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Maher Mars Civil Discourse

ABC's "Politically Incorrect" doesn't specialize in either comedy or current events, but rather strives to balance the two. Once upon a time that mix worked. These days, however, the resulting salad is usually pretty bland, and it becomes unpalatable on those too-frequent occasions when "PI" host Bill Maher adds to it his special, incredibly tasteless dressing.

No late-night comedian is as likely to offend, even outrage, as is Maher. A host who once apologized for an outrage, and very much needed to, was CBS's Craig Kilborn, who issued his mea culpa last August, more than a week after his program accompanied video of then-candidate George W. Bush with the graphic "Snipers Wanted." (If Maher saw that despicable attempt at humor, he might have thought to himself, as if he were a veteran ballplayer observing a rookie, "Hey, the kid's got potential.")

Kilborn has a long way to go to match Maher's record of provocations. The "PI" host's latest bout with foot-in-mouth disease - at this writing, anyway - occurred on March 29 when he called President Bush "a lying sack of s-t" after Bush abandoned the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Now, making fun of politicians is a highly enjoyable national pastime. Jay Leno and David Letterman have wisecracked copiously about Bush's alleged feeble-mindedness and his past inebriations. They can be raunchy and biting, perhaps a little unfair, but they don't abuse, and they don't step into the gutter. Maher does both.

The Bush bash was a fairly minor transgression when placed in the context of Maher's history of offensive material. A major one took place last fall during the post-presidential election hubbub when, alluding to similarities between the infamous aerial video footage of a certain white Bronco on the freeways of Los Angeles and footage of the rental truck carrying disputed Florida ballots, Maher "quipped" that "for a few brief moments, America held the hope that O.J. Simpson had murdered Katherine Harris."

In 1998, Maher dared to make light of former president Reagan's Alzheimer's disease, "joking" that Reagan "ran up the debt, he lied about something much more important than sex, and he's nuts." And they called James Watt insensitive?

Maher isn't just cruel and obnoxious. He can be spectacularly ignorant as well. When all three elements are combined in one diatribe the results are, to put it mildly, combustible. I saw it with my own eyes as his guest a few years ago.

Back then "Politically Incorrect" was on the Comedy Central cable network, and back then the show was terrific fun. My third "PI" appearance was taped a few weeks after Christopher Reeve's 1995 equestrian accident, and for the final segment Maher chose to deliver a quite serious, and thoroughly rambling, screed on the evils of horseback riding, declaring, "If you get on the back of a horse...that's animal abuse. You put that bit in his mouth, you nail stuff to his shoe, you make him jump over things that he's scared of, then he should throw you off his back..."

Spent, he asked his guests to comment. A gorgeous supermodel said something entirely unremarkable. Actor Ed Begley Jr. mused pensively that he had to go back to his people to "think about it." Football great Mike Ditka wisely chose to take a pass. Unwisely I chose to respond, pointing out that a horse is shod for its protection, it doesn't hurt, and but for equestrian sport there would be no more horses, period.

Maher exploded: "What if I nailed some metal to the bottom of your foot? Do you think that's the way God intended a creature to be?...Do you think it hurt Jesus when they put nails through His hands?" And it was my last appearance on "Politically Incorrect."

As much as he despises conservatives, Maher admires Bill Clinton, especially - how's this for counterintuitive? - Clinton's Monica-related behavior.

While the scandal was going on, Maher argued that Clinton should say, "I apologize for nothing. The relationship was inappropriate, and, boy, that really made it good." And last October on HBO's "Chris Rock Show," Maher said that impeachment was a "witch hunt...It will be seen as what it was, a sort of political attack where they criminalized someone's sex life...I'm glad he lied."

A few seconds later, Maher topped himself. "When [Clinton] disputed the word 'is,'" he opined, it was "the shining moment" of his presidency. Then, as if he were Clinton testifying before the grand jury, Maher mimicked, "Is she [performing fellatio] right now? No, I can honestly say there is no oral sex going on now during [this] testimony. While I'm discussing people [performing fellatio], no one is actually [performing fellatio]."

Why conservatives continue to agree to appear on "Politically Incorrect" with this man is a mystery to me.

Also, see Transcript of Maher's outburst and video clip of him calling Bush "a lying sack of..."