06/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dennis Perrin Sounds Off on Jon Stewart, Barack Obama, and The Nation


Now that we've passed the 100-day mark of the Obama administration, I wanted to check in with author and comedian Dennis Perrin. Last summer I interviewed Perrin for Huffington Post just after his new release Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War. Despite America's love affair with Obama, Perrin's still at it and the time couldn't be better. Despite Obama reinstating military tribunals, preventing more torture photos from being released, and no end in sight for the troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, liberal bloggers and Democratic Party enthusiasts still rah-rah the president's outrageous policies. Perrin has a lot to say about that, including his latest piece at Huffington Post and a recent blog post about The Nation.

It seems like you've taken some heat for your Jon Stewart story. What are they not getting about your post?

Well, I like Jon Stewart. I like The Daily Show. Some people seem to think I was bashing him on purist grounds or something, whether political or comedic. That wasn't the case at all. I understand what Stewart does and who he works for. I used to work for Comedy Central. Of course it wasn't as big then as it is now. But it is part of Viacom and it's part of a larger media conglomerate. Like any place else in the corporate media, there are some limits and unspoken assumptions about what is consider OK and what is considered taboo. But I think calling any president -- with the exception of George W. Bush -- you might get some elite liberals saying "Well, you know, I didn't like Bush either. But calling him a war criminal is a little extreme." I think Bush would be the only I could think of where an American comedian or satirist hosting a major comedy show could call him a war criminal and get away with it. Truman is loved by both liberals and conservatives. Stewart was really hitting not only a presidential legend but a towering bipartisan figure. I don't know if Stewart really believed going into it whether he thought Truman was a war criminal or if he did think think that, then maybe he should backpedal because he was going to get a lot of heat. I don't know what his thinking was really. Either way wouldn't surprise me. But it just goes to show the limits. I don't think Stewart he could have left it unsaid.

Bill Maher said something a little less controversial after I left Politically Incorrect. A little after 9-11 he said "it's more cowardly to drop bombs from 30,000 feet than it is to crash a plane." Which I think is a rational statement. Whatever you think of people who crash planes -- I don't think highly of them myself -- I thought what Maher and Stewart said was accurate. I just think it comes down to perceptions and from reading some of these comments at Huffington Post -- which are primarily pro-liberal and/or pro-Democratic more or less -- there is still an overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. that don't see [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] as a war crime. In other words, Japan got what it deserved and it saved a million American lives, which nobody can really prove.

It's interesting to see people so easily defend mass murder six decades later and it unsettles me in a way. It's like we've advanced and progressed in a lot of ways, but there's a lot of other ways where we're right where we were (with American exceptionalism and such). I don't think Stewart is challenging American exceptionalism. I think he makes fun of its excesses and other areas where it's obviously ridiculous. But when Stewart said Truman is a war criminal, I just think he got to the core of what the system really is and for a corporate financed satirist like Stewart you just can't make those kinds of insights and keep your job. He could have gotten away with it without apologizing. I don't think it would've hurt him terribly. But if he went on and pursued that line of questioning I don't think he'd stay long in the job.

Stewart's apology reminded me of the time when John McCain went on The Daily Show in 2005. McCain emphatically stated that "Israel doesn't torture." Stewart, who is not afraid to speak his mind, didn't respond. That prompted Alison Weir, of If Americans Only Knew, to write an open letter to Stewart explaining there is documentary evidence that Israel tortures Palestinian prisoners. Your response?

Oh, I mean anyone who follows the issue knows that's a given. You even have people like Alan Dershowitz openly defending Israeli torture. He acknowledges Israelis torture because he defends it. But the thing is with Stewart and Israel, is he actually did a great report during the siege of Gaza. It got passed around all over the blogosphere. It was a great piece and quite uncharacteristic. Because I think it was clear how aggressive and brutal Israel was on this "caged population" and there were Israelis sitting in lawn chairs watching the bombardment. What also surprised me was a lot of mainstream liberal outlets like Firedoglake and Glenn Greenwald were criticizing Israel and U.S. support of the siege on Gaza and I think that gave an opening. Many people in the elite press started asking questions about what Israel is doing to Gaza. So any time you have media questioning the official truth, that's where you can find openings in the debate.

In the first Gulf War, there was a real split among American elites whether they should go to war with Saddam to secure Kuwait. They were all against the invasion of Kuwait, but they were split on what they should do. Leading up to the war, there were openings to debate the issue, even on national television. I think that was with the case of Jon Stewart and that great piece.

But I think when you put Israel and torture together, that's tougher for a comedian to deal with because that gets to the core of something. Harry Truman being a war criminal is a core thing. Israeli torture is a core thing. It's one thing to make fun of perceived excesses. It's another thing to go after core elements and it's core elements that make up for what creates the excesses. Stewart at his best is operating on the outer margins to the degree that the corporate media allows those openings to be pursued.

I know people who have worked with Stewart and they all say he's a great guy, nice, and down-to-earth. I'm sure of you got him in a bar, had a few drinks, and talked with off the record I'm sure he's a lot better on this stuff than what you see on television and there's an obvious reason for that. What it comes down to, then you have to wonder how much cognitive dissonance can someone ingest before they break? If they know one thing and can't express it or have to edit it or tone it down, how long can that go on?

You've been tough on Barack Obama since he was nominated in Denver. Now that we're past the 100 days mark, what are some of Obama's major flaws his supporters aren't seeing or denying?

Well, I took Obama at his word. There were certain things he said that I didn't think [he'd follow through] like transparency in government. I thought "yeah right." Anyone who hasn't been president before promised all kinds of wonderful things when they get in. But given how the system is set up and where the U.S. is at this moment in history is just not going to happen. But I took him at his word because as I saw him as the one who's going to fix the system after eight years of Republican excess. This is the role Carter and Clinton played after GOP rule. It's almost pre-programed in a matrix kind of way. Of course the advantage Obama has is that he's African-American. The cover that would give the U.S. was not unappreciated by media and political elites. I remember Ted Koppel saying "if Obama gets elected, that's going to show the world how we changed." Of course we haven't changed and the elites are changing their tactics because they can't go on with what those same tactics during the Bush years.

Today I was reading some reactions to Obama agreeing to block the torture photos from Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course people were upset. But it was like what did you expect? This happens time and time again with anything Obama does that a lot of liberals don't like. It's like they're scratching their heads and wondering "where did this come from? This isn't the guy I voted for." Well, I don't know what you wanted to expect. There is a change in tone and style. I mean people were falling all over Obama at the White House Correspondents dinner. I think the thing is with liberals and Obama is that I don't believe there will be a significant liberal rebellion or mutiny against Obama. Not like there was in 1979-1980 when there was a Ted Kennedy challenge to Jimmy Carter. I mean you do have good critics going after him, like Glenn Greenwald and a handful of others doing great work on this. But I think overall those who are critical of him come 2010 and 2012, they'll be all ushered in under the tent to prevent president Romney or a president Palin or a president Joe the Plumber or whoever the hell gets the nomination and we're right back where we started. I think Obama knows this because there is no alternative to him from a progressive standpoint. So he can continue to do what he's doing, while soft-talking these people and knowing they're not going to challenge his rule.

Glenn Greenwald reported the Obama administration threatened England to keep torture evidence concealed re: Binham Mohammed and he also reported on Obama's latest effort to conceal evidence of Bush era crimes. How is Obama hurting the state of the nation by preventing this information from coming forth?

Well, the official excuse is it's being hidden from the Muslim world. But the Muslim world doesn't need more evidence of American torture and war crimes. They live it. This is aimed at preventing American citizens from seeing this stuff. I don't think people in Iraq or Afghanistan need more evidence. How much more do they need? There's always going to be that dogged minority searching for the truth but for the mass majority of people if you could keep it out of their minds, it makes sense. Obama is planning to expand these wars. He already has. So he needs public support. If these photos come out, it's going to get a lot of play, create a furor, and it's going to result in damage control and that's not where Obama wants to be right now, especially with his popularity figures and general lack of dissonance against his presidency.

You've expressed some disappointment with The Nation recently. What has The Nation done that's gotten you so upset?

I've been reading The Nation since 1983. The last great period The Nation had was during the mid to late 1980s. They were really good back then when it came to the Cold War, Central America, and they were a much more radical magazine back then because Victor Navasky was running it. Navasky liked to see a lot of different kinds of thought collide from Social Democrats to Marxists. Katrina vanden Heuvel is just a mainstream liberal elite. She's into policy recommendations and I think she's succeeded in making The Nation a respectable voice in the national debate. But to be a respectable voice in the national debate, you have to tone down your anger and criticisms. Since Obama came in, it's like they've became really mystical with him. They had an editorial about Obama's first 100 days and they were generally supportive. But they were worried what Afghanistan would do to Obama's presidency. In otherwords, his presidency was more important than Afghanistan or Afghan lives. So I thought "Ok. This really shows where The Nation's minds are right now." They've become a voluntary member of the state press. I know they wouldn't see themselves that way but I've read a lot of stuff in there where they really sound like they're in Obama's pocket. The other thing is, like a lot of liberals online believe, that if they protest kindly enough, then Obama will listen because he's got these good minded people pointing him in the right direction. If they really believe that then they're really naïve and they should not be running a political magazine in 2009. If they don't, then they're cynical manipulators. Neither one seems appealing or noble to me and I think The Nation has taken a real dive as a result. They also use to have a lot of great writers and their content has gotten really soft, centrist, and weak. There are some good writers still. I'm a big Jeremy Scahill fan. Once in a while Alexander Cockburn will cough up something interesting from the archives of his mind, but it's just become this primarily soft, white liberal organ now.

I've always encouraged dissidence of any kind within the Democratic Party and I would like to see that. A lot of people say I'm a cynic, dead-ender, and a nihilist and I'm not. A lot of things come and go but the system remains and I realize how difficult it is to make in-roads. There are certain changes that do happen. They're incremental and they're important but one has to learn not to settle for that. I know there are a lot of people out there trying to affect change and I support them. If there's anything I can do to help it along, then I do. I was a big supporter of the Republic Window sit-in. I would like to see more of that. I would like to see more direct action but I knew early on in the Obama administration that it was just not going to happen. But I think hopefully as time goes on and he is shown to be who he really is, that will go away and people will get involved in a more direct way. I'd like to see that and I will support it but I just have serious doubts based on my experience. But I would like to be proved wrong.

Check out Dennis Perrin at