Journalism professors love to issue dire warnings about blurring the sacred line between news and entertainment, as if that line had ever existed. News has provided delight and diversion for the public ever since weekly papers appeared in the coffee houses of 18th-century London, but the media police still insist there's something called news (serious), and something called entertainment (frivolous). For these solemn owls, Dennis Miller of CNBC looks like the anti-Christ.
Since it went on the air in January, his one-hour nightly program has casually mixed comedy with politics. Worse, he's blatantly used his time to express the most outrageous opinion an American celebrity can hold: He considers George W. Bush a good president.
People in show business and journalism usually accept as an axiom that Bush is a dimwit with a sick obsession about terrorism. On David Letterman's show, the audience hoots with joy at every suggestion that Bush has a two-digit IQ, and even Larry David, the spiteful old man on Curb Your Enthusiasm, hates Republicans more than Democrats.
News people deliver the same message with more subtlety, Peter Jennings of ABC being the classic case. As Miller rightly says, Jennings does it all with a combination of the poker face, "the raised eyebrows, the arch tone of the voice. We get it that he doesn't like Bush." How could he? Bush is beneath him, and can only be treated with disdain.
In Hollywood, all you need to know about local opinion is that hardly anyone hesitates to cheer Michael Moore's boorish, heavy-handed comedy. Miller has that one right: "We should fight to preserve a country where people such as Michael Moore get to miss the point as badly as he misses it. Moore represents everything I detest in a human being."
As John O'Sullivan shrewdly noted on this page recently, "America may be the first society in history to have a dissident ruling class. It is ambivalent at best, hostile at worst, to the success of U.S. power." Miller is a rare exception. A liberal who was changed by Sept. 11, he doesn't defend every attitude of the Bush government but admires its foreign policy: "If two gay guys want to get married, it's none of my business. More power to them. But if some idiot foreign terrorist wants to blow up their wedding to make a political statement, I would rather kill him before he can do it."
Miller often expresses opinions that (I suspect) most people hide. "I'm getting sick of fanatics who are whiners," he'll announce. A long-time libertarian, he knows civil liberties can be pushed too hard. Two years ago he remarked, "Civil liberties are becoming more carefully scrutinized than the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in the men's room of a fertility clinic." He favours racial profiling at airports, which many consider some kind of crime. Since profiling (it means using experience) has been standard practice through the history of police work, opposition to it comes either from liberals who carry tolerance to the point of dottiness or ordinary politicians intimidated by minority lobbyists.
Even Miller's most passionate fans won't claim he's flawless. He may be the best-read comedian in California, but he's a little shaky on certain issues (he has trouble remembering why inflation leads to high interest rates). His opening monologue, a mock newscast that descends from Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update (where he made his reputation in the 1980s) sags too often. It needs about three more good writers and a sharper director.
But even on his weakest nights, he's alert to counterfeit emotion and fraudulent argument, and he appears not to care that he fits no one's category. He brings onto his show people who disagree with him, and actually seems to listen when they talk. He also has some endearing political ideas, like his suggestion that Condoleezza Rice would make a great president.
One of his virtues has nothing to do with politics. He trusts his audience to understand, or at least stick with him, when he throws Moby Dick, e.e. cummings and Kafka into his rants. At one point, when arguing against defeatism, he said: "The winners of history are those who sound their barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world, while the losers are the ones who cannot express themselves without apology." Considered as part of a TV script, that sentence is remarkable mainly because it quotes two words, "barbaric yawps," from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It's from the same passage where Whitman says, "I too am not a bit tamed."
Miller may be an acquired taste, and not one that everybody will want to acquire. Mingling jokes about male impotence and hooters with attacks on John Kerry's political flexibility won't make everyone comfortable. Half a century old, Miller remains something of a college jock. And of course he brazenly courts political unpopularity with at least half of his fellow citizens. Still, as he says, the one sure road to defeat is backing away from your most passionately held beliefs. At the moment that's not one of his problems.