May 12, 2004,
I went on Dennis Miller's new CNBC show for the first time a few weeks ago and realized I'd better stop by the ophthalmologist first, because one of my fake tear ducts had become dislodged again, and a dripping eye is particularly unattractive on TV. I'm not exactly experienced in this area, but I suspect Rule Number One in the on-air media punditry handbook is probably: No leaking bodily fluids.
"Isn't Miller a big leftist?" Dr. D asked. "No, he's a big rightist," I said. Shock and disbelief! Many people just can't accept that one of their fellow travelers has wandered off the correct path. But Dr. D understood the sorry reality when he saw me and my shoved-back-into-place tear duct on Dennis Miller the next night. "Your eye looked good," he said, pleased with his work. Then, less pleased: "But it's true; Miller's a Nazi now."
"Oh, come on," I said, even though I knew he was (sort of) teasing. Still, I began a tirade against elite liberals who call anyone with a different opinion a Nazi...until I realized I probably shouldn't get into arguments with a guy whose job involves constantly poking my eyes with very long needles.
But it's remarkable how surprising Miller's turn to the right is in some quarters, even though he's been calling himself a conservative libertarian since the mid-'90s. This was partly a response to the Left's constant attacks on New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, just as Giuliani's law-and-order policies began making New York a better place to live. Sept. 11, though, was a major turning point for Miller, as it was of course for many other people.
"I'm shocked it didn't change everybody as much as it changed me," Miller said at a CNBC news conference about his new show. "In dangerous times, I think this county has to cover it's a**. Simple fact is, I'm of both persuasions. If two gay guys want to get married, I could care less; if some psycho from another country wants to blow up their wedding, I expect my government to kill him preemptively."
He had a preemptive crack ready for those who complain that the war in Iraq is a distraction from the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. "I wish there was a country called al Qaeda and we could have started the war there," Miller said, "but there wasn't. And Hussein and his punk sons were just unlucky enough to draw the Wonka ticket in the a**hole lottery."
You can't get much clearer than that. And indeed the air of disapproval among the assembled reporters was so thick that even a couple of Bush haters in the room later told me they thought it was a bit much.
One woman TV critic, for instance, couldn't get over her shock that Miller had already made up his mind to vote for Bush, and wondered how the stand-up-turned-talk-show-host imagined he could possibly get guests of different political persuasions to appear on his show. (It apparently hadn't occurred to her that Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, who's obviously already made up his mind to vote against Bush, has no problem getting Republican guests.)
"Eddie's going to field that one," said Miller, referring to senior producer Eddie Feldman, "because you're too deep for me, Sylvia Plath."
"In other words, you're declaring for Bush right now," continued the questioner several minutes later, still sounding amazed.
"Listen, by the time you end this question, the second term is going to be over," Miller interrupted. "I won't have to worry about it."
It's true that Miller's guests can lean to the right. The two three-person "Varsity Panels" I've been on, for instance, consisted of one panelist on the left (NBC travel correspondent Peter Greenberg; actor Kevin Pollack, who in any case is a hawkish liberal) vs. two on the right (David Horowitz and I were on the first time; Al Rantel, a KABC radio-talk-show host here in L.A., and I shared the right-wing slot the second).
But plenty of left-leaning guests have stopped by, and they get to have their say. Take the infamous incident in March with MSNBC political commentator Eric Alterman, whose arguments against the war in Iraq Miller apparently found so tedious he slumped over in his chair and said, "Oh, just finish the f***ing segment." That got a lot of ink but was an anomaly.
Miller doesn't go in for constant interruptions or snorts of derision, a la Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball. Susan Jacoby was a one-on-one guest promoting her new book when I was on the show for a second time last month. Miller listened respectfully to Jacoby's spiel suggesting this country faces real danger from the "Religious Right," and the only derisive snorts were from me, watching on the monitor in the greenroom.
That's an easier place, by the way, to get a word in edgewise than when you're actually up there on the panel, especially between two old on-air pros like Peter Greenberg and David Horowitz. When Greenberg announced in the greenroom that "terrorists are just freedom fighters on the losing side," I told him that was a load of crap, and why. We went back and forth for a while until one of the producers said, "Hey, save it for onstage, guys."
In any case, they asked me back, and the second time I was more aggressive about merging onto the cross-talk freeway and got to say more enough, in fact, to get in an offhand crack about Howard Stern, who took public umbrage about it the next day on his radio show. Miller had wondered if the anti-Bush tirade Stern's been on lately might affect the election, and I suggested that the radio shock jock's core 18-to-34-year-old demographic aren't all that likely to get to the polls anyway. I mean, how many of these guys can even get off the couch?
"That moron is Cathy Sepp," Stern growled, in surprisingly grim and angry tones, after playing the Miller audio clip. (No one can ever pronounce my name.) "Trust me, honey, they do get off the couch."
"They say she's a comedian, that girl," Stern's sidekick added. They do? Well, my line did get a laugh. So...Score!