Bill Maher's weekly show on HBO is occasionally a pleasure to watch, at least to this conservative, because he's that rare liberal willing to turn sacred cows on the left into hamburger.
Last month, for example, he challenged MSNBC's Rachel Maddow for her network's obsessive with the Bridgegate scandal she clearly hopes will sideline New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's prospects in 2016. A week earlier, Maher derided liberals from the 1930s for their love of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin -- while Maher's predominantly left-leaning audience sat on their hands in response. (Video after the jump, vulgarity warning)
On Friday night's show, the pattern continued with Maher doing something I thought left wingers were doctrinally incapable of doing: he praised former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a chief architect of the war in Iraq who also served under Ford and the elder Bush.
Maher did this while interviewing filmmaker Errol Morris about his new documentary, "The Unknown Known," on Rumsfeld, which appears based on "The Fog of War," Morris's 2004 documentary on Robert McNamara for which he won an Oscar.
Right out of the gate, Maher was determined to defend Rumsfeld against a filmmaker whose disdain for him was obvious --
MAHER: I mean, he's a charismatic leading man. I mean, as a filmmaker you have to admit that, right?
MORRIS: Charming ...
MAHER: Charming! I agree.
MORRIS: Talkative. Lots of gestures (waves his arms for emphasis)
MAHER: And also, you know, I gotta say, I think, you know, if we're ever going to get anything done in this country, we have to not hate everybody who doesn't agree with us all time. (In the manner of Chris Matthews, to cite an obvious example). This is a guy who to me is like the anti-Bush. Bush was the guy who said, I'll do nuance. Remember? This guy does nuance on everything! (And it's our favorite word!) I mean, the title of the movie, "The Known Unknown," (sic) what is his quote there that you took and made a whole movie about? There are things we know that we don't know, things we don't know that we know, I couldn't even f***ing follow it. (audience laughs) But Donald Rumsfeld is a guy who thinks about things.
MORRIS: I wouldn't go that far. (more laughter from audience)
MAHER (surprised): Really?
MAHER: He doesn't think about things? He put out 20,000 memos in his time. (Known as "snowflakes" at the Pentagon, given their frequency)
MORRIS: There's thinking about things and then there's obfuscating and evading things.
MAHER: Yeah, there's some of that but ...
MORRIS (dumbfounded): Some of that?! What are you talking about? That's all that there is! There is nothing more!
MAHER (holding his ground): I disagree. I don't see him as the worst. I mean, first of all, I don't see him as a giant egomaniac. You asked him, the Iraq war, would it have been better if we never went at all? He said, time will tell. Most other people in the Republican Party say absolutely, no doubt, it was the greatest thing we ever did. He says, I don't know, we'll see. That's his view of a lot of things.
MORRIS: Time will tell -- what kind of an answer is that, really?
MAHER: That's a real answer.
MORRIS: No it isn't, I'm very very sorry.
MAHER: Really? You mean, history has never judged anything over more than 10 years?
MORRIS (pedantically): Look, someone suggests that they may not like your policies, they might not like the war, what do you say? You say, well, let's wait a while, say a hundred trillion years and then maybe we'll find an adequate justification for what we've done. Maybe it will all turn out (sarcastically), maybe we won't be here anymore!
MAHER (pouncing): So there's nothing in between 10 years and a hundred trillion years, you're saying? (more laughter, and applause this time) I'm not a physicist but I would say, well, I mean, OK. (again not backing down) I will not concede that point but we can agree to disagree.
Morris, chagrined, held his hands open and shifted uneasily in his chair, as if to say -- what's going on here?
MAHER: Let me quote something else that you put him in the movie saying in 1989. He says something, I was shocked, I never heard him say this, I don't remember it, but it's something I say all the time which is that Reagan didn't win the Cold War. He says that, he says lots of people won the Cold War. Adenauer won the Cold War, Truman won the Cold War, it was a policy of containment. I thought that that was amazing for a Republican to say Reagan didn't win the Cold War. That's what gets their d*** hard. (laughter)
MORRIS (not amused): The only reason he didn't attribute it to Reagan is that he wanted to attribute it to himself.
MAHER: Really? (pounces again) Well, you left that part out, I didn't see that. (laughter)
Maher did allow that Rumsfeld angered him with his remarks about the Vietnam War -- "finally, something," Morris said when Maher brought it up -- when Rumsfeld said in the film, "some things work out, some things don't." For Rumsfeld to deem this one of the "lessons" of Vietnam made Maher want to "punch him in the head. ... That was atrocious. I'll give you that one, Errol."
It got to the point where Maher actually described Rumsfeld as "a great guy" before quickly backing down (audio) --
MORRIS: I think most of his answers are on that level. (referring to Rumsfeld's remark on the Vietnam War)
MAHER: Well ...
MORRIS: They reveal something ...
MAHER: Sometimes filmmakers are too close to their own films.
MORRIS: They always are.
MAHER (triumphantly): They always are! Look, I got you to admit it -- he's a great guy! (laughter) No, he's not a great guy. But it's a great movie and I hope everybody sees it.
"Sometimes filmmakers are too close to their own films" -- in other words, Maher came away from "The Unknown Known" liking its subject more than the filmmaker, which is surely not what Morris intended.
Maher interviewing Rumsfeld -- there's a show I look forward to seeing.