And now, the award for best critical thinking by a television news commentator. The nominees are (Drumroll): Bill Maher . . . and that's the only nominee. He wins.
I watched Mr. Maher this weekend (March 20) on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher." I was taken aback, pleasantly, by how thoroughly entertaining his questions were of his guests. Why? Because it wasn't merely a Barack Obama, progressive love-fest. It was more than reiterations of how we hate Bush, Cheney's evil and how waterboarding is wrong. There was not the incalculably insane refrain of trying Bush and Cheney as war criminals. It wasn't the usual "we're smart and conservative Republicans are stupid." O.K., in fairness there was some of that. Mostly because it's true. More on that later.
No, Maher not only challenged the guests' statements when necessary, but dared to ask them to explain why they thought such and, what was even better, to at least consider a point advanced that was antipodal. I've all but abandoned the notion of watching anything even resembling a TV news commentary show. It's Barnum & Bailey narrow-casting. No, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart have earned my seal of approval for cogent commentary.
Incidentally, as for plain old news shows, those are even harder to find mostly because we're watching the format's extinction before our very eyes. BBC's still hands-down the best for international news with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer reigning supreme for national coverage. When you watch a bare-bones, true news show, it's a thing of beauty. It's the abecedary of news reportage. Fine. Maher's not that, nor do we want him to be.
Let me be more specific. Bill Maher has a point of view shot through his own perspective barrel with its own rifling. You can see his comedic ballistic marks. We know his frame of reference. Personally, I love his take on religion and Religulous is brilliant. I'm biased. As is he. While on the subject, it's perhaps one of the best compendia of religious and Biblical lore. Lore, mind you, not fact. He learned a very serious lesson when he dared to make a crack about the bravery of the 9/11 hijackers. Let's hope that issue doesn't recrudesce; that's history. I will say that the event certainly gave Bill an obvious hypersensitivity to the issue. Maybe that's why he has bought the official version hook, line and stinker -- er, sinker -- thus earning him the ultimate label of disparagement among the 9/11 truth-seekers: Gatekeeper. But that's for another time.
Bill has his perspective, his take, his riff, his biases. No doubt. (Did I mention I love "New Rules"?) All right, enough with the paeans. Bill Maher is not a lap dog for Barack Obama. He's not a fawning, obsequious toady whose eyes flutter when you dare mention B.O.'s name. He doesn't immediately jump on the DNC or progressive bandwagon. He's got gonadal elephantiasis. He agrees when he agrees. He's obviously a stoner and makes no bones about it. He agrees with me that the late Steve Irwin met his demise by unnecessarily annoying a stingray. It was self-defense for Chrissakes. That's very non-progressive. Remember, liberals and progressives are smart, not brilliant, and not necessarily funny.
He asks questions about stimulus packages and the recession and doesn't assume a priori that whatever Obama and his trusted knights do is correct.
Let me return for a sec to the funny/smart reference. The difference between the archetypal liberal and conservative is how they see themselves and each other. The former believes that she's smart, educated, sophisticated and worldly compared to her opposite, who is dim-witted, slow, old-fashioned, scientifically-nescient, churlish, mawkish, homophobic, sexually-cloistered and very uncool. The conservative sees himself as right, correct, resolute, patriotic, God-fearing, America first, traditional, family-oriented and rock-ribbed. He sees the liberal/progressive as LGBT-loving, un-American, silly, Birkenstock-shod, climate-crazy, tree-hugging, Commie-loving . . . You get the picture. Liberals are smart. Conservatives are Jed Clampett.
But what separates Maher from the Obama-crazed parvenus is that he thinks about an issue and then decides. He doesn't ask: "What's Obama's position? Me, too." Doesn't anyone with a synapse have any questions inter alia as to the stimulus package(s), bank nationalization or whether ex post facto legislation clawing back A.I.G. bonuses is in effect a bill of attainder? Even SNL most aptly captured the feeling over Geithner's competence and mockingly referenced the halcyon days of the inaugural, lo those two months ago.
Let me mention one point about the A.I.G. bonus structure issue. Without naming names, there were a few Obama TV operatives who were a tad quiescent at first when the Byzantine indictment of A.I.G.'s bonus payments was first announced. They had nary a clue as to what this mess was about. Something about credit default swaps or whatever. When Larry Summers said that it was improper for a government to abrogate private contracts that antedated the government's supervision and intervention (and I agree), the usual suspects were quiet, following Larry's lead. Or perhaps they were just confused. Then, when on high, President Obama called for the figurative heads of these latter day robber barons, the lickspittle choir all lip-synced en masse a collected "Whatever you say, Boss" and changed their tunes immediately.
There's a network that repeatedly refers to the first 100 days of Obama's administration with background music of harps and triumphant fanfare. A little premature, don't you think? Maher wouldn't have fallen for that anachronism, i.e. assuming that the first 100 days would be celebratory and transcendent. We're in the midst of a global economic maelstrom, cataclysmic by all accounts. If I want to hear the administration's position I'll go on its website. I don't need a wide-eyed cheerleader echoing what the President's saying. I don't want the anti-Fox point of view. Bias is bias. And understand, I voted for this President, he's now my and our President and, as such, I want him to succeed.
Maher believes in an issue or position himself. And that's the crux of the issue. I want his opinion and not rote repetition from an administration amanuensis. I want to be, oh, I don't know, surprised, maybe, when someone is enlisted to advance an opinion on a show.
I know exactly where to go for that.