Click big arrow to see Bill Maher at a loss for words. It's rare you see Bill Maher at a loss for words. A while back I found myself in producer Peter Guber's pre-house -- or whatever you call a large sumptuously furnished home where you host guests just outside your real home. It was a book party for David Frum, and I was standing beside Maher as he publicly mao-maoed the Bush II speechwriter. When someone called out, "Let someone else speak," Maher grabbed his lanky model/actress/date and stomped off.
A producer on the other side of me muttered, "He should call his show 'The Last Word With Bill Maher.'"
But last Friday on his HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher," a guest not only caused Maher to stammer and, even worse, be unfunny, he actually pushed Maher to the right.
The issue: Israel.
Maher's guest was Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's Bin Laden Unit and author of a new book, "Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq."
Scheuer said that Bin Laden's terror is actually a kind of insurgency against America's policies in the Islamic world. Maher asked whether Islamic terror will ever stop as long as we support Israel, "and I'm a big supporter of Israel," Maher added.
Then this exchange:
Michael Scheuer: I think we can reduce it very seriously, sir. I disagree with you on Israel, but --Imagine poor me, end of a long week, relaxing in front of the television, doing a spit take with my scotch: Did a former CIA unit director just say Israel isn't "worth an American life or an American dollar"?
Bill Maher: In what way? You're not a supporter?
MS: I hope Israel flourishes. I just don't think it's worth an American life or an American dollar.
BM: You don't -- you don't think the existence of Israel in the world is worth an American life or an American dollar?
MS: Not only Israel, sir, but Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or Bolivia. I'm much more--
BM: You're really -- you're really not telling me that Israel is on a par with Saudi Arabia.
MS: I'm telling you -- what I'm telling you, sir, is I'm most interested in the survival of the United States.
BM: But Israel is a democracy in a part of the world that has none.
MS: What -- so what, sir? It doesn't matter to Americans if anyone ever votes again.
Maher's reaction was no more composed than my own. The audience tended to side with Schneuer and fellow guest Janeane Garofalo (who knew CIA staffers adhered to the Garofilian understanding of world affairs). What the transcript doesn't show is Maher's stammering, his awkward comebacks, his vanished confidence as he tried, to his great credit, to process how a man once in charge of keeping us safe could be so clueless as to what endangers us.
But the sad truth is, there's been a lot of this jaw-dropping criticism going around.
There's a pair of Blame Israel Firsters on book tour, carrying the hechsher of two of America's finest universities. And then there's the Iranian president taking the stage at Columbia University Monday to present a human face to the media while avoiding direct answers to questions about his Holocaust denial and his vow to destroy Israel.
Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, authors of the book "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," brought their multicity, multimedia tour to Los Angeles along with the message that critics like them are routinely and completely shut out of the national dialogue by, of course, The Israel Lobby. They've been busy reiterating that message in hundreds of published interviews, numerous radio and television appearances and at dozens of speaking engagements around the country.
In fact, they've been so busy declaring how critics of Israel can't get a platform in America, they apparently don't have time to debate Israel's supporters, like Alan Dershowitz, whose offers of a public debate they have consistently rebuffed.
Last week, I witnessed a bit of their constantly suppressed rights to free speech firsthand when I went to hear them, um, speak in front of a capacity crowd at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. They delivered their remarks in an understated academic tone, the essence of graduate seminar erudition.
"The question we have to ask is only whether Israel is a strategic asset or liability," Walt said. "It is hard to argue that unconditional support for Israel is making America safer."
"There is a strong case for Israel's existence," he went on. "And we believe America should come to Israel's side when it is threatened, but it is not."
Funny, isn't it, how these three men, Scheuer, Walt and Measheimer, all adopt a similar de rigueur refrain: Of course, we wish Israel well, we'd even support it in an existential war, we'd hate to see it obliterated.
Such automatic cold comfort from people who proclaim a so-called "realist" approach to foreign policy raises two possibilities: 1) They truly believe it is easier, less costly and somehow safer to intervene in the midst of a full scale war of annihilation than it is to offer an ally judicious, ongoing support in the face of constant threats or 2) They are being disingenuous and would celebrate with Cristal were Israel obliterated by Tuesday.
Guess which possibility I pick? In other words, let's all be very realistic about just what these realists stand for.