

The ego of saying I'm going to send in 21,000 troops -- or however many, we don't even know.

The people in Iraq don't want this. The people in America don't want this. The Iraq Study Group doesn't recommend it. The Democrats are against it. Most of the people in his own party are against it, even though many of them wouldn't say so out loud. But George Bush, he knows better. That is a kind of arrogance that is very hard to swallow at this point, especially when it's costing this many lives. Even the pope -- remember he said something bad about the Muslims a few months ago? The infallible pope came out and said, "Geez, my bad. That came out wrong. I didn't mean that." Yeah, the pope can say he's sorry, but this recovering alcoholic from Midland, Texas, he can't even say he's wrong.

How do you size up the way the Democrats have handled the maneuvering around how to block the surge?

It looks gutless from the outside. I'm not a parliamentarian, so I don't know the ins and outs of how that kind of business is conducted in Washington. I'm sure there are difficulties I don't know about. But just as a citizen who watches the news every night, when he hears seven more U.S. troops were killed today... "Goddamn!" -- it looks like all that hopefulness we felt in the fall, with the election and the Iraq Study Group, was for naught. And I'm on the page with -- I guess it's Edwards who's most vocal about saying -- use the power that you have in the Constitution.

Which is, cut the money.

And the reason why the Democrats won't cut the money is that they're always afraid how something will look. In my view, the fatal flaw of the Democrats is not having confidence in their own ability to make a case, to say, "We're not against the troops when we're cutting the money. Of course we're not going to abandon them on the battlefield with no money and no weapons." It's not that hard a case to make, to decouple the idea of cutting funding from the idea of abandoning the troops.

I find it frustrating as well, because clearly, they're getting advice from political consultants and there's all this concern about the riskiness of seeming to do anything to harm the troops. But if you look back to 2002, it was the same kind of fear and cowardice that led them all to vote to authorize war; it was a similar political jujitsu that they are now regretting. Each '08 candidate -- I think Edwards has been the best on it, Hillary not quite as forthright -- has come up with ways to say, "Boy, we were wrong. And boy, we're sorry," but they don't seem to see the parallels, and that there are actually political risks to looking like a bunch of spineless cowards.

Yes, you'd think they would have learned that lesson by now. You'd think they would have learned how to win a national election. But they keep making the same mistakes over and over. John Kerry ran pretty much the same campaign that Al Gore did in 2000, which said to the American people, "Look, I'm not going to really outline how different I am from this guy, because I'm afraid there are some things about his positions you like. So I'll just trust that when you get into the voting booth you'll say, 'Well, the one guy is a retard. It's a no-brainer, I'll vote for the other guy.' "

Even though he's a wuss. I'll pick the wuss over the retard.

But the retard knows how to at least stand up for something. People like that. And Al Gore, we love Al Gore, he's got a big issue there with the environment, but he didn't mention the environment when he ran for president.

Right, he did not run on that in 2000.

That was his issue, he owned that issue, and he didn't bring it up. John Kerry didn't bring it up in 2004.

After 9/11, you were one of the few people who paid a price in that climate. You've landed very well at HBO, but there were real consequences for you when you challenged Bush's calling the hijackers cowardly. I was feeling optimistic in November that maybe one thing we could say with certainty was that, in the war over patriotism, and over having the freedom to dissent while still being patriotic, our side maybe had won, and that the climate was freer. I'm wondering how you look at it. Have things gotten a lot better since October of 2001, or a little, or not at all?

Well, certainly things are different than October 2001. America was in a traumatized state at that point; we were not ourselves. And it's a shame in many ways that we didn't stay in that state, to a degree. I would have liked to see America remain vigilant and in the mood to sacrifice. But that went away quickly.

We weren't really asked to sacrifice, right? If you ride alone, you ride with bin Laden, as somebody said.

Absolutely. That was the window when we could have been asked to do something. That was one of George Bush's main failings, that he let that moment pass.

And what I felt was the anger of the country. They weren't really angry at me. I think they knew that I wasn't trying to criticize the military, as some tried to characterize it, but they just needed to be angry at something. Being the first person in the whole country who said anything about it except "God bless America," I was sort of asking for it. I sort of set myself up to step into the role of national vent-on-this-guy for a couple of weeks.

Yes, you said something politically incorrect on a show called "Politically Incorrect." What were you thinking?

But this was a new era. This was our little time of trauma. We were angry. The president didn't focus that anger. He did not channel that anger anywhere it could have done some good. If he had made a speech and said, "You're angry at these people? Well, these are the people who are filling your cars with the substance that funds their terrorist activities," you could have passed a pretty comprehensive energy reform bill, just the way Reagan, after he was shot, could have passed significant gun control legislation. Who could have challenged the president, as he was sitting in the hospital with a bullet an inch away from his heart, on gun control? Even the NRA would not have dared to speak too loudly about that. But he let that moment pass. Now, LBJ, after Kennedy was shot, he pushed through that civil rights legislation. That probably would have been a lot more difficult to pass if it had not been over the body of our slain president.

As I think many people have pointed out, in Chinese the character for tragedy is the same one for opportunity. And there are opportunities in tragedy. So it's sort of a double tragedy when we let them pass.

Let's talk about the upcoming show. I hear you have John Edwards coming on.

John Edwards, he's been on the show a number of times, and he's the real deal. Anyone who does our show, I think it means they're not afraid to be challenged and to have to think on their feet and to be nudged out of their comfort zone. There are an awful lot of politicians who only go on places where they know they're going to get the softball treatment. But if you do our show, if you do Chris Matthews' show, to me, it says something about the confidence you have to make your case. And again, that's what the Democrats need, I think more than anything: the confidence to make the case, to say, "If I disagree with your policy, it doesn't mean I oppose the troops." If you have an exterminator come over, and he starts hitting the vermin with a hammer, individually, and you say, "I don't think this is the way we should go about this" -- you're not for the rats.

[Laughs] Right. Do you think we'll see Hillary Clinton on your show this season.

I think if they've resisted me this long, I'm not going to hold my breath.

What do you think about her as a candidate?

I think she'd make a fine president. I've never been convinced that she could win a general election. I think, in many ways, she would be the worst of both worlds for the Democrats, because she is basically a centrist. So she's going to constantly be tacking to the right. She's going to constantly be trying to fish in that pond of votes that I don't think ever bears fruit for the Democrats ... You remember John Kerry in the duck-hunting outfit, Harold Ford with the Ten Commandments?

And on Election Day he was standing there with an Elmer Fudd camouflage hunting cap, and I was like, "It's over, Harold. It's not just the [GOP commercial about] white women; it's the pandering."

Right, the pandering. So I think she's going to wind up pissing off her base, and of course she will never, ever win over that red state crowd that I guess she's going after. I can't see those people ever voting for Mrs. Blow Job.

Do you think she's evolved at all? When you look at her, do you think she's developed or matured as a candidate?

I think she's who she always was; I think people are getting to know her more. I think the more people get to know her, if she would stick to some principles, they'd really like her. Because I think she's a very effective administrator. The Clintons have a reputation for a number of things that baffles me. Yes, he's got a wandering eye, and yes, he's oversexed or whatever. But really, Bill Clinton is a policy wonk. He's the kind of guy who gets into the details of it, and so is she.


Government -- they used to teach it in college. It's actually something you should study and learn and know how to do. The Republicans always run on the idea that government isn't very effective. Well, not the way you do it. But it can be effective.

Does anyone doubt that if Bill Clinton was president during the Katrina storm that he would have been on top of that? He would have been all over that situation ... He would have had the right people. He would not have slept for a week. That's the kind of guy he was.

He would have been out in a boat, getting people off the roofs.

I'm not saying there wouldn't have been problems -- it was a storm -- but as well as it could have been handled, he'd handle it. These people know how to do government; that is their passion. And it is something that can actually be done effectively.

What we're seeing with the Bush administration is that when you outsource government jobs to private contractors, both here and in Iraq, that's where the trouble is -- those are the people who are greedy and unchecked and corrupt and inefficient.

What do you feel about Barack Obama as a candidate?

Obama? What's not to like? I would never compare him to George Bush, but George Bush is a guy who got to be president without a lot of prior experience. I don't know if that's a great idea. I think Obama is very capable and very bright. But I would like to see how he does, at least in a campaign. A campaign is some measure of how a person can run a large enterprise. So I'm kind of glad we have a lot of time.

Part of me was almost disappointed that he ran. It's like if he's really all that, he won't believe the hype and he won't run. And if he does run, and he does believe the hype, he's not all that.

He's sort of damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. But it's also true. Somebody who could be seduced that easily does say something about ambition. But then ambition isn't a bad thing.

In 2002, we interviewed you and you talked about liking John McCain. But you were kind of prescient, because you said if he had a shot to run again, well, maybe you'd vote for him, but you also worried that if he was ever in that situation, he might have to sell his soul to play to the base.

Look at that. What a Nostradamus I am. Well, I'm completely over John McCain now.

So his soul has been sold?

It's been sold. I gave him a lot of latitude, because I do think he's a bright guy, and I think he's got anger, which I think is a good thing. I know that's something you could throw in his face -- "How can you be president? You're angry." -- it's about time we had someone with anger. How can you not be angry, is my question.

Yeah, he's basically selling himself off in little pieces. That's exactly what George Bush's father did -- you sell a little piece here, a little piece there and a little piece there, and after a while, there's no pieces left.

I gave McCain a wide berth, because I give anyone who's sacrificed for our country the way he did a lot of latitude, because I think all things being equal, somebody who has made that kind of sacrifice deserves a lot of free passes. But there are limits, and he's passed them.

He's out of free passes. It also makes me think that he knows better than I do how ridiculous the surge is, how badly the war has been run and how unwinnable it is. What mystifies me is that he and his neocon friends at AEI were saying we need at least 40,000 troops to secure Baghdad, and then they settled for 20,000.

Even that wouldn't work. It's so over. The country is ethnically cleansing itself. It's already a partitioned country. What are we fighting for over there? Why are we fighting to keep Iraq together? Iraq has only been a country since what, 1932? That's seven years younger than Paul Newman. Why are these drawn-on-a-map borders worth one more American life? I have no clue. And I don't think he does, either.

It doesn't seem like it.

No, it's all about honor. It's that nonsense we heard in Vietnam. We've already lost our honor over there. We lost it at Abu Ghraib, and a lot of other places. The honorable thing to do would be to acknowledge our mistake and get out.

So, facing this new season, do you feel any urge to be tougher on the Democrats now that they have some measure of power back?

Absolutely! That's my job: My job is to hold people's feet to the fire, and the Democrats need a lot of holding their feet to the fire. [Laughs] A lot!

Additional research by Jonathan Vanian

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama Hbo Hillary Rodham Clinton Iraq War John Edwards John Mccain R-ariz.