Politically Incorrect Is Downright American

Bill Maher's abject apology for his controversial terrorism remarks is a bad sign: Free speech could be yet another post-Sept. 11 casualty

By Ciro Scotti

On Friday, Sept. 21, an ashen-faced Bill Maher strode onto the stage of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and instead of sitting in the empty interview chair, he plopped down on Pamela Anderson's lap. Hardly anybody laughed.

Maher, the tart-tongued host of another late-night offering, Politically Incorrect, had come to Father Jay seeking forgiveness for what might have been a career-ending gaffe. On Maher's Sept. 17 show, he said: "...We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.... Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, that's not cowardly."

Maher feebly explained to Jay and America that never did he intend to imply that the U.S. military was yellow. He was just angry at policymakers for not letting our warriors do their jobs.


  To be fair, a review of the show's full transcript does reveal that the usually lefty/libertarian Maher was hardly making a case for the terrorists. And his comments were amplified by one of his guests, one-time Newt Gingrich groupie Arianna Huffington, who's now a syndicated columnist. "...Let us not forget," said Huffington, "that many innocent civilians were killed when we bombed Yugoslavia to rubble because we did not want to have a single American soldier die. And we now have over 5,000 innocent civilians [actually over 6,000] die because we were cowardly when it came to our military personnel."

Still, it was clear from Maher's Tonight Show appearance that he was a man running scared. Two of Politically Incorrect's sponsors, Sears and FedEx, had at least temporarily canceled their ads, and several ABC affiliates suspended the program. In the aftermath of America's experience with terror, it turns out there's no longer any room for the politically incorrect.

One irony is that earlier in Mahar's Sept. 17 show, he had described the much more objectionable comments of evangelist Jerry Falwell. In an appearance on the Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club on Sept. 13, the porcine preacher partially blamed the terror inflicted on America two days earlier on feminists, lesbians, homosexuals, abortion-rights supporters, the American Civil Liberties Union, and those "who have tried to secularize" the country. "Jerry, that's my feeling," agreed Falwell's host, TV evangelist and former Presidential candidate of the Religious Right Pat Robertson.


  Falwell, too, has since apologized for his un-Christian invective. The fallout here was rather more muted: The White House said President Bush (who counted the preacher as a major campaign supporter last year) doesn't share his views.

Still, no matter how inappropriate or ridiculous, didn't Maher and Falwell and Robertson all have the God-Bless-America right to make fools of themselves? To see Maher -- the always irrepressible, often irritating wiseacre -- sitting rigid next to Leno as he explained himself was to watch McCarthyism-in-the-making.

The beginnings of a free-speech chill are evident elsewhere. On a Sept. 24 Fox News program, anchor Shepard Smith all but apologized for the remarks of a Middle Eastern scholar who suggested that the World Trade Center attack might, in fact, reflect problems in the region that need addressing. Then Brother Smith, who wears his politics on his badly cut sleeve, quickly slipped in the channel's "America United" buzz words.


  The U.S. has responded to the events of Sept. 11 with a patriotism not seen since before the Vietnam War took a cleaver to our national psyche. But the last thing we need to do is stuff a flag down the throat of every dissenter or silence every crackpot. We learn from dissent, and in times of crisis, true colors are revealed.

At the beginning of Maher's offending program, he proclaimed: "I do not relinquish, nor should any of you, the right to criticize, even as we support, our government. This is still a democracy, and they're still politicians."

Maher was right. But as he performed his painful-to-watch penance like a Chinese prisoner at a late-night reeducation camp, he was nothing more than a little man without the courage of his convictions.

With David Polek in New York

Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BW Online