On Discovering Bill Maher

Yes, I know I'm retro, but until this weekend I had never seen nor heard the apparently quite famous Bill Maher.  That oversight has now been remedied thanks to some seriously brilliant producers at ABC television who were insightful enough to book Mr. Maher as a participant in the roundtable political discussion on "This Week."

Although I had not seen Mr. Maher nor heard him with my own ears, I had heard of him from friends who apparently thought him to be quite a "hoot," funny, witty, and pretty darned smart.  In imagining him from those descriptions, I pictured a modern-day George Carlin, maybe even a lineal descendant of Cheech or Chong.  Adept at skewering, skilled at eliciting gasps, a provider of secret pleasures ("right on," one wished to say).

What a surprise, then, to find that in fact Mr. Maher is neither funny nor smart.  He is, I found, nothing more than just one more of those full-of-himself mean-spirited bigots whose certitude and nastiness so poison the well of democratic discussion. 

At one point the conversation turned to the new "stop and identify yourself" statute enacted by the Arizona legislature and signed into law by the state's governor.  It is a serious matter with disturbing overtones (suspicion based on skin color, neighbors keeping watch).  Being Jewish, I found the parallels to earlier times and other place to be unnerving.  Years ago, on my first trip to Europe, I drove north from Amsterdam, crossing over the zuider zee, and entered a covered bridge that served as a border crossing checkpoint into Germany.  The war was long over but the uniforms on the German border guards were sufficiently reminiscent of those worn by the Nazi army that I turned back and spent the night at a Dutch border town drinking Heineken and wondering if the passage would feel differently in daylight.  I'm sensitive to things that smack of "show me your identity card."

The other part of the equation in Arizona is the abject failure of the United States government to stop the flow of illegal immigrants that has put such enormous and expensive pressure on the state's schools, hospitals, roads, etc.  None of those problems justifies the overreaction embodied in the new law but such a multi-faceted dilemma demands serious conversation.  And for the most part, that's what transpired: George Will and Matthew Dowd were aware of the problems Arizona faces and the inadequacy of the federal governments law and border enforcements.  Katrina vanden Heuvel and Al Sharpton addressed the "singling out" concerns.  All involved spoke intelligently and with a proper regard for the differing opinions of others.

Then there was Mr. Bill Maher, whose three principal contributions were to hail Brazil's having stopped its use of oil as an energy source for vehicles (incorrect), his observation that Republicans are racists, and his subsequent refinement of that observation: he only meant to say that if you're a racist, you're probably a Republican.

I had actually been watching something else on television (a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald), but switched in time to watch Mr. Maher's performance.  I'm glad I did.  Had I not done so, I would have continued to be among those blissfully unaware of what a dolt he is, of how hateful and venomous and destructive of civility and intelligent discourse he is.

And so the villain of this piece is?  Not Mr. Maher: he is, sadly, what he is, and that is all he is, and (my heart goes out to him) that is probably all he will ever be; one can only do one's best with whatever limited capacities one has.  But George Will, Matthew Dowd, Al Sharpton, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, agree with them or not, have a proper place at the grown-up table; one can only wonder what the producers at ABC were thinking when they moved this character to a table at which the likes of George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts, Cokie Roberts, and Sam Donaldson once sat.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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