Newt must be suffering from lack of attention, getting all huffy over De Niro’s joke

For perhaps the first time ever, Bill Maher has said a thing or two I sorta kinda agree with, in his “Please Stop Apologizing” piece in The New York Times. (OK, actually, he’s probably said lots of stuff I agree with — were it written out, or said by someone else. But the way he says it almost always repels me. The guy has been really off-putting to me ever since I first saw “Politically Incorrect.” It’s something about his habitual facial expression, which screams “Obnoxious!”)

We are achieving this rare alignment because I, too, believe it absurd that anyone was offended by what Robert De Niro said about first ladies. Specifically:

Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?

Apparently, when he delivered this line in the presence of Michelle Obama, everybody laughed. I probably would have laughed too. And yet we have the absurdity of Mrs. Obama’s press secretary calling the joke “inappropriate.”

There was nothing inappropriate about it. It was a perfectly conventional joke, taking an easily understood cliche — in this case, a line you might have heard four years ago, asking whether the country was ready for a black first lady — and doing an unexpected twist on it. It wasn’t the world’s funniest joke, but it was not offensive.

But absurdly, Newt Gingrich declared the joke “inexcusable,” and demanded that… get this… President Obama apologize for it. That reminds me of a pretty funny joke some conservatives made during the last administration. Mocking BDS sufferers, they would say “I blame Bush” about things that plainly had nothing to do with the president, such as the weather.

I hadn’t realized that Newt — from whom we haven’t heard for some time — was that desperate to attract attention. Well, no one — including the too-ready-to-apologize press secretary — should have given him any.

For his part, Mr. Maher argues that we should assert our freedom to offend each other without anyone going ballistic over it: “I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone,” he writes. “That’s why we have Canada.”

Funny. And if that bothers the Canadians, tough.

However… I won’t go quite as far as he does. I’m not defending any right to be offensive here. As you know, I believe we could use a lot more civility in public life, which is why I so often disagree with Mr. Maher.

All I’m doing is pointing out what should be obvious: That what De Niro said was NOT offensive.

34 thoughts on “Newt must be suffering from lack of attention, getting all huffy over De Niro’s joke

  1. `Kathryn Fenner

    Bill Maher has that tone of dripping sarcasm and snide condescension, and he did a lot to hinder the cause of vaccinations with his ridiculous campaign. What a jerk!

    The world needs more Canada.

  2. Brad

    Yes, he’s a jerk. A supercilious jerk.

    And, to be a little clearer than I may have been in that post, I DON’T agree with him that it’s OK that De Niro said something offensive. Offensive is not OK. My point was that what De Niro said was in no way offensive.

    So my agreement with Maher is very limited. We agree that DeNiro didn’t need to apologize, but for different reasons.

  3. Mark Stewart

    There is lot’s of room for discourse between being “Canadian” and sounding offensive.

    And Newt is clearly about out of air.

    Of real concern is the number of underage press secretaries that keep spouting off; where are all the seasoned and reasoned senior professionals? If any position requires long experience, it should be the one that is the voice of an institution.

  4. Phillip

    I only see Maher sporadically if I happen to be in a hotel or something where I get HBO, but we did go see him live in Charlotte a few years ago and enjoyed it very much. I can understand those who find his manner off-putting; for me it’s overridden by the fact that I find that he verbalizes so much of what’s inside my head that it’s almost spooky; another way of saying that is that I find myself agreeing with him about 99% of the time. I did miss that business about the vaccinations somehow, so perhaps I just have a blind spot for areas I might otherwise disagree with him on. I appreciate that he gave wide visibility to people like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan and others, and I appreciate his using his forum to poke holes in the unthinking Orwellian pieties of American politi-speak, such as the statement that got him fired from “Politically Incorrect.” I realize he’s not to everybody’s taste and often goes a bit far, but in this current age I think his voice is needed. His sarcasm or “superciliousness” to use Brad’s word, is at least more often than not employed in the service of the less-powerful, the maligned, the discriminated-against, the innocent bystanders in the so-called War on Terror. That makes him different than the so-called “entertainers” on the right, who use their pulpits on behalf of the powerful and the privileged.

  5. Steve Gordy

    If you want to see offensive, take a look at some of the online letters about Bakari Sellers’ bill to amend the SC “Stand Your Ground” Law.

  6. bud

    Maybe De Niro’s joke wasn’t the most offensive joke ever told but it was a bit into the grey area. Probably best to just stay away from any racial jokes while at a political event. Frankly I wish we’d just get over all racial comments period. We don’t make hair color jokes or eye color jokes. Why? Because they just aren’t particularly funny. I’d like to see us get to that point with race.

  7. Brad

    Wow, Phillip. I didn’t find a word of that link persuasive. And I’m not sure the author does, either, given his caveats, such as “This time next week I might despise Maher again…”

    Hey, I’m not wishy-washy like that guy. The idea that America NEEDS a guy like Maher is completely absurd. For instance, I was able to find Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens on my own, without any help from that jerk. Which is what he is.

    “I enjoy the nasty-schoolboy giggle that slips out whenever Maher has lost the audience’s goodwill…” What utter perversity.

    The idea that anyone with his attitude toward the human race could be what you imagine him to be — some sort of champion of the downtrodden — is completely absurd.

    I now regret that I used him as an up-to-date way of getting into a topic that was a couple of days old, because I may have given the impression that I believe he has something to say that isn’t better said by others. Well, I don’t believe that. We don’t need Bill Maher. He is the embodiment of the incivility that makes public life so ugly today.

  8. Brad

    In response to Bud…

    Funny thing about humor and race… growing up in the late 60s and being exposed to the humor of Godfrey Cambridge, Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson, I somehow got the impression that race, as a volatile and sensitive topic, was behind us. By the late 60s, to someone my age, the early 60s — the height of the civil rights movement — was so far in the past that it belonged to another era entirely. I thought those battles had been won, and racism and other societal ills were so far behind us that we could all safely make jokes about race. After all, those comedians did, and everyone laughed.

    I was also insulated a bit by living on military bases, which set me somewhat apart from whatever tensions still existed in the civilian world.

    It took me awhile to figure out that we hadn’t put as much behind us as I thought we had.

  9. Brad

    I think part of my myopia was that I thought the world was more logical than it was.

    Racism, and Jim Crow, and all of that just seemed so irrational that I assumed that of COURSE society would completely move beyond it at first opportunity. The mystery to me was that such attitudes had EVER existed.

    The power of human irrationality — the ability of destructive, pointless emotions to override reason — was a big disappointment to me as I came to understand it as I grew older.

  10. Brad

    To digress even further… The power of irrationality, which I see all around me today, is the one thing that pushes me nearly to despair over our politics.

    Not QUITE to despair, mind you — I remain hopeful enough to keep blogging — but pretty close to it.

    In fact, when I think of running for office myself — which I think about more than I let on — I may say to myself and others that the biggest obstacle is that it’s too hard to raise money and support without embracing one party or the other, which I’m not going to do.

    But you know what causes me to recoil more from being a candidate than such practical considerations as that? It’s the power of irrationality. I look at the ways both left and right react in horror and lash out at any deviations from their respective orthodoxies and slogans, and I think to myself that I just wouldn’t be able to take the constant, never-ending drip-drip-drip of opposition that is immune to argument.

    For instance, when I look at a campaign release from Joe Wilson, which will consist entirely of slogans appealing to irrational impulses in the electorate, with not a single original thought or proposal to make things better in any way, just tap-tap-tapping on vague resentments… and I see how confident he is that this will suffice to get him re-elected, and I think how RIGHT he is to be confident in believing that’s all he has to do… it really gets me down. It really makes me think, “What’s the point?”

  11. Brad Warthen

    This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. It came in from Joe yesterday:

    “Dear Friends,

    “I had a tremendous time last week opening the campaign office and filing for re-election. It was great to see so many friends and supporters join with us on what was a great day.

    “This election is about sending strong conservatives to Congress to reverse the reckless spending and government growth of the Obama Administration. Whether a Republican or a Democrat sits in the White House, we need a conservative majority in Congress to help right America’s course.

    “I am a strong conservative who stands for a limited government — to ensure job growth in the economy and freedom for the people of the Second District.

    “Will you help support the campaign today? Your donation will ensure that the Second District represents the conservative values and principles we need to stop liberal policies like ObamaCare. Donate $10, $20, or $50 today.

    “Thank you for your support.



    “P.S. Will you donate $10 to the campaign now? Your contribution will help fund bumper stickers, campaign signs, or even the cost of sending emails — helping us to spread the word about our campaign!”

    Do you see what I mean? Just vague mutterings about being a “strong conservative” (which is ridiculous — Joe is a mild-mannered, reasonably nice guy who isn’t really a “strong” anything), coupled with murmuring about those awful people who are NOT “strong conservatives.”

    As though that constituted argument. He doesn’t bother citing a single accomplishment, because he doesn’t have any. His pitch is basically this — the situation is bad, and needs to change, and the way to fix it is to keep sending me, the guy who has done nothing about anything. And it works for him. It’s… just sad…

  12. bud

    Brad, I just don’t see this pandering to the base stuff nearly as much with the Democrats. I think if you were to keep score the irrational impulse comments you so deplore would show something like 3-1 margin in favor of the GOP. But you would probably include stuff that I wouldn’t. I fully accept it as fact that George W. Bush lied us into the Iraq war so any comment that pointed that out would not be scored as an II comment. I’m sure you would incorrectly score it that way though.

  13. Brad

    In case you forgot to count, the word “conservative” was used four times in that brief (150 words, not counting the P.S.) message.

    I fully expect that one day soon, I will get a GOP press release that consists of no words other than “conservative, conservative, conservative” used over and over.

    And of course, like any word repeated too much, it has taken on a strangeness, divorced from ordinary English meaning.

  14. Brad

    You’re right, Bud. The emotional, irrational reactions from the left don’t strike you that way because they make sense to you.

    You’re not offended by the anti-intellectual emotings that have erupted from the left in recent weeks since all those Kulturkampf issues were dragged to center stage, but I am. I find such complete, hyperbolic nonsense as “War on Women” and “contraceptives could become contraband” to be deeply insulting to the intelligence of the electorate.

    Insulting, except for the fact that it works (that is to say, it gets people to give money). If it didn’t work, I suppose I’d stop seeing it.

    And I have the same problem with the pooge from the right. Instead of society rising up as a whole and deriding it as nonsense, it works for them.

  15. Brad

    OK, that might be taken wrong. I deride something as insulting to intelligence and then say it doesn’t insult YOU, which could be taken as me insulting your intelligence.

    Which I don’t mean to do. The fact is, I am just constantly appalled at the stuff that otherwise intelligent people go along with. I have to face the fact that many of these people are NOT stupid, and yet they fall for this stuff.

    For instance, just to direct it away from you… I find supporting Newt Gingrich to be utterly indefensible. And yet my good friend Bob McAlister, an intelligent, thoughtful man whom I respect, finds the very stuff that offends me appealing. Just another one of the mysteries of life.

  16. `Kathryn Fenner

    So, Phillip, underneath that placidly benign exterior lurks a lagoon of snark?

    Bill Maher divides people and turns off a lot of people who otherwise might agree with him. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do a far better job of saying what needs to be said and possibly winning converts to their point of view.

    Maher would be far more effective if he’d get over himself: stop trying to establish his superiority and disdain for those beneath him and just stick to his point.

  17. Mark Stewart

    I like the “Whether a Republican or a Democrat sits in the White House…”

    That’s amusing; even Joe Wilson doesn’t see a coattail for him to cling onto. Maybe this year he’ll get a Primary competitor. We can hope, right?

  18. Brad

    Bill Maher is simply a bad person, as much as I hate to say it about anyone.

    What is a bad person? It’s a person who is unkind to other people. Maher is not only that, he revels in it.

    If the Devil himself were a comic, or a talk show host, or whatever Maher is, he would conduct himself in exactly the same way, with the exact same expression on his face.

  19. Brad

    Now, my caveat — maybe in private Maher is the nicest guy in the world, kind to children and dogs. But I can only react to his chosen public persona.

    So I’ll amend my statement. Rather than “Maher is a bad person,” I’ll just say that “Maher, in public, acts like a bad person.”

  20. Doug Ross

    Bill Maher is a comedian on a pay channel on cable TV. He can only offend those who choose to be offended. It’s not very easy to be bothered by him unless you REALLY want to.

    I think HE thinks he’s more influential than he really is. He’s got a shtick and he plays to a liberal studio audience.

  21. bud

    I find such complete, hyperbolic nonsense as “War on Women” and “contraceptives could become contraband” to be deeply insulting to the intelligence of the electorate.

    Sure those things may be a bit hyperbolic but I would suggest this tactic is not nearly as prevalent from the left. I did say a 3-1 ratio so I’m conceding the good guys get carried away sometimes. But what I find refreshing about modern day liberalism is that is does focus on facts and evidence to a much greater degree than modern conservatism or libertarianism. It may not be accurate to say that “contraceptives could become contraband” but liberals don’t use that as much as something more accurate like “contraceptives could be priced out the reach of lower income women”. And that is a defensible statement.

  22. bud

    Another thing. On the left we have Bill Maher and perhaps Randy Rhodes. Sometimes funny but more often annoying. On the right we have:

    Sean Hannity
    Glenn Beck
    Rush Limbaugh
    Michael Savage (actually Wiener)
    Ann Coulter
    Bill OReilly
    Michael Medved
    and Locally Keven Cohen

    and on and on and on. Just going by the numbers the GOP hacks outnumber the Dems by a wide margin. And these are the guys who carry the water for folks like Joe Wilson.

  23. Silence

    I’ll go along with Brad and say that Bill Maher seems like a small, nasty person. At least that is the TV persona he’s developed for himself. Which is fine. His bigger crime is that he fails to be funny.

  24. `Kathryn Fenner

    Yes, Silence. His “humor” is of the tripping somebody or otherwise humiliating somebody kind that most of us out grew in junior high, if we ever found it funny.

    Is there a transitive principle, whereby, if I agree with 95% of what Phillip does (I have no opinion on sports issues and some of the music he likes is way out there), and he agrees with 99% of what Bill Maher does, I must agree with at least 94% of what Bill Maher does (The 5% I do not agree with P on, subtracted from his 99% overlap with Bill Maher)? I suppose I agree with his principles, but not his methods.

  25. Silence

    @ bud – you forgot that the left has ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, HLN, the NYT, Washington Post, most colleges and universities, the United Nations, Algore, organized labor and the Communist International. Just to name a few.
    And locally Congressman James E. Clyburn.

  26. Silence

    I didn’t say I was annoyed, I was just pointing out that there’s no shortage of leftist mouthpieces. I don’t pay enough attention to get annoyed, and I’m usually the one being accused of being annoying.

  27. Phillip

    “Bad person” because he’s “unkind.” OK fair enough if you define “unkind” as having an air of smugness and name-calling against those with whom you disagree, etc. And of course Maher stands guilty as charged as such. But if that makes Bill Maher a “bad person”, then what term do you use for people who actually implement or help to implement policies that are TRULY unkind to others, in the sense that they are targeted against specific groups, often those who are already struggling in our society?

    Comedy often has anger or hostility very close to the surface; in Maher’s case it’s not even hidden, which is both its strength and its weakness. It’s not so much that I find him funny. I just find him on the right side more often than not, and sometimes startlingly perceptive in gutsy ways that Stewart and Colbert (great as they are) are reluctant to approach, much more concerned are they to cultivate their likeability. (Although I’ll give Colbert props for sometimes pushing the envelope much farther than Stewart).

  28. Phillip

    oh, and @Kathryn: I’ve lived the largest portion of my adult life in NYC. That’s where I got my merit badge in snark!

  29. Ralph Hightower


    Place the paper bag over your mouth and slowly exhale and inhale. Repeat as necessary to avoid hyperventilation.

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