So after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, I rushed over to Humble's home to warn him against criticizing the president during these troubled times.
"It's getting ugly out there," I told my buddy as I cleared a place to sit amid the rot and the squalor. "The mood is ugly. The knives are out. Folk who have dared to raise their voices in dissent have been crushed like bugs."
"I ain't afraid," Humble declared.
"I know you're not!" I cried. "That's because it's my name on the top of this column, not yours!"
"I ain't afraid," he repeated stubbornly.
"Well, doggone it," I said in a quivering voice, "I sure as hell am."
Who can blame me? From bigots to bullies, the American flag always seems to bring out the worst in people. And suddenly, just like that, the American flag is everywhere.
Comedian Bill Maher, host of ABC's Politically Incorrect, learned this the hard way after his Sept. 17 show. Responding to President Bush's characterization of the Pentagon and World Trade Center terrorists as "cowards," Maher quipped, "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."
Those remarks sparked a firestorm of protest letters. Sponsors pulled their advertising, and several ABC affiliates, including WJLA in Washington, have dropped the show. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer came very close, in my view, to suggesting that Maher had given aid and comfort to the enemy.
"It's a terrible thing to say and it's unfortunate," Fleischer told reporters. "The reminder is to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that. There never is."
Although he has apologized repeatedly, my guess is that Maher's days on ABC are numbered. If my guess is correct, Maher can get in the unemployment line behind newspaper columnists in Texas City, Texas, and Grants Pass, Ore., who were fired for criticizing the president's actions on the day of the attack.
Tom Gutting, columnist for the Texas City Sun, wrote that on Sept. 11 the president was "flying around like a scared child, seeking refuge in his mother's bed after having a nightmare." Bombarded with angry letters, the paper's publisher apologized for running the piece, saying that the column had made him sick.
Grants Pass Daily Courier columnist Dan Guthrie lost his job after writing that Bush had "skedaddled" after the attacks: The airline passengers whose struggle with hijackers is believed to have led to its crash in Pennsylvania are the heroes of this rotten week," he wrote. "They put it all on the line. Against their courage, the picture of Bush hiding in a Nebraska hole becomes an embarrassment. The kid has lived a pampered life of privilege and games. His first time under real pressure, he bolted."
Guthrie's paper also found it necessary to apologize after howls of protests from readers. "Criticism of our chief executive and those around him needs to be responsible and appropriate," Daily Courier editor Dennis Roler in explaining Guthrie's ouster. "Labeling him and the nation's other top leaders as cowards as the United States tries to unite after its bloodiest terrorist attack ever isn't responsible or appropriate."
I tried to explain all of this to Humble. The president has declared war, I reminded him, and in war folk are expected to rally 'round the flag and toe the party line. Near to weeping, I reminded Humble of my desperate need to be loved. But you know how newspaper columnists are--as they saying goes, a columnist is the guy who sneaks down the mountain after the battle is over and shoots the wounded. The more I begged him to restrain himself, the more defiant Humble became.
"So, they don't want me to criticize the president, eh?" he cackled. "Well, take this!" He bent over his typewriter and began pecking away: "President Bush's face is so hideous, he looks like the devil whacked him with the ugly stick 20 times. He's so ugly that the last time he took a shower, a Peeping Tom passed by and pulled down his shades."
"Please, Humble, no!"
"President Bush is so fat, he jumped up into the air and got stuck," he continued, typing furiously. "I went to the White House for dinner and sat down at the table and a roach tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Sorry, buddy. This seat's reserved."
I hid my face in my hands and groaned with despair. Let me just say on the record that I find Humble's remarks about the president reprehensible in this, our time of national crisis. And remember, I didn't write that stuff. Humble did.
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