Sunday, March 22, 2009

Real Time Should Meet the Press

Even though I was in the US for two weeks, I suffered real Real Time withdrawal. Because of the crisis in the economy there, belts were tightened, satellite companies changed, and the HBO subscription went out the window.

Because, when it's on, I view Real Time with Bill Maher as absolutely essential viewing, I manage to be able to download it in Britain, the day after it's shown live in the US. So, I've three episodes, including the most recent one, to catch up on.

Last night, I'd acclimatised myself enough to settle down and watch the episode which aired on Friday, 6 March.

Bill Maher is a particular hero of mine. I share many of his political and ethical views, and I actually consider him to be somewhat of a spokesman of our mutual generation, since we are of similar age. I think he's witty, intelligent and probably the most astute and canny political intervier on television. In point of fact, I think there's no other political pundit in the media today who intrinsically knows more about the Constitution than Bill Maher. HBO's gain is definitely a loss to the other bigger networks.

When NBC's Meet the Press moderator, Tim Russert, died suddenly last year, I immediately thought that Bill would have been an excellent choice to replace Russert in the chair; although I knew NBC would never have balls brass enough to make what would have been an interesting, refreshing and provocative gamble that would have paid off handsomely. I'll go as far as saying that Maher is actually a better interviewer than Russert.

Russert was an all-around nice guy, a working class stiff from Buffalo, who earned a handsome wage but was at pains to remind everyone all around just how blue collar he was. Everyone liked him, left and right. In fact, I've even heard he was a close friend of Rush Limbaugh. And he had the uncanny knack of putting every person he interviewed at ease, before, during and after any interview. All Tim had to do was ask about the person's family - his kids, elderly mother or dog - or his sports team; and they were putty in his hands. But he had an infuriating knack of letting his culprits off, even when he had them in his sights in a gotcha moment. Tim would ask a question, the interviewee would waffle out an answer, Tim would show a quotation made by the person from a previous interview and the person being interviewed would waffle out an answer that didn't really explain why a position had sharply changed; Russert would smile and nod benignly and move on.

Not so Bill Maher.

A lot of people have the misguided conception that Maher is rudeness, personified. As an interviewer, this is simply not so. He's sharp, but he's polite. He's meticulous in letting the person being interviewed get his point across, however much it might differ to his own or that of the audience. He doesn't allow waffle, but he's clever about getting the person interviewed to actually answer a question, no mean feat as this is something most politicians have down to an art. He simply re-states the question in a different way, often so cleverly worded that the interviewee thinks another question is being asks and falls into the trap. Before he realises he's been gotcha'd, Bill's moved onto the next question. In fact, I've never seen a political interviewer so sharp, so persistent, yet so deft of phrase and so respectful of his subject; and he even is human enough to admit an error on his part. In fact, I'd stick my neck out and go as far as saying that Bill Maher is the Barack Obama of political interviewers.

Living in the UK, I'm familiar with one Jeremy Paxman, who hosts the BBC's flagship news and political talk show, Newsnight. Paxman's a hard and persistent interviewer, and he holds his subjects' feet to the fire; but where Maher probes, Paxman berates, hectoring, interrupting, repeating the question again and again until the subject feels persecuted to the point where the viewing audience actually feels sympathy with whoever is being interviewed no matter how big a scoundrel he or she is. And a lot of the time, Paxman's approach doesn't get the desired result.

Maher's does.

On 6th March, his Real Time guests were T Boone Pickins, the billionaire entrepreneur advocating wind power in order to reduce the US dependence on foreign oil; Newark mayor Cory Booker, Erin Burnett of CNBC, and Dr Peter Singer of Yale University.

The interview with Pickins was interesting and could have/should have gone on longer. Ten minutes was far too short. It was the sort of thing you would have expected to see in the first half hour of MTP; but the ten minutes allotted proved provocative.

Pickins is an eighty-something Southerner from Texas, a man of his time, who's built and lost three fortunes. It was obvious to anyone watching the program who knows anything about politics and the South that Pickins's politics were of the right-wing red variety, to a degree. Still, Maher treated him with very proper respect, verging almost on gentleness, due to the man's age. He showed interest in Pickins's philosophy of oil-free dependence and queried him on his knowledge and background in trying to get successive US governments and Presidents to heed his urgings about lessening dependence on oil. He even began by asking Pickins, respectfully, what he should call him. I liked that.

I felt the interview was just starting to roll when it had to end; but Maher managed to get in a teasingly naughty question, phrased and presented much in the was a visiting nephew might gently goad an elderly uncle into explaining a viewpoint which seemed at odds with the 'uncle's' philosophy. There was even a point where Maher stumbled, after having said that he'd red Pickins's biography. When Pickins corrected him on the point, Maher admitted he'd actually 'skimmed' the biography, cheerfully admitting his error.

After ascertaining that Pickins was working with the Obama administration on reducing oil dependence, Maher asked how things were going in working with this administration. Pickins replied briefly, 'Better than the others.'

Maher then deftly remarked that, had Albert Gore or John Kerry won their respective elections, Gore in particular, might Pickins's plan have had enjoyed an 8-year head start, instead of the country finding itself up the proverbial Sewanee in oil dependancy now. Then Maher naughtily jibed that Pickins had, in fact, voted for George W Bush; and Pickins, obviously a man of honesty, admitted that he was no Democrat.

Maher then had a teasing moment, asking - never rudely, but with odd gentleness and deference - how, now that Pickins was actively working with the Obama government, he could actually have voted for John McCain.

As I said, this was a bit naughty. Just a bit; but I got the gist of the question. Pickins, an octogenarian Southerner from Texas, is a man of his time. He lived in the segregated South, was probably reared a Dixiecrat and most likely switched parties the instant Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill. Maher was inferring, subtly, that maybe, just maybe Pickins might have voted for McCain because a man of his generation and social background might have found it, mildly difficult - shall we say - in voting for a left-wing black man with socialist tendencies.

Pickins hedged the question initially, reminding Maher that he never actually supported McCain.

'But you voted for him,' nudged Maher.

Yes, Pickins admitted, he did vote for John McCain. Maher persisted, ever gently, ever politely, in wondering aloud how Pickins could justify voting for McCain and how he now could involve himself in the Obama administration.

Pickins replied that, at the end of the day, he simply realised both he and John McCain were too old to be President. On that note, Maher jocularly ended the interview (for time reasons) and even allowed Pickins an extra 38 seconds to urge the audience and viewers to insist that the government seriously explore means of lessening the US dependence on oil, telling everyone that this was in their interest, the people's interest, for their country and a better quality of life and a better environment.

For me, this was the highlight of the program, as it highlighted Maher's knowledge, skill and ability as a crack interviewer.

At the beginning of this year, when MSNBC announced they were looking for someone to present a political talk show in the 10PM slot after Rachel Maddow's show, the internet was abuzz with rumours about Maher being approached or sought for the slot. I'd welcome that, even if it meant that Real Time was shelved or that MSNBC bought the rights to Real Time and brought it into that time slot, at least once a week. More people should be exposed to Bill Maher, especially those who judge him on remarks taken out of context. He's one pundit who doesn't kowtow to the Beltway bunch or to any political party in general. In short, he's truthful and to the point and says a lot of things a lot of other political talking heads are too afraid to say. And, you know, I don't think this would change were he to accept a position on a major network again.

I've read recently in various places that Meet the Press is tanking against George Stephanopolous on ABC and the grandfatherly Bob Shieffer on CBS's Face the Nation. MTP with the bland and boring David Gregory, dancing partner of Karl Rove, is tanking even against Chris Wallace on Fox. I hope NBC is kicking themselves. And if they've any imagination, nous and sheer cojones, they'll pay handsomely to acquire Maher's talents for MSNBC and move him pronto into the moderator's chair on Meet the Press as soon as Gregory's dire contract expires.

Did I say 'pay handsomely' in this time of economic crisis? Yes. Because Maher, himself, has gone on record as saying, many times, that he and those of his ilk should pay more taxes. The man is nothing, if not honest. He is the jewel in the crown of political pundits.

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