Bill Maher interview: America is a stupid country

Saturday, October 23, 2004


Written by Carol Off

CBC News Online | Oct. 20, 2004

Bill Maher, a former standup comedian – along with Jon Stewart and David Letterman – is now one of the most biting political satirists in the U.S. For about five years, he had a show called "Politically Incorrect" on ABC which was cancelled after he made what were called "unpatriotic" remarks about the U.S. following September 11. He now hosts a similar program on HBO.

He is a frequent guest on Larry King on CNN because of his no-holds-barred, politically incorrect style and last season he appeared on Peter Mansbidge One-on-One. The National interviewed Maher in Los Angeles to get his views on the fear factor in the U.S. election. Bill Maher will be performing at Toronto's Massey Hall on November 13.

This is an edited version of a field interview with Bill Maher by the CBC's Carol Off.

First of all I have to ask you something that everyone wants me to ask you which is what are the five things Canadians should know about the American election?

I don't know about five things but I think what Canadians should know about the American election is that you're lucky you don't live here. You don't have to participate in this sham democracy we have, you know? I mean I could tell you about, I could tell you five ways we don't really have a democracy in this country.

What should Canadians be concerned about on this election?

Well, you should be concerned that we will re-elect the President and continue the policies that I'm sure most of your countrymen and, at least half of ours, feel have this country on a terribly wrong track. And I fear I don't have good news to tell you about what we all think is going to happen on Nov. 2.

There are polls showing that this is the first time since Vietnam that the foreign affairs and defence policy has been a major issue in American elections.

Well, sure, he started a war. Now –

So what effect will that have, do you think, on the outcome of this election?

I think it's a big issue, you know. This is a fear election. This is an election that has been framed along the lines of – elect this guy or you'll die. Don't, don't vote for the wrong guy. Or you'll be dead. Johnny Jihad will drive a car bomb into your house if you elect a Democrat. So, I think the last polls showed that about 42 per cent of Americans still think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved with the attack on 9/11. You know, we're bad enough on domestic issues, ignorance-wise. When it comes to foreign affairs, I mean, forget it. But you know, that's the only thing Bush can run on. His domestic policy is praising Jesus and cutting Paris Hilton's taxes. So he's got to run on you know, be afraid, be very afraid.

It's astonishing I guess for us in Canada… is that the state of the economy in this country, the possibility of the multi-trillion-dollar debt which…

Right –

We will be paying, be paying for it too. You've got people going on shopping bags full of Medicare bills. And you know, the people, as civilians have more guns than the police. I mean, it seems to, from our point of view to be this is scary. How is it that?

It is scary. Even the IMF said that our debt was an international threat.

Well then why then is Osama bin Laden possibly lurking around the next corner –

Well be –

More frightening than all of that?

Because you're being logical, dear. You're not thinking like an American. OK? Johnny Depp said this was a stupid country. And then he made me very mad and he took it back. Well, I say it. I don't take it back. It's stupid. Really stupid. It's about the marketing, don't you know? It's not about what's real. It's about what they market to people. I mean, they were able to morph bin Laden into Hussein. Do you think they can't give, make a little debt go away? That's something people don't even care about in the first place.

But surely they care that they can't, they have Medicare bills they can't pay for, that their kids can't get into university, that they –

But the economy isn't so awful that it's the number one concern on people's minds. Their safety is more. Yes, there are people who are suffering, but you mention this Medicare bill. We passed a big Medicare [drug] entitlement to keep our seniors high, which is important. But very few of them needed it. There was a survey done in 2002; something like 96 per cent said they had little or no trouble getting a prescription drug that they wanted. I think what's amusing, that has to do with Canada, is that we are not allowed to buy prescription drugs from Canada because our government tells us that we don't know if they're safe.

They came from here though if you know.

But it's so ridiculous, as if Canada is Haiti… I mean there is a direct lie bought by a pharmaceutical company. Pharmaceutical companies, who by the way are also responsible for this silly Medicare entitlement, you know give a lot of money to politicians here and then that's the result. That's what they bought for their money. The lie that Canadian prescription drugs are somehow unsafe. I mean and when you think about how silly that lie is, maybe it clears up the other lies that you're asking about.

You said it's a fear election. What are Americans afraid of?

They're afraid of dying in a terrorist attack.

And, why do they think that is imminent, an imminent threat?

Well, it did happen. It happened once… and we didn't catch the guy who did it. We have only exacerbated the situation and made more people in the Muslim world want to do it. So I think they have every reason to think another one is coming. I think another one is coming. I just don't think we're taking the right steps to prevent it.

Why then do people, the polls indicate that this fear is leading more and more people to vote for George Bush or say they're going to vote for George Bush? Why would George Bush be the person they thought they would be safer with?

I refer back to my answer to question two, stupid country. Stupid. Because he appears to be resolute. He appears to be strong. He clears brush and he looks like the Marlborough Man. If you see him in pictures, he stands… like he's about to draw a gun and he uses cowboy language, and he's from Texas. So to people who don't think it through very much, he looks like a guy who's standing up to the bad guys.

But you have to understand this is an administration that more than any I've ever seen, counts on the intellectual sluggishness of the American population. This is a little learning is a dangerous thing in administration. That's a good thing for them because the American public has a little learning. Very little. But just enough to be a dangerous thing.

Decisiveness is the word that keeps coming up in its place.

Absolutely. George Bush knows one thing. We don't know what it is yet, but he knows one thing. Whereas the other guys have flop-flip or flip-flop, you know. So in times when people are afraid, they think oh yeah, let's vote for the resolute guy who sticks to the course and knows one thing. And, you know it just makes them feel better. And you know, we're all about the feelings here. Thinking, that's for the Europeans.

Canadians too, I hope.

Canadians, Europeans, you know, the French, whatever.

There's a, people we are interviewing … ordinary Americans if there is such a thing, but they're saying that they, even some who voted Democrat before, who oppose this war in Iraq and think it wasn't a great idea, they're still voting Bush because they think at least, because he shows the world that he means business, that everyone knows what he is about, that he looks like somebody you don't want to mess with. Even if they don't support the Iraq war. So this, what can Kerry possibly do against that?

Well, not be so lame, you know? It would not be hard for a talented politician to take apart George Bush, but we just don't have that in this election. We have a silly law that prevents people who have been President twice, from being President again. We –

Like Clinton –

Yeah. We have a guy who could absolutely take him apart. I mean if Clinton was running against Bush, this would not be the same election. But we don't have that. And in the absence of such a political talent, we basically have an electorate that is voting, the part that doesn't like George, are voting against a guy as opposed to voting for somebody. And that is always a recipe for losing. The guy who has the people in his camp for him is always going to do better than the guy where the people are against him.

But what I mean… if John Kerry could do something. If you could get in there and –

If John Kerry could speak – If he could make a decision yes –

But if you could instruct him, if you could tell him what he could do, what could, just, tell him one or two things he could say –

Focus your message. Focus your message, you know. Get down on the level of the people. He doesn't know how to do that. He's not a man of the people. This is a guy who – get real – married not one but two heiresses. OK? He is not Joe Six-Pack. He's Klaus von Bulow. I think he'd be a better president than he is a campaigner, but unfortunately in this country, people judge you on your campaign as to how you're going to be as a president, which is somewhat wrong and there is some truth in it too.

The war in Iraq, you mean even at, at, at the most basic level it's, it's ambiguous… for American people. I mean it's like there's nobody where the polls indicate that at the very least they're confused as to really why we went in there and what the purpose of it was. Why can't John Kerry take advantage of that?

That's a great question. Why can't John Kerry take advantage of that? You'd think somebody in his position could. Somebody was saying to me the other day, I think it's a valid point that this guy has been a Senator for 20 years. He's honed his speaking style speaking to an empty room. Have you ever watched our Senate? Usually there's nobody there. And there's a guy at the front of the room, pontificating in a long-winded way, and people are milling around, and there's a few people sitting there…. And that's where this guy has learned his speaking style. So that's sort of what we have.

But on Iraq, I mean this is almost a given. We've got hundreds of soldiers dead.

Thousands yeah –

Thousand, well more than a thousand, hundreds wounded. You've got the situation –

And the plan itself seems to be, if not completely out of reach, uh at the point where, is it salvageable? I don't know. I mean it doesn't seem like it. I think we controlled more of the country when Saddam Hussein was in office. I'm not saying that as a joke. I really mean that. You know when Saddam was there, we had the north, we had the south – they were called no-fly zones – he had the middle part. I don't think we have that much now. I really don't. So the people who we are apparently training to take over this, they are Iraqis, they're young men, they're working with the insurgents. Openly. You know it's just like Vietnam…

How come John Kerry can't take advantage of that? Why can't he? I mean it seems to me that it's almost given to him, and yet, George Bush looks the better on that –

Part of it is his fault because, as I said, he's not a great speaker, and he doesn't focus his message. And part of it is because the message is slightly complicated, which is a little more than to be apparently absorbed by the American public. He was absolutely crucified by the opposition for saying 'I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it,' referring to the $87 billion bill that would supply our troops in Iraq. Okay. That statement apparently is beyond the ability of the American public to understand it – that they were two different bills. It's really very simple. Yes, he voted for one of the bills. And he voted against the other version of the bill – the same thing, by the way, that President Bush did. He liked one version of the bill. And he didn't like another version of the bill. There are sometimes two versions of a bill. Well, this apparently is something that the American public [thinks], please don't, I was following you up to a point but when you got onto that thing about two versions of the bill…

I'm not a Harvard professor. Stay the course. Now there is something I can understand. It's three words. If you go past three words, we're dead, you know. No new taxes. Read my lips. Where's the beef?

Has John Kerry really flip-flopped?

Well, yeah. I mean he certainly is a guy who over the years lost his original courage of his convictions, I would say. He's become a very careful politician. And that's a shame because he didn't used to be that.

But say that liberals are, classic liberalism is, to have a high tolerance for contradiction.

Well yes, life is complicated, and there are two sides to issues sometimes. And things change, and sometimes you have to change with them. So, it's actually a more mature way of thinking and certainly, running the affairs of state to be flexible to a degree. It just doesn't look as good in a commercial.

Can't he get that across somehow? That some, that somehow life is complicated and I'm not going to pretend to you that, that it's simple and I will do my best to –

I would hope so. All he has to do to find his inspiration is look at old clips of him. Look at himself in 1970. You know when he came back from Vietnam, going to Vietnam was a very brave thing. And then he was double-brave. Then he, then he came back and spoke against the war. When he said that line to the Senate, and I think in 1971, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Just replay that for this war, because it certainly is absolutely apropos right now.

But even as a war hero, he's lost that. I mean, somehow he lavished the one thing that he came into this election, that he, that was, that was –

Right –

Quite wonderful. I mean, there are two things actually mentioning he was brave in both ways –

Right –

But somehow –

Right –

George Bush has stolen that from him. He appears to be the person who has come out good in this –

That's what I was telling you, it's all about marketing. It doesn't matter what the truth is. It's what the marketing is. Black is white, and up is down. And John Kerry, who went to Vietnam, not a war hero. John McCain, who was five and a half years in the Vietnamese prison, not a war hero. Max Cleland lost three limbs on the battlefield in Vietnam, not a war hero. George Bush? Stayed in Alabama, in Texas? War hero.

Kerry dodged the bullets. He's a flip-flopper. If he was really a hero, he would have come home in a body bag. But like the dirty comedy he is, you know that's how they presented it. That he actually was scheming in Vietnam the whole time to use this as a platform for political office, you know. That's why he volunteered. He was a rich kid. What kind of a rich kid goes to Vietnam? A schemer, that's who does it. A schemer. He was plotting the whole time.

The Americans fall for these dirty tricks? This dirty politicking?

Well, they say they don't like it but it works. Because, once again, they're stupid.

There was a Pew Research poll, a very kind of alarming poll that shows that people, Americans, think that torture has its place, that civil liberties may have to be curtailed in order to fight the war against terror, things of that nature. And this is even after, after Abu Ghraib. These are the kinds of things that, I don't know how you sort of counter that if you're John Kerry, but what, what advantage is good to George Bush that people actually believe that things are okay.

Well, because they have a lot of advantage to him, because he's doing them, because he's responsible for doing it. If I was John Kerry, I would say to the American public, if you think that George Bush is keeping you safe, I promise you that those pictures from Abu Ghraib prison alone ensure that you are less safe in your lifetime. Because that is exactly what was the greatest fear of every Muslim in the world, was that a Christian… would invade a Muslim nation and sexually humiliate their people.

During the Republican convention there was a threat against the subway in New York. And it was two guys, Muslim guys who said yeah, they were inspired by Abu Ghraib. I'm sure that their number is multiplied by thousands, tens of thousands, maybe millions across the Muslim world. I mean, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the invasion of Iraq has accomplished bin Laden's chief goal.You know, I wouldn't be surprised if he, bin Laden, thought about that before 9/11. And he thought oh good, Bush is in office. I know that family has a thing about Iraq. If I could just provoke them enough, they would invade – see we, we invaded Afghanistan. Afghanistan was never really the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. I don't think Muslim people liked it that we were doing it but first of all they understood it because we had been attacked. And second of all, it was a backwater. That's not true of Iraq. Iraq is the seat of the Muslim world. I mean, for that, for hundreds of years it was a debate between Damascus and Baghdad, what was good, certainly going into Cairo, what was going to be the capital of the Muslim world? This is a place that these people do not want to be messed with, so to invade that part of the world for them, they feel they had a religious duty now to rise up.

And yet Dick Cheney has, has said and perhaps convinced people that John Kerry would probably invite another attack, that a John Kerry victory would almost surely end up another terrorist attack.

Well, of course. That's what they have to say. That's, that's how they win an election.

Would people believe that?

People are already believing that.

Polls also show that even though Bush is more decisive, he's also trigger-happy and that they're a bit concerned about how this looks to the rest of the world. There does seem to be some poll indication that people don't want to look too bad in the world. I mean, they want to be feared, but not loathed.

Well, respected. Feared to a degree. But I don't think the United States was feared before this. I think it was more respected. I was doing an event the other day with Robert Kennedy Jr. and he said when he was a kid he went around the world with his father and on trips I guess with his uncle, President Kennedy.

And he said everywhere they went, you know, Americans were just adored. We were seen as the beacon of freedom. We were seen as what we should be…..

Did the …

George Bush. That's how –

Would Americans rather be feared or loved by the world?

Well I don't think we have to be loved, although it was nice when we were and I think our goals can be accomplished better, through, through positive estimations by other people, but we don't have to be feared? No, we're not the Roman Empire. And we're not trying to be, I hope. We could be respected without being feared.

Our ordinary Americans that we're talking to, say if they have to, it's the way of defending America, keeping it safe, being feared by the world is desirable.

Who says this?

This is our people we've been interviewing –

He's a Democrat voting Republican in this election –

Well, those are what we call 9/11 Republicans. You know, those people that were like 9/11 changed everything. You had to change everything for them because they were so ignorant of the world before 9/11 that they had no idea what was going on. So it seemed like a bigger watershed than it was. As someone said on my old show awhile ago, right after 9/11 you know, it didn't change everything. It just changed everything for us. We woke up to it. The rest of the world understood terrorism before this. The rest of the world understood a lot of things. We have woken up to this problem, but we still haven't educated ourselves about it.

John Kerry does promise, probably with conviction, that he could bring allies back into the camp, for the United States, that he could, if elected, be able to at least win back some of the old allies and friends that America had –

I don't know about that. I think they would like it if he was elected. I don't know if they're going to actually do anything. That's one reason why his campaign is so lame is because instead of delineating a clear difference between George Bush on Iraq policy, he seems to be saying well I'd do the same thing but other people like me more. Foreigners like me more. So, you know, it would be way better. That's not enough. It might be true, but it's such a disaster now. I mean, Iraq is such a cauldron. Who is going to want to jump into that sinking ship? I can't imagine, no matter how much anybody likes John Kerry overseas, that they're going to commit troops to that place. I certainly wouldn't.

Well beyond those, if we don't do something, as a world now, we're all in trouble.

Well, we're in trouble, that's for sure but –

So maybe there's a chance that allies might say, well we need to go in there and mop up.

Well is Canada?


I wouldn't blame them, I mean –

Do you think we're crazy?

I wouldn't blame them. I mean, I wouldn't blame them for not going in there. I mean, it's our mess. I have half a mind to say you know what? George Bush should get re-elected so he has to clean up his own mess. Because I don't think he's ever had to do that his whole life. Not that he would, or would care, or would think that he didn't. But, it's almost unfair to saddle a new president with the giant fiscal and international stinking pile of dung that he's left behind. Let him walk behind the elephant.

Just ask you again, doesn't need to be five things, but just as you again six, or 12 or one thing that Canadians, what Canadians need to know to understand what's going on in the United States in this election? What should Canadians know about this American election?

Well, we have an electoral college which means that at this point in the election there's only about 10 states that even matter. The other states are written off. I live in California, safely in the Kerry column. No candidates come here. They don't talk to us. It's forgotten. It doesn't matter. And that's true of, you know, of almost 80 per cent of the country. We have a voting system where we can't count the votes.

I mean, the last election, not aware of what anybody thinks about what happened in Florida, it's almost a certainty that the wrong guy won the state and therefore the election. There was so much, so many different ways voting was messed up in that election. That we wound up with the guy and half a million more people voted for Al Gore in the country, not even counting Florida. We don't let, in many states, ex-cons vote. I mean I think in Florida alone, 600,000 people couldn't vote because they'd been convicted of a felony. And most of those votes, of course are rich Republicans. No, of course not, they're poor blacks.

Gerrymandering. You know they, they have a thing in this country where they keep re-aligning the districts, the congressional districts, so that they rig it so that one party is always going to win. I think something like, some ridiculous number like 99 per cent of Congressmen, incumbents are returned to office. I mean, this is democracy? You know? And, and the voting machines, you know we don't have a system where we can reliably say yes, all the votes were counted. You know, somehow with voting, we just go, you know what? We came as close as we could. You're never going to get it totally accurate count. Every time you recount it it's going to become out a little different. And I always say, how can they do, how can they say, with money nobody does that. Nobody says you know you asked for $10,000, or might be a little more, might be a little less. Every time I count it, it comes out different. It's close enough. With money we get it down to the penny. Nobody ever misses out on money. But when it comes to votes, well it's a ball park figure. That's the best we can do. So there you have it.

It's a pretty good list. There's only a handful of people, something like five per cent of the voters that haven't decided how they're going to vote yet. What on earth can they do waiting to find out before they make up their minds and then, when you say it's a stupid country, there must be some working intelligence in there that they haven't made up their minds yet?

Oh look, it's a stupid country that has a lot of smart people in it. I mean, it's a big country. And we have 300 million people. Unfortunately, I would think probably there's more dummies who don't follow anything and are misled. I mean, when 40 per cent of the people at this point think that Saddam Hussein, you know, flew planes into our buildings, it's pretty hard to defend this country. OK. But do you, you know. I don't mean to discount the intelligent people who are who are there, and you know I'm not saying all –

You may just have the election, that five per cent. I mean they, they probably will, in fact, that small –

I don't think it's even five per cent that this point. But yes, they are annoying these people who can't make up their minds. They're like last-minute Christmas shoppers, you know, the people who are in the store Dec. 24, just clueless or, you know, people that go down to the post office April 15 to file their taxes. But I used to be that way in college, everything at the last minute.

I think there's been a couple of studies done about Canadians and this evangelical movement never got hold in Canada. We were just never, never, religion plays a very very small part –

To me, to me it's a real dividing line between people of intelligence and – not that there haven't been some intelligent people who are religious. I mean, T.S. Elliott was a great poet and he became a very devout Catholic… But I always call religion a neurological disorder. I really do believe that. I mean it's not criticizing. I'm just saying if you took religion out of it and somebody went to a psychiatrist and said you know I believe in you know this crazy, illogical thing, the shrink would say, well you have a neurological disorder. And you need to really get therapy or take a pill.

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