Riding With Bill Maher

The former host of “Politically Incorrect” talks about his new book, his new HBO show, war, sacrifice and the value of propaganda.

February 20, 2003
 |  On Sept. 17, 2001, six days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Bill Maher made this now-infamous remark: “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.”

Those words ran afoul of Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. They also aggravated ABC and Disney, which insisted that Maher’s comment and some sponsors’ cancellations had nothing to do with his show’s eventual cancellation.

“Politically Incorrect,” which Maher created in 1993, won four Cable Ace Awards at Comedy Central; after it moved to ABC in ’97, it was nominated for several Emmy Awards. His newest book is “When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Bin Laden.” His new show, “Real Time With Bill Maher,” will debut on HBO at 11:30pm on Friday, Feb. 21.

Maher recently had the following conversation with Terrence McNally, host of the radio show, Free Forum.

Terrence McNally: How did “Politically Incorrect” happen?

Bill Maher: I did an election night special in ’92 for Comedy Central. It went well, and they were a new network open to ideas. I didn’t even do a pilot. I just said: I’ve always wanted to do a show with an Algonquin type roundtable of mismatched characters who’d otherwise never be caught dead together in the same room.

You’ve said you were shocked that it lasted nine years.

I’m shocked that we lasted six on ABC. ….Though, I’ll tell you, as time goes by, whenever I hear my comment from last September 17 it seems less and less radical. I’m more and more befuddled how anyone could’ve twisted it into a critique of the military, which it wasn’t.

I don’t think anyone if they heard it today would be that upset. Which just shows you where our heads were right after that attack.

But you know, there was a good side to that time too. For about a month or two, this country was ready to change. And I will always hold it against this president for not taking advantage of that and asking people to really do anything to change.

…Except to resume shopping.

Right. “Go see Cats! Take the wife out to dinner. Keep that economy pumping.”

And you point out that sacrifice has always been — at least through Roosevelt and Kennedy — an American trait.

Right. That’s a lot of what the new book is about. There was a World War II propaganda poster: “When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Hitler” — trying to get people to join a car-sharing club. And that message is just as relevant today because we’re also in a war that involves oil.

… much more so.

Yeah, a lot of people say the Japanese attacked us because we cut off their oil supply and they saw no other way out. I don’t know about that. But I do know that Bin Laden and his ilk get their money, albeit indirectly, from oil. They don’t get it from drugs like the Administration would like you to believe. It’s not the Medellin Cartel that’s sending them money. People get their money from their relatives. And excuse me, but these are Arabs attacking us and Arabs make oil. Period.

Oil money goes to finance Madrases, which are of course prep schools for hate. …and oil money pays for telethons for suicide bombers. How did Bin Laden get rich? Well, it’s because the people in Saudi Arabia got rich from oil and they paid his family to construct things there.

Every time there’s an oil interruption, a problem in Venezuela or Ecuador or somewhere, Saudi Arabia makes a big announcement: “We’re going to pump another 500,000 barrels this month to ease prices.” Then they’re the big heroes.

Therefore, we can’t really be dispassionate about the other side of the equation, which is, this is where the hate is coming from. I don’t care what they try to sell you. The center of that religion is Mecca. It’s literally a Mecca for the very radical form of the religion that is practiced over there. Very radical, very hateful. You look at the textbooks in the schools over there, and the basic idea is: Non-Muslims are infidels and Americans are pretty evil. But we can’t really hold their feet to the fire on stuff like that as long as we’re so beholden to them on the oil issue.

When did you make the connection that the linkage of war and sacrifice has been lost to this generation?

I’ve had this poster book from World War II for a long time. Many of them are familiar. Uncle Sam Wants You. Obviously people know that one. Rosy the Riveter. Loose Lips Sink Ships. Some of these images are pretty familiar, I think, even to the guy on the street, but many of them are not.

By the way, when I say “propaganda poster,” that’s not a knock. Propaganda is not always a bad word, and this country was very unabashed about using propaganda to get the citizens of America to help in the war effort.

During World War II, the things that people could do were many and varied, including saving oil, but it was also saving tin, planting a victory garden, working harder. You know, they were very unafraid to just put their finger in the chest of Joe Citizen and say: “Hey, bub, get out there and work hard. The harder you work, the sooner the boys will come home.”

This is a different war, and it may not be saving tin or planting a victory garden, but there are things we can do. And that’s what the 33 posters in this book are about.

That’s even the subtitle. “What the government should be telling us to help fight the war on terrorism.” I’m sure a lot of people would be shocked to find Bill Maher saying, as you do in the preface, that you love this country.

I don’t think people who watched my show [Politically Incorrect] would be shocked to find out I love this country. I always say, a real patriot is like a real friend — the one who tells you the truth. The one who really gives it to you straight. After you think about it for a day or two, you come back to that guy and say: “You know what? Thanks a lot for telling me that because somebody needed to and I appreciate it.” That’s the kind of friend I think people should be to their country, and that’s the kind of friend I am to America.

What do you think happened to the role of the citizen as part of something bigger than a consumer group?

Well, somewhere along the way we confused freedom with not being asked to sacrifice.

The freedom to do what we damn well please…?

Right, and that’s not what being an American means. It’s wonderful that we have all this freedom and it’s wonderful that we have all this prosperity. But for too many the idea of being an American and being free is: “Don’t ever ask me to do anything, I’ll drive whatever the hell I wanna drive! What do you think this is, Europe, bub?” That’s not what is going to get the job done in the war on terror.

In 1963 when Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” that wasn’t just elevator music, not just words from the latest empty suit to occupy the Oval Office. That was real stuff delivered to a country that had been through a war 15 years earlier, a war in which he’d made the sacrifice himself. And so there was no cynicism when people heard that. They nodded and went: “Yeah, that’s about right.”

We’ve come a long way in 40 years. A long way from that and we should get back to it.

On September 12, 2001 there should have been a dual mission. One, we’re going to get al-Qaeda; and two, we’re going to get oil independence. Do you think this Administration was particularly incapable of making that message?

Because of their ties to oil, of course. It’s a shame. Bush could’ve been the exact guy to do it because it would’ve been a Nixon-to-China kind of a thing. He would’ve been the one guy who if he went up against oil, would’ve had a lot of credibility. But he spit the bit, in my opinion, on that one. He always claims, “I don’t need a poll or a focus group to tell me what I think.” Really, Mr. President, then why don’t you fire Karl Rove?

Not that he’s a dumb guy or a puppet, but he is as much as anybody I have ever seen, a politician. And politicians do not want to lose high approval ratings. And I think he’s so trained, as all the politicians are nowadays, not to ask people to sacrifice. The government is only there to give you goodies. Never to ask of you, only to give. When Carter asked people to put on a sweater, they practically ran him out of town.

This president and this Administration are very eager for war, but they leave out the part that says: This war involves you guys…

I don’t mind us going up against Saddam Hussein. I used to argue on my show that fighting off evil dictators is actually the liberal thing to do because it comes from the word “to liberate.” Those poor people in Iraq have lived under a horrible police state for long enough, and we have the power to liberate the heel of the boot off their necks.

We’ve had Saddam in a nice little box for the last 12 years. I mean, he was basically the Mayor of Baghdad. He did not control most of his own country. Our planes flew over the north end of it, the south end of it, and we routinely fired upon his anti-aircraft batteries and any of his planes that got off the ground.

Not in the news very often, but a weekly event.

We sort of had him tied up. And for that reason, I don’t think he thought about going offensive. Now if we attack, we’re giving him a reason to use chemical weapons. And that could get real nasty. Even if it doesn’t kill a lot of guys at the time, I bet you in 5, 10 years…

Gulf War Syndrome; even the government and the Justice Department finally admit there’s something to it. And that was hardly a ground war.

By the time the effects show up, everyone who was so eager for this war will be long gone.

We’re also talking about somebody who, no matter how much they try to sell it, is not part of the al-Qaeda operation.

Bin Laden hates the royal family of Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t hate the country, but he hates the monarchy who, in his view, are way too secular and way too corrupt. And for the same reason, he hates Saddam Hussein because he’s not a true believer. He’s not all about Allah. He’s about power and gold and oil and Viagra.

It’s amazing the way the Administration was able to pull off this switch: “We’re going to go after Bin Laden … we gotta get Bin Laden … we gotta get Bin Laden … Hussein.” Suddenly it morphed like a hologram. And I worry that by doing this, we actually drive these two guys together who otherwise hate each other.

As funny as it is, your book, “When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Bin Laden,” is more serious than people might’ve expected.

I’m a comedian so I sometimes get to the end of a sentence, and it’s a joke. But it’s a serious book. I think what hooks even little kids into it is that there are 33 posters that are really provocative. You know the old saying: “Do I have to draw you a picture?” Well, for some people, you do.

This goes very well with your friend Arianna Huffington’s anti-SUV campaign. By the way, I was the first person to give her a ride in a Prius.

Well, you should be honored because now she won’t get out of it. People still ask me about mine: “How much do you have to plug it in?” You don’t have to plug it in; you just drive it like any other car. It’s a hybrid. You don’t have any of the pain and the problem of an electric car — a totally electric car. But you’re going to get 55, 60 miles to the gallon.

And if there’s a war, gas prices are only going to go up even more.

Not that we really care about that over here because gas is so cheap.

A number of posters in the book deal with why they hate us. Because I think one thing that’s been very lacking in this war on terrorism is the long-range approach. Yes, in the short range, we gotta go get Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and certainly shore up the homeland defense, which is not shored up at all if I read the Hart Report.

You point out that the way they’re approaching airport security is show, not reality.

It’s a complete Potemkin village; it’s nonsense. I’m having a wand passed over my arms while I sign an autograph. I just want to make a rule: Either I’m a guy who signs autographs, or I’m a possible terrorist. I don’t think you can be both.

What’s the new show going to be like? Similar? Different?

Both similar and different. We’re going to have a full hour on HBO — without commercials. I think the biggest complaint about “Politically Incorrect” was it was a half-hour show — minus commercials. Five people basically trying to say something in about 20 minutes of actual airtime.

In this show, we’re also going to have more of an all-star panel — a rotating pool of about seven or eight people. And there’ll be some different elements. There’ll be a satellite interview and a stand-up comedy piece at the end. But I think the heart of it will still be a 20, 25-minute panel of three of my favorites each week.

I want to get back to Iraq for one second. One of the things I haven’t heard enough people saying is: Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just keep a permanent inspection regime and not have to ramp up to war?

Yeah… absolutely, though I don’t know if the UN would go for that. But it seems like we’re working backwards like when we did chemistry labs. You know, you’d get the answer first, and then you’d work backwards to make the data fit. Or the way some people do their taxes. They write down what they want to pay on them and then they work backwards from there. We seem to be doing that here. It’s like they seem to have a date that they want to go to war because I know that you don’t want to go to war in the summer over there, it’s too hot.

They had a date when they said it was good to sell the product by.

Right. Exactly. You know, this is a very punctual Administration. This ain’t like the Clintons with the pizza boxes and the dorm room mentality and people getting sex all over the place. This is a very on-time Administration. And they want to go to war by, I would say, March the latest. So that means everything else has to be backed up from there.

So it just seems like there’s an inevitability that there shouldn’t be. I don’t think it’ll be the worst thing in the world if we topple Saddam Hussein. And Lord knows that part of the world needs a shaking up badly. But if we’re not going to put it back together, then we are going to wind up being hated more than ever by the entire Muslim world. And that’s what I fear the most. To me, the big big bugaboo in this is the pool of hatred from the Muslim world. That is where the recruits come to al-Qaeda.

And as long as that pool remains stagnant, we’re going to be living with this problem for the rest of our lives. Now, if we went into Iraq and stayed there, and did some nation-building, which I know Bush didn’t speak too well of during the campaign, but maybe he’s got religion on it. If our foreign policy would start liberating the Arab world, I think we might have a chance to turn this thing around, and maybe we wouldn’t be so hated and they wouldn’t be able to say: “Oh, well, you know, you put these dictators on the throne in the first place and it’s your foreign policy that keeps us down.”

Try a little Marshall Plan.

Yeah, exactly.

Do you have any heroes?

Arianna’s one of my heroes because she changed her whole outlook over the years. When people say– it always makes me laugh –“Why don’t you run for office?” Well, there are many reasons I couldn’t nor would I want to. But one reason I’m glad I’m not a politician is politicians are not allowed to change their mind.

That’s a flip-flop.

Right. If 30 years later you don’t agree with what you said back in 1972 that is somehow taken as a lack of constancy on your part. “Can he be trusted?” And my point of view is, if you haven’t changed in 30 years, you really can’t be trusted. Boy, what a moron you are. I guess nothing in the world changed, you didn’t read anything new, no information entered your head that might affect your thoughts on things. So I admire people who can make a change. And Arianna did.

I also think that we have a field of Democrats who are not terribly respected and they don’t seem to be catching fire. But I think Al Sharpton is going to really change things. I’m glad he’s in it, I don’t think he’s going to win. But Democrats are going to have to get a lot more real with him in the race as far as he goes. The Democrats’ problem is that they refuse to defend what they really believe in. They constantly keep trying to be more like the Republicans. And he’s not going to let that happen.

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