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CNN AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Talk with Bill Maher

Aired December 16, 2002 - 09:43   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Speak with one voice, it's a favorite phrase of President Bush and one that captures the mood of the country immediately following the attacks of September 11th. Any indication that you doubted American policy on the war on terror, and you might have found yourself labeled unpatriotic. Just ask comedian Bill Maher.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL MAHER, COMEDIAN: We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Those remarks, which he made just six days after September 11th, ignited a firestorm, and ABC ultimately canceled his show, "Politically Incorrect". But now free of any broadcast network restraints, Bill Maher is courting controversy again with a new book called, "When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden." We didn't that right, did we?

MAHER: "When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden."

ZAHN: That's better than what's printed here on my page, "What the Government Should be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism."

At least people know you have a book. We might have butchered the title.

Welcome. How are you?

MAHER: I'm OK. How are you doing?

ZAHN: How much to this today do you regret that you made that comment?

MAHER: I never get asked about it anywhere except in the media. It just constantly reinforces the huge split there is between people and media.

ZAHN: And people do what with it?

MAHER: Since the day it happened, and I'm out a lot, I'm in airports, I'm just an out person and travel a lot, not one person has ever criticized me, one person has ever come up to me. I've had a million people come up to and say, you know what, that's what a lot of us were thinking, and that's what my show always did -- it said what people were thinking but were afraid to say out loud.

My only regret is that we live in a country where it was able to be twisted, as I was criticizing the military, which I never was, but you know, in this country, when you say something, and it's repeated second, third hand, and people, at least you showed the exact clip. I'd rather have people see what I said. It would be nicer to see the context of the discussion, than have it reinterpreted by people who really are not interested in what you said in accuracy; they are just interested had taking you down.

ZAHN: So given the climate we're living in, post-September 11th, has anybody threatened you?

MAHER: Nobody threatened me. It only served to make me more credible to the people who always watched "Politically Incorrect" and thought, oh, here's a guy who tells it like it. He keeps it real, he takes the heat. When I went from cable -- I'm going back to HBO now, in February. But I came from Comedy Central before ABC seven years ago, and the big deal then when I was make the move to ABC is, you are going to lose your edge, that's what's going to happen, you're going to pull your punches. I never did. I did get fired, but I didn't start pulling my punches, and I wouldn't.

ZAHN: But are you suggesting that it's the media's fault that ABC ended up pulling the plug on this, because of the firestorm created by the discussion on cable shows?

MAHER: Yes, it's a process that goes from some -- I mean, in this case, there was literally one disc jockey in Houston, who always tried to get me off the air. It's very easy to fan the flames to get people to write to sponsors. Television is a selling medium; it's not an entertainment medium; it certainly isn't an art medium. It's a selling medium. And when you get to people who sell the soap, that's what happens. That's OK, that's the way the game is played.

But yes, that's exactly what happened, this guy said that people were in a frenzy, they were hysterical at that point, and he said, you know, you got to get this guy off. People started e-mailing, advertisers get a couple letters they multiple that in their head by thousands, they think so many people are not going to buy your product or whatever, and that's what happens. Looking back on it, it seems surreal.

ZAHN: You continue to provoke, particularly with this new book, and one of the things you say you're in favor of in this book, we'll take look at a poster that you helped satirize to put this all in perspective. It's an airport scene -- well, that's actually not the one we're supposed to be looking at, but...

MAHER: That helps to explain what the title is. This is a book that is basically doing, I hope, for the war on terrorism what the posters in World War II, the propaganda posters that the government put out, did then, which is help people find out what they could do to help, and there was a World War II poster that said, when you ride alone, you ride with Hitler. They were trying to get people to conserve oil, which is a good message for this war also.

But I'm sorry, go ahead.

ZAHN: I want to go ahead to a stand that you take on racial profiling, and in the book, you say that's fine at airports?

MAHER: Absolutely.

ZAHN: Isn't that easy for you to say as a white guy.

MAHER: Yes, as a white guy, I'm not part of the fundamentalist Muslim problem that is attacking this country. That's just a fact. I mean, I'm sorry I'm white, but I'm not the one who flew into the World Trade Center.

The poster I think you're talking about in the book is a guy who looks very much like bin Laden breezing right through the metal detector, while they frisk grandma, and a four-year-old child has to take off her shoes, and they think, we all understand what's going on at the airport now, which is probably our first line of defense, and other places, is not going to get the job down. Places like Israel, where they have faced terrorism for a long time, of course understand that profiling is part of all detective work. It's part of all police work. If they stop calling it profiling and start calling it high- intelligence screening or something, people would go, it's about time.

But, yes, you cannot win this war if we do everything randomly. You can not check everyone. I suggest in the book what we need is a kind of a Secret Service for the people. Instead of hiring, basically, low-wage people with not a lot of training, what they really need to do is get the people we have guarding the president, who are part detective, part psychologist, part cop, part Army guy, who know who to look for, who can look over a whole crowd and see where the trouble is. You can't pretend that everyone is equally likely to be vising a painful chastisement upon the Jew infidel and crusader, because they're not.

ZAHN: Before we let you go, a quick thought on Trent Lott, the trouble he finds himself in?

MAHER: You know, I don't think people should lose their jobs for saying one thing, as we were talking about before, even though what he said was pretty disgusting, and think he is a racist. I think he's a shifty-eyed liar. And I don't believe when he said that he didn't mean it. I think he meant every one of those words that he said. I think that's how he really feels. And I'm awfully offended by his hiding behind, I was just trying to make an old...

ZAHN: But you still want him to be majority leader, is that what you're saying? He shouldn't lose his job over this?

MAHER: No, because I think he should lose his job maybe because he is what he is. He was voted into that job by people. People in his state think he's a very fine leader, and the Republican Party knew what Trent Lott was years ago. This is not first time he made such a statement. That's who he is -- they wanted him. He should lose the job on those merits, not because he got caught saying it. He's said it before.

ZAHN: Are you going to miss Al Gore?

MAHER: I'll miss him as a comedian. I think every comedian will miss a guy who exits the stage who is so good for comedy. You showed that poster of the airport. You know, Al Gore was stopped going through the airport. That's what I'm talking about. When they're stopping Al Gore, I mean, he was two electoral votes from being president, but he might be the terrorist? And they gave him the full search, including the anal cavity search, and they found his head.

ZAHN: Oh, Bill, Bill, Bill. I could see that one coming. Will you say the name of your book again since we screwed up at the top.

MAHER: "When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden."

ZAHN: Very good. Great to see you. Thanks for stopping by.

MAHER: Thank you very much.

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