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What I Watched Last Night: Mystery Maher Theater

I don't agree with everything Bill Maher says, but then, why should anyone agree with everything anyone says? I'm still a fan, and I think he's got - like Jon Stewart - far more insight into our politics than at least 99 percent of the pundits who terrorize our discourse. What Maher and Stewart do is what journalists should do: they stand outside the system and see the absurdities for what they are. Most pundits and even reporters stand inside the system and become absurd themselves.

Anyway, while I watched Maher's appearance in full on Larry King Live last night, I don't have to rely on my scraggly notes to recreate the best moments. Thanks to the good folks at CNN, I can point you to a transcript of the show, from which I'm going to cull the highlights and present to you here. With my own commentary added, of course.


MAHER: I think [Obama] probably shouldn't have offered so much [to Republicans], for example, in the stimulus package right away. He offered what they wanted - the tax cuts, which really are not stimulus. And he should have said from the beginning, look, I won the election, OK? We're going do it my way now. We tried that idea - that tax cuts solve every problem. We had that. And that's what got us into this mess.

Because now he's in a situation where he offered the tax cuts before any negotiating took place and they threw him the back of his hand. So now that when they got the compromise on whatever it was, there's still like 35 percent tax cuts in there.

RHODES: He's stealing my material! (See the item Poker Putz)


MAHER: Well, I mean, considering the alternative, [Obama's] doing fantastic. And he's a pleasure to watch. I just watched him there talking about Lincoln. I mean he can put a sentence together. He's eloquent and he's - he's unflappable. I mean, he's so cool and calm.

Is he on Xanax?


KING: Do you think he's going to solve this economic problem?

MAHER: Well, he can't personally solve anything. I mean, he needs a partner in the American people. That's the big question, I think, that's before America is, you know, does he have a partner? Can we call it upon ourselves to do what we need to do to dig ourselves out of this mess, because there really isn't a shovel big enough.

RHODES: But where's the sacrifice? Other than the folks who are losing their jobs . . . shouldn't the sacrifice come from those who made out like bandits before the system collapsed? Shouldn't our corporate and civic leaders band together to . . . you know . . . do stuff?

MAHER: I mean this is a mess like - and I don't think they're telling us really how - how bad it is. I think that's why Geithner was so vague the other day when he presented his plan, because I think he just didn't want to say it's even worse, because I think there would be more of a panic than there is.

KING: You think it's worse than . . .

MAHER: I think there's every possibility that that's possible.

RHODES: I recall reports after congressmen were briefed on the need for the first bank bailout describing those coming out of the meeting as "ashen-faced." I mean, America is bankrupt. What if China calls in its loans? Do they get to repossess us? And you know what? Osama bin Laden did this. Bin Laden destroyed America. Everything flows from that.


MAHER: I read the other day, I think only four in 10 Americans believe in evolution. It's still not a very bright country, Larry.


KING: The public - we asked the public before to send in what they want to - let us - blog us what they want to hear you talk about. Number one is the eight kids.

MAHER: Well, I can never see that movie Octopussy again.

RHODES: That's cheap! Er, wait, actually that's pretty good . . .


MAHER: Who deserves to just sit back and have a bong more than Michael Phelps? I mean, for the last eight years, he's done nothing but marinate in chlorine.

You know how dangerous a drug chlorine is?

KING: So his swimming was worse than his bong?

MAHER: Absolutely. And certainly anything made by Kellogg's - you know, I was on Jay's show the other night and I was kind of ragging on Kellogg's. And people said, oh, you're kind of hard on Kellogg's.

KING: They banned him.

MAHER: Let me broaden it out. It's not just Kellogg's. It's everything on the, probably, on the plate for the All-American breakfast is probably not good for you. But certainly Fruit Loops. You know, a lot of kids in America have diabetes now and it's not because they're smoking marijuana.

RHODES: Actually, it is, because nothing makes you want to eat a box of Froot Loops more than smoking pot.


MAHER: I just think [American men] take [sports] too seriously. I mean, you know, football, I see them coming into the stadium and they're all wearing the jersey of their favorite player. They think they're so macho. Hey, you're wearing another man's shirt.

RHODES: And he didn't even bother to call you the next day.


MAHER: I had a writer who worked for me once. He had the greatest line. He said, if baseball were any slower, it would be farming.

KING: That's because he didn't understand it.

RHODES: I don't believe I've ever written these words, but . . . Touche, Larry King. Well-played.


MAHER: A point I try to make as often as I can, you know, if you're so upset about steroids [in baseball], you should realize that almost everyone in America is on steroids. Because they shoot up the farm animals with steroids. They're so upset about all the players on growth hormone. You are on growth hormone if you eat chickens or pigs or cows - any of the factory farm animals in America. You know, a chicken goes from like an egg to your plate in six weeks.


MAHER: I think it's a watered-down [stimulus] bill. I mean it's half of an old crappy Bush economic tax cut bill and not enough of what we really need - the kind of stimulus they were looking for.

RHODES: Paging me again!


MAHER: I just think Nancy Pelosi should stop saying if this doesn't work completely, throw us out of office in two years.

You know, you and Biden, shut up. You don't always have to be voicing your interior monologue.

RHODES: And then the Democrats will have lost the American people's faith, just like the Republicans did. But we'll turn back to the Republicans. And then turn back to the Democrats. Hello, America? See the problem?



MAHER: New rule, if you still think Obama is a Muslim, you just might be a redneck. A Christian church in South Carolina has a sign out front that says "Obama Osama, hmm, are they brothers." No, in fact, they're not even related, which is more than I can say for the married couples in your church.


KING: From our blog at CNN.com/LarryKing, Michael writes, as a supporter of the arts, how do you feel about the recent cuts in funding to education in the stimulus packages affecting music and arts programs in public schools?

MAHER: You're assuming things about me that I don't know. I'm not a supporter of government funding of the arts. I have been for abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts. Government has absolutely no business or need to be funding of the arts.

It's way out of the purview of government. It's mission creep. It's the very definition of that in government. There's no reason for it. I don't know why government has to do that. First of all, you cannot stop artists. If people want to create, they are going to create. Let the marketplace decide what people want to patronize of that creation. Why should government do it? Why should we spend our money on it?

RHODES: That's Maher's libertarian streak. But I'm not sure I disagree. We've lost sight of what government should fund, what charitable organizations should fund, and what the corporate sector should fund. For example, corporations should have no role in health care. That should be up to government, with some role for the private sector. Corporations should not give shareholder and employee money to charity. Those causes are also the purview of government - and the non-profit sector. And government should not give money - like subsidies and tax incentives - to corporations. They should regulate corporations, but not aid them otherwise.


KING: Citicorp has named new stadium in New York, where the Mets are housed, like an old Ebbett's Field. It's a beautiful place. They give the Mets 20 million a year. For many, many years.

MAHER: That's another thing. Why are we subsidizing sports teams, as we do, to build stadiums? Cities always do that. It's a private enterprise. If you want to build a ballpark and put a ball team in there and have people pay to see them, they'll do it. Why should the government be involved in that? We have had this idea for so long in this country that the Republican idea of trust in the goodness of rich people. Just give them all the money. They always do the right thing with it.

How the Republicans at this point can have the nerve to sit up there and talk about how we should run this country financially; who drove the car into the ditch?

RHODES: It wasn't just the Republicans, Bill.

MAHER: Talking about fiscal conservatism, they're the ones who in the last eight years gave Bush the Medicare entitlement program. That's a trillion dollars in money that was urgently not needed. The Iraq war, there's another trillion dollars. That's why we don't have money. Bush blew a giant hole in the budget. Who was the last guy to do that before him? It was Reagan. Who is this fantasy fiscally conservative Republican who left the country more fiscally sound than he found it? I think it was Bill Clinton.

RHODES: Hey, let's not re-fight the wars of the 90s!


DAVID THEALL, LARRY KING LIVE PRODUCER: Bill, Larry, listen, we're all over the place in the blogs tonight. We're talking politics. We're talking Michael Phelps. We're talking octuplets. But most people are talking about the stimulus bill. They're still talking about it.

Jane is one of them. She says this, Larry, "please, please, please stop this madness. I didn't sign on for this pork filled bill. I thought we were getting an infrastructure, green economy and education bill." She asks what's going on.

RHODES: Jane, will you marry me?

THEALL: We heard from Doug. We had to include his question. He says, "Larry, Bill, can someone, anyone tell me who will be accountable for the billions paid in this stimulus bill? Politicians, CEOs, contractors, local bureaucrats. Am I really the only one who doesn't trust any of them to do what is right?"

RHODES: You mean you don't trust Ray LaHood, Richard Daley and Todd Stroger with your money?


MAHER: And Jane, who thinks the bill is full of pork, this is a lie. This is just an out and out lie. This is what they get from listening to Rush Limbaugh all day. It's not a pork bill. I loved the other day when Obama was taking McCain to task for calling it a spending bill. He said, yes, duh, that's the point. What do you think a stimulus bill is? It's a spending bill. We're spending money to get the economy going. We knew that going in.

RHODES: Even Rush Limbaugh is right twice a year. Have you looked at the bill, Bill? It's so filled with pork that I printed out a couple pages and fried them up with my breakfast the other day. The point isn't just to spend for spending's sake. If that was the case, why not just subsidize trips to the mall for every American? This is where liberals with blinders on don't want to look too closely at the very behavior on their side that they just got done wailing about for years by the other side. Don't be loyal to parties and ideologies, people, be loyal to truth, principle and values.


CALLER FROM MINNEAPOLIS: Hi, Larry and Bill. My question is, Senator Leahy has said he want to form a commission to investigate crimes that may have happened under the Bush administration. What do you think of that? And did you Vincent Bugliosi's book The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder"

MAHER: Of course, he should be prosecuted. If everything was equal, the crimes he committed, yes, certainly deserve that. But I don't think anything is going to go forward, because Obama has made a calculated political decision, which is his job to do, by the way - I'm not criticizing him for that. I think it's probably the right decision. It's a tough decision, because it sends a terrible message that you can get away with these things.

RHODES: You can, if every president is going to make a calculated political decision. One of them has to make it stop, Bill. This was supposed to be the one.

MAHER: If they went after Bush, the atmosphere in that town would be absolutely poison, and we are just in too much of a crisis now for that to happen. I think that's his position.

RHODES: As if his position would be different if we weren't in a crisis? C'mon.


KING: How did this all start, this economy downturn? Was there an incident? What happened?

MAHER: No, I think - well, first of all, wages have been basically stagnant for 30 years. But this is America. And just because wages are stagnant, people don't think their lives should be. They wanted to continue to have a lifestyle that got better, and so they had to do it on credit. I mean, that's really what happened. You know, the idea that we could continue to have this disparity in wealth, where the rich got richer and everybody else did not advance at all, that was always going to be a ship sailing toward an iceberg.

If you look at the Bush recovery, you know, from 2002 to 2006, it's something like 800 billion something dollars increase in wealth, like three quarters of it went to the top one percent. You know, FDR's Fed chief talked about this during the Depression. He said, when there's an inequality of wealth, it eventually is going to lead to a Depression. He said, it's like a poker game, where more and more wealth goes into the hands of one player, and everybody else has to borrow just to stay in the game. And when their credit runs out, the game's over.

RHODES: I don't disagree, but I also don't think this crisis was caused by consumer and homeowner debt as much as by the lendees who overextended credit because it's such a lucrative way to screw people out of their money because it's so loosely regulated (remember, as a U.S. senator Obama voted against capping credit card interest at 30 percent). What happened in large part in the home-loan market was that investors packaged that debt together - what they call mortgage-backed securities - in a way that they thought eliminated any financial risk to themselves. If you package together a bunch of people's (and institution's) debt, some of it might not get repaid, the theory went, but enough of it would at such a nice margin that you would make out quite nicely. But you can't beat the house. You can't eliminate risk in an economy that is built on risk. It was a high-stakes gamble mistaken for a sure thing - the cause of most of our financial crises, historically. And now we have to bail out the rich folk, as usual, because our meager and depleted fortunes are tied to their wealth.


KING: Some people are calling Afghanistan Obama's Vietnam. Do you buy that?

MAHER: It could be. Yes, I've been very critical about him for that. I don't understand why we always have to have a war going. I know wars are great, but we're winding one down. And I guess on the campaign trail, he had to talk up Afghanistan, because otherwise the Democrats would look like wimps not being for any war. But we've been there seven years.

RHODES: Afghanistan should have been Iraq - the war we should have fought and the nation we should have attempted to put on a path to democracy. It's too late now, though. We blew it. Maher is right, but I doubt Obama will have the courage to cut bait. It's a politically calculated decision, because Democrats always feel they have to prove they can be tough - just like the Republicans whose bluster keeps blowing up in our faces. Irony, anyone?


KING: Before we get to the Madonna question, which I know you're breathlessly awaiting, Blagojevich, what did you make of that whole story?

MAHER: Well, I think it shows that it's going to take some adjustment to get used to Democratic scandals, right? I mean, when a Republican tried to sell his seat, it was in an airport men's room. That was a lot easier to deal with.

You know, I thought it was blown out of proportion, if you're asking me seriously. Because, wow, they found a corrupt politician in Chicago, gee whiz.

RHODES: Um, our president is a politician from Chicago. And it was his seat for sale. It was blown out of proportion in the sense that the cable-news nuts went, um, nuts, but the tale of Blagojevich tells a story about where Obama comes from - he shared Tony Rezko and Emil Jones with Blago, for example - very much at odds with what we heard during the presidential campaign. That's the part the media is still missing.


See what else we've been watching. Submissions welcome.


Posted on February 13, 2009

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