BILL MAHER STRIKES OUT

Bill Maher has always seemed to me to be like that power hitter in baseball who hits a lot of home runs but who strikes out a lot and doesn’t hit for a particularly high average.You can usually count on him to say something very funny and perceptive, but you have to endure a lot of whiffs to get there.

One of the ways Maher has learned to spice up a dead moment in his act is through the use of profanity: the shock value of an obscenity can often be counted on to get a laugh, and the use of vulgarity enhances the maverick image of the user. Used sparingly to emphasize a point or to show someone’s loss of control, profanity can be very effective, but used routinely, it isn’t actually witty, or clever, or funny, or smart. It’s like doing a spit take over and over. It gets tired.

Maher has lately made news calling Sarah Palin a cunt in his stand-up act (“there’s just no other word for her”). There’s been discussion about whether it’s appropriate for him to say this generally, or whether it’s appropriate for him to say it because he has some standing as a pundit on talk shows. I have no problem with him using such words, but he should know that when he does, he tells us two things about himself. First, it shows that he’s ignorant. There’s a long and disgraceful history of dismissing female political figures with some sexual remark. It’s ugly, and it ought to be beneath someone like Maher. It doesn’t matter that he’ll call a male politician a dick and claim that what’s good for the gander is good for the goose. That’s obviously simplistic; it’s pretty clear that calling an Italian a dago or an Irishman a mick does not equate to calling a black person a nigger. Last fall a study by the Women’s Media Center and other groups showed sexist language like “ice queen”, “mean girl” and “prostitute” significantly undercuts a female candidate’s standing, “doing more harm than gender-neutral criticism based solely on her policy positions and actions.” Does Maher mean to dismiss Palin just because she’s a woman? It’s what he’s doing.

Second, calling Palin a cunt is just not very clever. It does not show ingenuity, or mental nimbleness, or imagination, and it certainly does not show wit. It’s lazy. “There’s no other word for her,” says Maher. Well, Roseanne Barr doesn’t have a word, but a phrase: “a geopolitically-challenged pom pom queen.”

Now that’s funny. And witty. And devastatingly accurate. In short, brilliant.

ALL SOUND, NO TREE

Donald Trump is a socialite and publicity hound whose performance as a businessman on television adds value to the properties that he licenses to use his name. In his capacity as a TV actor, he is out puffing his reality show “Celebrity Apprentice,” a tired program full of tired celebrities. Trump’s job is to get people interested in watching a show that features Gary Busey and one of those unpleasant housewives from Atlanta. Trump is doing this by using the vacuum of compelling leadership in the GOP to pretend that he is running for president. He isn’t. He won’t. There are at least three reasons, as Chris Cilliza pointed out: Trump’s glamorous lifestyle makes him suspect; if a national hero like Rudy Giuliani has problems explaining his social life, imagine the difficulties Trump will have; financial disclosure requirements will undoubtedly cause some questions to be raised.

There is no chance that he will run, and Journalists only embarrass themselves by playing along with his game.

Some might think Trump cynical because he exploits our national presidential election ritual for his own ends. The process is cynical enough to withstand his manipulation. But Trump lately has been setting new marks by inflaming the idea that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Trump is too smart to believe that, but he knows he can get a headline by saying it, and he knows he can get a headline from those like Jonathan Capeheart who would decry it. This is a nothing story being pushed by a self-inflated balloon. My dg barks at everything that walks past our house; journalists should be more selective.

There is the old question about whether a tree that falls in a forest with no one nearby makes a sound. But no one bothers to wonder if a journalist hears a sound, does it automatically mean that a tree has fallen? Trump is all sound and no tree. Let Access Hollywood cover the TV performer, not the Washington Post.

BIG FLOPPY

Newt Gingrich, that amazing political combination of great intelligence and great recklessness, is thinking of running for president. I kind of doubt that even with the intelligence he possesses he will be able to overcome his years of mistakes and the great liability of a messy private life. But he cannot have helped himself with an amazing set of flip-flops on the question of military intervention in Libya.

Here he is on March 7th, on Fox News with Greta van Sustern.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me ask you about Libya. It’s in the news. The president has said that military options with NATO are not off the table. What would you do about Libya?
GINGRICH: Exercise a no-fly zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Qaddafi was gone and that the sooner they switch sides, the more like they were to survive, provided help to the rebels to replace him. I mean, the idea that we’re confused about a man who has been an anti-American dictator since 1969 just tells you how inept this administration is. They were very quick to jump on Mubarak, who was their ally for 30 years, and they were confused about getting rid of Qaddafi. This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with.

Clear as a bell, no? Well, here he is a couple of weeks later, on March 23, after the U.N.-authorized military intervention had begun, speaking to NBC’s Matt Lauer:

GINGRICH: I would not have intervened. I would not have used American and European forces, bombing Arabs and that country.

Back on Fox the following day, he reiterated that point. “We are not in a position to go around the world every time there’s a local problem and intervene.” He also said “If they’re serious about protecting civilians, you can’t do that from the air. .?.?. This is a fundamental mistake, and I think is a typical politician’s overreliance on air power.”

Three days later, in Iowa on the 26th, he said “Now I believe the only rational objective of the current intervention is to defeat Qaddafi as rapidly as possible. I would do it by using Egyptian, Moroccan, Jordanian, and Iraqi ground forces as advisers and as air controllers, with the rebels, using all of western air power as decisively as possible.”

Finally, on Fox with Chris Wallace on Sunday morning, he seemed to finally be able to forge an agreement with himself:
GINGRICH: Well, I think I hope the president tomorrow night will be dramatically clearer than he has been up until now. I hope the president will say. . . .that it’s clear that the Qaddafi dictatorship has to leave, and that we are prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure the Qaddafi dictatorship leaves. . . .Once you engage air power, you should use the air power in its most effective way. You don’t need to send in ground forces.”

Once some of those clever film editors at the DNC digest these golden moments into a commercial, I think Newt’s ambitions to ever hold elective office are effectively squelched–unless people have to start running for Blowhard. Or Laughingstock.

LEXINGTON, CAVALRY AND HORSE

Our visit to Lexington wasn’t all college services, matriculation, basketball, and Wildcat tchotckes. As it turns out, a fortuitous left hand turn plopped us into the middle of beautiful, charming Historic Lexington, where we saw the home of John Hunt Morgan, the Thunderbolt of the Confederacy, one of rebeldom’s dashing, glamorous, gallant, and ultimately ineffectual cavalry officers (above left), as well as the post-war home of John Breckinridge (above right), who was James Buchanan‘s Vice President, the man who finished second to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election, and, once the war broke out, a Confederate general. How the anti-slavery, pro-union Breckinridge, who lived in this home until his death in 1871, ended up with the confederates in a question worth investigating at a later time. After indulging in these surprise Civil War edifices, Cara and I visited the Kentucky Horse Park, which is a pretty impressive momument to horseracing and horsebreeding. I would be happy if Cara gets to spend some time there over these next few years learning some inside ropes.

CALL US WILDCATS

Months ago Cara chose the college where she will spend the next four years, and there really wasn’t a second choice: Cara fell in love with the bluegrass of the University of Kentucky, and the good news is that apparently Kentucky returns the affection: they have offered her a $40,000 scholarship. (Please don’t anybody tell them that they had her at hello.) This weekend Cara and I traveled to Lexington where she had been asked to attend, flatteringly, Merit Weekend, which is for all the top applicants. You can see why they would want her: high grades, excellent SATs, exotic New Yorker (maybe 80% of the meritorious attendees were in-state), with a Latin flair (She will be a Westchester chili pepper among white bread.) Long story short, I couldn’t be happier for her. I think she has chosen wisely: it seems like an excellent school, especially when it comes to equine studies, with top notch facilities (see photo), and purposeful administrators who take what they do quite seriously, although apparently not themselves. And Cara seems to have a great confidence and a great attitude about this next adventure. I am delighted for her. (To top it off, the men’s basketball team, a traditional power whose fortunes are followed with religious fervor in those parts, reached the Sweet Sixteen with a hard fought win over West Virginia. I suppose we’re, if not hooked, then at least drawn.)

WAS THE CIVIL WAR INEVITABLE?

Thanks so much to my new friends at the Civil War Forum of Metropolitan New York, who invited me to speak at the monthly meeting last Wednesday evening at the Roger Smith Hotel on Lexington Avenue. It was terrific to meet so many people who were so well-read and so insightful about the Civil War. The topic of my remarks was “Was the Civil War Inevitable?”, and my conclusion was that in fact, there were eight key moments between the fall of 1859 and January 1861 when, had things broken differently, the Civil War as we know it might have not have happened. (For those who are curious as to what those eight moments were, please listen to the podcast, which can be found here; but if you can’t wait, here is a clue: the eight moments involve David Gue, Issac Green, Stephen Douglas, Howell Cobb, James Hammond, John Crittenden, John McGowan, and Joe Brown. Gee, I hope I haven’t given everything away.) In the meantime, thanks once again to one and all, especially Charlie Schwarz and Jackie Eberstein, above, presenting me with a lovely certificate of appreciation.

JOURNOS: STOP FLACKING FOR TRUMP

The usually sharp-minded Michael Falcone and Amy Walter at ABC News’ The Note embarrassed themselves today by allowing themselves to be manipulated by notorious celebrity presshound Donald Trump into spreading his totally self-serving, self-promoting nonsense that he is considering running for president. Trump, who is trying very hard to pump life into his nearly exhausted Celebrity Apprentice TV program, floated his most reliable piece of journalist bait, and claimed, as he has in the past, to be studying becoming a candidate for president, telling Ashleigh Banfield in an interview on “Good Morning America” that “I have never been so serious as I am now.” Well, that wouldn’t be hard–he’s never been serious at all.

With shocking credulity, Falcone and Walter continue to jump at the biscuits that Trump tossed Banfield (I don’t blame her for this; she’s just doing her job. The other two are abetting this charade on a supposedly serious newsletter.) Says The Note: “And he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is. Trump said that if he runs, a decision he plans to announce in June, and if he’s doing well, he would spend as much as $600 million of his own fortune on the race. Does he have that much to spare? “I have much more than that,” Trump said. “That’s one of the nice things. I mean, part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich. So if I need $600 million, I can put $600 million myself. That’s a huge advantage.” What’s more, Trump told Banfield that if he doesn’t win the GOP nomination, he would consider running as an independent. Oh, and by the way, he “loves the Tea Party” too.”

All of this is nonsense, particularly the part where he says he could personally underwrite his campaign to the tune of $600 million. We’re not talking about Michael Bloomberg here. In 2010, Forbes estimated Trump’s worth to be $2 billion, down from $2.9 billion in 2006, and his rank on the Forbes list of the stinking rich has fallen from #314 in 2006 to #368 in 2008 to #488. With the recovery plodding along, with real estate still not fully recovered, Trump would have to uncharacteristically foolhardy to spend that kind of money, even if he were to win. I don’t think Ivanka would let him.

But here’s the bottom line: why would he run? He had no ideas. He has no ideology. He has a lot of brash opinions, some of which make for good listening. He isn’t an idiot. He says he’s running in order to save the country. Well, Trump is no fool: he knows it’s infinitely better to be the man on the white horse than it is to actually be president (as President Obama has discovered: better to be the hope than to be the reality.) Trump is already president of the country where he lives, which is located on the front page of the New York Post. He’s not moving, but by pretending he might, he co-opts reputable journalists into helping him get reelected in headlines.

UNDIMMED BY TIME

Complimentary words from Matthew J.X. Malady in Slate: “A few weeks ago, Kurt Andersen tweeted the following: “Google’s digitized every issue of Spy magazine. Half up now, the rest soon. (The internet has justified itself).” Media nerds and pop culture junkies rejoiced. Spy, which Andersen co-founded in the mid-1980s with current Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and publisher Tom Phillips, maintains a hallowed place in magazine lore. And, as the Google trove reveals, Spy‘s reputation for excellence is well deserved.

“Editors and writers love Spy foremost because it overflowed with great ideas. It specialized in snarky commentary, hyperdetailed charts and lists, celebrity takedowns, and pre-Photoshop image-manipulation shenanigans. The publication’s legendary front-of-book section, “Naked City,” was an embarrassment of riches—it included “Letters to the Editor of The New Yorker” (at the time, The New Yorker refused to print readers’ letters), a section delineating the scope of health-code violations at New York City restaurants (with accompanying icons to signify roaches, rats, etc.), and a chart on the number of times Liz Smith mentioned Brooke Astor, George Hamilton, and others in her New York Daily News column.”