If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one of his acerbic barbs, you might be inclined to call Bill Maher a witch. Or worse.
“No, I’m you,” Maher snarkily replies during a recent telephone interview, when asked if he’d ever been referred to as a Wiccan. (Maher will perform at the Aronoff Center for the Arts on Saturday; get details here.)
Maher, 54, is the host of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. The weekly series includes interviews with politicians and other newsmakers, as well as a panel discussion featuring wide-ranging guests who opine about various current events selected by the host. It’s a follow-up, of sorts, to Politically Incorrect, a forerunner of The Daily Show that ran for four years on Comedy Central beginning in 1993 and later on ABC until it was canceled in 2002.
It was on Maher’s earlier show that a young Christine O’Donnell — now the Republican senatorial candidate in Delaware — made numerous embarrassing comments as a semi-regular panelist. Maher made headlines recently by digging up an unaired clip in which O’Donnell claimed to have “dabbled into witchcraft” and visited a satanic alter with a date that’s helped to derail her once promising campaign.
“I think she will do even better than Sarah Palin,” Maher said at the time. “Sarah Palin is mean, and Christine is not. She’s nice, and I have the proof. I have 22 episodes.”
The clip prompted O’Donnell to create a widely mocked TV commercial in which she denies being a witch and tries to claim Everywoman status by alleging “I’m you.” Maher finds her assertion ludicrous.
“Actually, it’s funny because we’re wanting to do a piece like that this week, showing that I am more ‘you’ for most of America than Christine O’Donnell,” he says. “These Teabaggers live in their bubble, where they think America is reflected by them, and it’s not. They say things like, ‘Americans want to repeal health-care reform.’ No, they don’t. Most polls show Americans either like it or don’t think it went far enough.
“I am more aligned with most people on the issues than the Tea Party. A poll found 35 percent of the Teabaggers think Americans who earn over $1 million a year pay too little taxes, while 56 percent of Americans do.”
The Tea Party movement is faux populism filled with followers who have misguided anger, Maher says.
“If they’re a grassroots organization, why aren’t they on the side of the little guy?” he asks.
Maher is known for his blunt assessments of politicians, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, and he believes Tea Partiers are being duped by corporate interests.
“The government is there to rein in corporate abuse of power,” he says. “It seems like (Tea Partiers) are there to prevent government from reining in corporations, so they can do whatever they want. Why didn’t the Tea Party come out strong against the Citizens United case from the Supreme Court? It’s because the Tea Party is something that was started by Dick Armey — there’s a real grassroots guy, who used to be the Republican House majority leader — and billionaires like that David Koch douchebag.
“I think the Republicans are genuises at creating Frankenstein monsters. First they did it with the Religious Right; in 2004, they got Bush reelected by putting gay marriage on the ballot. Now they have the Tea Party people. The Karl Roves — the intelligensia of the Republican Party, if you will — they always think they can control these people and always Frankenstein ends up running out of the castle and wreaking havoc in the countryside.”
Interestingly, Maher was one of the first mainstream commentators to criticize President Obama. He blasted the president last year for being too concerned with bipartisanship with an intransigent GOP instead of acting more forcefully. He’s disappointed that Obama has kept the Guantanamo Bay prison open and accepted Bush-era stances on civil liberties issues.
“There’s definitely a substantial strain of the same old crap in the Obama administration, and that’s what progressives have taken great exception to. As we should,” Maher says. “We’re not here to carry water for any particular administration or president. I was probably the first one on the Left to criticize him and a lot of people didn’t like it, but that’s our job is to hold his feet to the fire.
“But when it comes time to vote in a country where there’s only two choices, then it’s not really a choice at all. If he’s been a disappointing friend, it’s still a lot better than a deadly enemy. And if you think it can’t get any worse than disappointing, just think about where we were three or four years ago.”
Obama has accomplished a great deal, the comedian says, citing health-care reform, revamping how student loans are administered, lowering taxes for the middle class, increasing U.S. popularity around the world, allowing stem-cell research and pushing for financial reform.
“It actually has been the best administration for progressives since about 1965,” he says.
Despite his own misgivings about Obama, Maher doesn’t mind the president and his surrogates taking jabs back at him or left-wing bloggers. At least it shows some spunk, he says.
“He needs to come out and do things like that more, he’s too modest,” Maher says. “‘You’re a black guy, brag a little.’ He said he listens to rappers, listen to them more. Because they actually do have a lot to brag about, this administration. Things that actually affect people’s lives. If you got a sick kid or one trying to go to college, they’ve actually done stuff that can help you.
“I think he should get on their case, these people sitting on the sidelines. The slogan was, ‘Yes, we can,’ not ‘Yes, I can.’”
The level of invective against Obama by the Far Right is suspicious, he says.
“There’s definitely a racist element to it. All the energy on the Right is from the Teabaggers, so they will never disavow the Teabaggers, no matter what they say,” Maher says. “(Nevada senatorial candidate) Sharron Angle said something about, ‘We’re going to have to use our Second Amendment rights’ and they didn’t disavow it. Are you fucking kidding me? In other words, ‘We live in a democracy but if we don’t like what the winners do, we might have to get guns to deal with that.’
“It’s not about deficits and taxes, that’s what it’s about superficially. Somehow, when Bush was running up big deficits — most of the deficit is from the two wars that Bush put on the credit card; TARP was Bush even though we got most of that money back; the Department of Homeland Security was Bush; the senior drug entitlement, unpaid for, was Bush — most of that money was Bush but where were the Teabaggers then screaming about deficits? They were nowhere.
“But suddenly, when President Kunta Kinte gets elected, then deficits are intolerable. So, I guess it’s just something about him they don’t like. I can’t really put my finger on it. But in some way, he’s not like them. Maybe it’s because he’s skinny. That’s it!”
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