Bill Maher, 51, is an American comedian, actor, writer, and producer, and the host of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. Maher (pronounced something like Mars without the s) is famous for his political satire and sociopolitical commentary, which targets right and left-wing policies and bureaucracies, show business, the mass media, and inflential people in general. His "New Rules" section is hilarious and a must-watch for any talkshow buff.
Maher is a self-proclaimed libertarian who supports the legalization of gay marriage, the death penalty, the legality of abortion and euthanasia (describing his position humorously as "pro-death") and racial profiling at airports. He favors partial privatization of social security, ending corporate welfare, and legalizing gambling, prostitution, and all drugs. He is very critical of organized religion, which he describes as a neurological disorder that spreads guilt and hatred among people while offering nothing in return. He calls himself an apatheist, which is a mixture of apathy and atheism, defined by a lack of belief in deities in general, rather than specific disbelief in any of them. Maher is a very colorful character, eloquent, witty and genuinely funny.
Kasparov was obviously well acquainted with the show. As with Steve Colbert he grasped the reins early on in the show and had Maher saying "touché, checkmate!" a number of times during the show. Normally Bill Maher dominates the show verbally, often speaking longer than his guests. But here, against a well prepared grandmaster, he did not have a chance. Checkmate indeed.
Is he in mortal danger back home, brought upon him by his vigorous involvement in Russian politics? Does his name offer him some degree of protection? "Unlike many other activists in Russia," says Kasparov, "I can rely on my name and on my fame. But still I take some measures to minimise the risk. I have bodyguards in Russia, I do not fly Aeroflot, I do not consume any food or liquid in places I am not fully aware of. But again, that is just minimising the risk."
One exchange was outstanding:
Maher: "When you look at what's going on in Russia, Putin has a very high approval rating...
Kasparov (interrupting): "How do you know?"
Kasparov (continues): "Are you seriously relying on the polling results in a police state? I think that with the same tight control of the media and a pervasive security force Bush and Chaney could enjoy the same approval rating here." (Laughter, whistles and cat-calls).
Maher: "Checkmate to me! But come on, there is something in the Russian soul that loves a strongman..."
Kasparov: "Wait, wait, wait, wait, this is total nonsense. It has been refuted by history..." etc. Watch it yourself – the link is given below.
Kasparov is very direct in his criticism of the current US politics. "When I look at this administration, which is trying to "build democracy" [air quotes] in Iraq at the expense of democracy in Russia I get confused." Maher mentions seeing a picture this week of Putin with Iranian President Ahmadinejad and thinking: "Here, once again, President Bush has succeeded in uniting our enemies and dividing our friends. But," he says to Kasparov, "you've got to admit at least your guy isn't stupid!" To which Kasparov replies: "I don't think it makes me feel comfortable to accept the fact that he can outplay your guy."
"It went wrong for Bush in the very beginning," he continues. "At their first summit Bush tried to play psychiatrist and look at Putin's eyes, searching for his soul, instead of looking at his record. Now Putin is basically spitting in his face by making open friendship with Ahmadinejad. But it was obvious from the very beginning, that Putin has just one item on his geopolitical agenda: he needs high oil prices. Tension in the Middle East helps him to keep the oil prices at an all-time high. That is why he sells nuclear technology to Iran, he sells missiles to Hezbollah and Hamas, via Syria, because it helps Putin to stay in power. If the oil price goes down, the Putin regime goes down. I am suprised that the White House did not recognise this in time."
The debate ends with Maher improbably saying "Okay, chess master, you win!" One of his guests, Chris Matthews, talk show host (NBC news panel and MSNBC's Hardball) and former political aide, chimes in with the following eulogy: "Do you ever get the feeling that they are playing chess and we are playing checkers? He is so far beyond... that was sophisticated and this audience was listening to every word. Our guys never get to that level of sophistication. They talk down to us. You've got to follow a guy like him, because you want to. And he is thinking in Russian! He's thinking in Russian and talking to us in another language! Can you imagine one of our guys talking in a foreign language at that level of sophistication?"
We hear you, Chris. Listen, Kasparov, if it doesn't work out in Russia, you can always run for office in the States. What an Austrian body-builder did, you can do any day. Think about it.