Saturday, February 28, 2009

Real Time Real Truth

I've been more than a bit deprived, living here in the UK for the past two decades, so I didn't get to experience the phenomenon that was Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher's show which ran from 1993 until 2002 on Comedy Central and on ABC. So, I'd really never heard of Bill Maher, until last year when I discovered, via the magic of the internet, Real Time with Bill Maher.

I'm an absolute fan of the man. As we're of a similar age and educational background, I feel he's pretty much a spokesman for people of my generation who espouse a progressive point of view socially and politically. I know his background is in comedy, but I actually think he's one of the most astute political commentators about these days, especially in the US. I can't see an equivalent in the UK - the closest, I would surmise, here would be a chappie called Ian Hislop, but he's not nearly as clever, quick or erudite.

Nope, Bill Maher is our national treasure.

I've watched the requisite Daily Show and the Colbert Report on Comedy Central, and while I know that they get the kudos, the positive criticism and the big names to interview, I prefer Real Time. Real Time is always the bridesmaid at the Emmy Awards and it doesn't (for various reasons) attract the big players in the political world for the big interviews - but it does give a platform for the serious players of the future. For example, one of the panel guests this week was Gavin Newsom, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco, and next week the Newark mayor Cory Booker will be on the show. I can see both men as future Presidential material and I'm impressed with both. Of course, as they both rise through the ranks (Newsom has gubernatorial aspirations and Booker will probably go the Senate route), they'll appear less and less on Bill's show - Rahm Emanuel used to be a fixture, but as Bill said recently in a Larry King interview, he probably wouldn't touch Real Time now; but if nothing else, this is a program which makes the public who watches sit up and take notice of some people.

I don't know why the big guns forego this program. I like to think it's more because of Bill Maher's interviewing techniques rather than anything about the man, himself. He's easily the most apt political interviewer in the game today. He has a tenacious knack of getting the person being interviewed to answer the questions, without badgering, haggling or being aggressive. He's subtle. He asks a question once and if the interviewee waffles, he demurs politely with 'Let me put it a different way ...' and rephrases the question. If more waffling continues, he changes tack: 'So, in a manner of speaking ...' and reiterates again, in a different mode. Nine times out of ten, he scores. The person being interviewed actually commits to the question, and by the time he's realised the commitment, Maher's moved onto a different topic. It's gotcha journalism with finesse. And if he doesn't score the point, he leaves the person being interviewed with a surmisal that's tart and to the point, but never rude.

He's got a reputation for being snarky, but his snark has a particular point. And people have accused him of being anti-American, but if you can't criticise your country, you really can't be said to love it. You always want to improve upon something or someone you love. At the moment, we're going through a pretty perilous time all around in the US and worldwide. Yet, as Maher points out, the 'Loyal Opposition', seems to be intent on maintaining the status quo which got us into this deep shit in which we're barely swimming at the moment. And they're doing so for no other reason but jealousy and bitter resentment that the Democrats now have the bully pulpits of the White House and Congress and they've got a President with the courage, tenacity and abject balls to steer us, as a country, in a different direction. They're opposing for opposition's sake, for sheer unadulterated orneriness. Is that 'loving your country'?

One of the best definitions of patriotism I've ever heard in my life comes from Mark Twain, who said that patriotism is loving your country all the time and your government when they deserve it. I've heard Maher allude to that quotation as well. I'd like to add another, this time from Thomas Jefferson, who said, when a government rules for the people, that's good, but a government who rules the people is bad and must be opposed. On that basis alone, I think opposition to Bush and the neocon criminals who took us down the road to financial ruin and an illegal war, was entirely justified.

In the run up to the election last fall, Stewart and Colbert were getting the big names to do silly turns on their programs. They wouldn't touch Real Time with the proverbial barge pole; but Maher turned it up a gear. He took it upon himself to highlight everything, absolutely everything questionable about the GOP candidates, and in particular, the woefully inadequate Sarah Palin, that the mainstream media was afraid to mention: Troopergate, Palin's teenage daughter's pregnancy after Palin's espousal of abstinence, the witch doctor connection, Troopergate, the Bridge to Nowhere, and - most of all - Palin's association with an illegal secessionist organisation. He, rightfully, banged a gong about her ignorance, her inarticulace, her unwillingness to reprimand hecklers at her rallies calling for the death of the Democratic candidate, her profligacy with taxpayers' money and her lies about ACORN and Obama 'palling around with terrorists'. But most of all, he highlighted again and again, her desire and that of the GOP in general, to rewrite the Constitution along blatantly fundamentalist Christian terms, when specifically the document was written by an areligious group of men who were products of the European Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, in hopes of establishing a purely secular type of government, the first of its kind in the world. Maher emphasised this again and again, week after week, to the point that he positively schooled the WSJ's John Lund into silence and shamed him with Lund's own hypocrisy.

It was a moment of sheer interviewing brilliance.

Lund was bigging up Palin as the candidate to watch, banking on her popularity with the base of the Republican Party, which had controlled the GOP agenda since Baby Bush came to power. Maher challenged Lund, an obviously intelligent man. He asked seriously if Lund actually believed Palin was qualified, on day one, to become POTUS. Without blinking, Lund asserted that she was. Maher rephrased the question, only to have Lund reaffirm the answer. Maher then suggested that after the show, after a couple of drinks, perhaps Lund might say what he really thought; whereupon John Lund pulled the po-face of offence and reiterated his support for Mrs Palin and labelled Maher that dreaded word 'elitist'.

Yes, Bill Maher agreed, he probably was elitist, and a snob as well. But he pointed out, quite rightly to Lund, that were Palin not, in fact, the Vice-Presidential candidate for the GOP, she was the sort of woman Lund wouldn't even think to have lunch with. He then admitted, himself, to being an arch cynic, but - he continued - people like Lund were worse than cynical. They were cynical manipulators; because people like Lund knew that Palin was a fraud, and yet they went blithely selling her as the real deal to the American people ... and that, he finished, was wrong.

You certainly wouldn't have seen that around the panel table on Meet the Press, even with the sainted Tim Russert moderating.

I used to watch MTP regularly with Russert and was sad at his passing; and I thought this would be a perfect showcase for Maher to exercise his talents - not that I ever thought NBC would think out of the box and show a bit of ingenuity with an appointment like that. But it certainly would have moved the show up a notch from the non-entity it's become since being hosted by Karl Rove's dancing puppet David Gregory.

Now that the Democrats are in power, I wondered what Real Time had in store when it began again last week. Well, there's the economy, for starters. Bill's of the opinion that Obama's pretty much transparent, but only up to a point: that we're sinking in deep shit and that if he told us the real truth, we'd panic - as we've become a nation of panickers, nurtured thus by the Reign of Terror of Bushco. I must admit, I thought this all along. Bill still reckons that the American public is stupid. He's saying something that I and many more of our generation have thought for a long time but were too polite to say it. I know it, because I come from a rural Southern background, but was raised in a very leftwing household. You kept your mouth shut and assimilated and you didn't talk politics with the rubes, the rednecks and the bubbas. But Bill saying what we've all thought has loosened our tongues.

I know, and so do a lot of other people, that the country's tanking and tanking badly; I know that it started in earnest, with Reagan and Reaganomics. I lived through Thatcherism and that's Reaganomics in British. I remember Gordon Gekko and his real life counterpart Nick Leeson. I know too, that this time around, people were lulled into a false sense of wellbeing and keeping up with the Joneses through credit card debt and being given easy mortgage money for houses they couldn't hope to afford. And I know too, as Gavin Newsom, said on the program this week, that Obama's just going to keep throwing ideas and plans at the problem until something works, because, as Bill said, that's all he can do -and he is, probably, the only President I can remember in my lifetime, who's actually hit the ground running after being elected.

Another point he hit upon last week and this week is also something I've been banging on about since I was at the University of Virginia back in the mid-Seventies, and that's bringing the military back home. ALL the military. They're leaving Iraq. Let's forget about Afghanistan too - because as Maher stated last week, maybe they aren't ready for 'our sort of freedom.' This is something I've felt for years. Studying Spanish affords one the opportunity to study a bit about Islam as well, because Muslims inhabited the Iberian peninsula until 1492, which is fairly recent in terms of European history. The history of the Middle East and its inhabitants doesn't lend itself easily to the Western European notion of democracy, which is one of the reasons the State of Israel makes them uncomfortable. But I've always alleged that loads of money could be freed up if we'd stop having military outposts abroad. In fact, the first year of my marriage, my late mother and I scared the living shit out of my very British civil servant husband by launching into a rant over Sunday dinner about the US should come out of NATO, full stop. So, Bill, you're preaching to the choir here.

But, I do, take a bit of exception to something he said in last week's show. Bill maintained that the only people now wanting to immigrate to the US were those from basically Third World countries, that no one in, say, Denmark was queueing up to come to the States. Well, maybe not Denmark, Bill, but most Brits would tear their right arms off to get that almighty Green Card. I can tell you that truly. Sixty per cent of people in Britain aged between 24 and 60 are desperate to leave, and the countries targetted are the US, Australia and Canada. So whilst the Scandinavians might be satisfied with six months of darkness, saunas, high prices, and rolls in the snow, the British are trying to invade our shores again, by hook or by crook.

There have been various and sundry rumors flying about since the beginning of the year, that MSNBC are targetting Bill Maher, possibly to fill their 10pm slot after Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman. That would be innovative, and if it happened, I'd hope they'd give Bill the free reign of expression HBO affords him. I know he's appeared on that network many times, being interviewed by Maddow and Chris Matthews, who's appeared on Real Time, himself. And while I welcome Real Time as my favorite show of the moment, I'd welcome seeing Bill Maher on MSNBC too ... as long as NBC realise and appreciate what a national treasure he is. National treasures should be cherished and appreciated ... and eventually become edgy and esteemed moderators of Meet the Press. Sooner, rather than later.

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