Who knew that professional cynic Bill Maher was such a starry-eyed idealist?
Maher won’t admit as much, but no other explanation accounts for his surprise announcement Thursday night that he’s donating $1 million of his hard-earned money to Priorities USA Action, the awkwardly named super PAC supporting President Obama’s reelection campaign.
“No, I think it’s practical,” the comedian told me Friday afternoon when I accused him of being a political romantic. “The difference between a country governed by Obama and one governed by Rick Santorum is worth a million dollars to me. Not just because I think the country would be better, but because I think it would actually better protect the money I have left.”
The sharp-tongued satirist, host of HBO’s hit Friday night show Real Time With Bill Maher, revealed his eye-popping donation at the end of his standup routine at the Silicon Valley headquarters of Yahoo.
“I think Mitt Romney’s going to get the [Republican] nomination, and then I hope Obama beats him like a runaway sister-wife,” Maher told the crowd as a giant check was brought onstage. “If I had one bit of advice for our president, it would be stop trying to get everyone to like you. It’s never gonna happen. About half the country wouldn’t vote for you if you personally saved them from drowning.”
Maher added another piece of advice for history’s first black president: “Grow your hair out. That alone would change America.”
The 56-year-old Maher, who is rich but by no means superrich, told me he decided to become the Sheldon Adelson of the Obama campaign after attending several Grammy Awards parties a couple of weekends ago and despairing of the naivete of his fellow Hollywood liberals.
“All the liberals were saying it’s in the bag for Obama—I guess because all the Republicans were making such fools of themselves and the economy was turning around, and because, very often, liberals don’t pay that much attention to politics. And I was telling them, no, it’s definitely not in the bag for Obama. He’s being outspent and he’s going to be outspent.”
In order to achieve maximum impact for his gift, Maher kept his intentions a secret from everybody but his money manager. The irony, of course, is that Maher has been a frequent critic of super PACs and Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, the January 2010 Supreme Court decision that permits unlimited campaign contributions from corporations and unions alike to these supposedly independent political action committees.
Republican media consultant Larry McCarthy, who directs the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, was quick to lampoon Maher’s donation.
“Bill Maher’s made a fair number of jokes about super PACs,” he told me. “I guess now he gets to add himself to the punch line.” McCarthy added: “I didn’t know he was a supporter of the Citizens United decision.”
Maher responded: “This is what I hate about the Republicans. They know that what they’re saying is bullshit, but they say it anyway because they know that the people who aren’t paying as much attention won’t know it. That, to me, is the ultimate definition of cynicism.”
McCarthy “knows very well that as long as this is the game, we all have to play by the rules. As long as that is the rule of the game, we’re going to play by it and we’re going to try to win … Obama is not going to forgo this election on the principle of ‘we don’t believe in the Citizens United ruling.’ No, we don’t, and one of the reasons we want to elect Obama again is because perhaps he’ll get to appoint one or two people to the Supreme Court in the second term and they would overturn Citizens United.”
Maher, who has occasionally been critical of Obama for caving in to Republicans and falling short of his 2008 campaign promises, seems to have changed his views since November, when he told me that a President Romney would probably govern much like Obama—as a non-ideological “problem-solver.”
“I must have been high,” Maher said on Thursday. “I wasn’t really high. What I was trying to say is that Romney’s greatest virtue is that he’s a shape-shifter, so that there’s every possibility that when he got into office he would revert back to the moderate he was. But once you make these kinds of promises all year long, and you’re beholden to the far right wing of your party, I don’t know if that’s possible.”
As for his previous complaints about Obama, “It’s my job, whoever the president is, to hold his feet to the fire,” he said. “And I will continue to do that. There are lots of issues I have with the president—mostly on national security. I would rather he have Ron Paul’s foreign policy and brought troops home and cut the defense budget and all that stuff, but part of it is I do think he has gotten better… I really think he’s getting his mojo back.”
He added that after watching the Republicans debate 20 times, “you listen to these people talking about vaginal probes and Satan and zero percent taxes on capital gains and the rest of this nonsense, you run back into the arms of Barack Obama.”
Maher said his million bucks will be in the coffers of Priorities Action USA as early as Monday, and he will keenly feel the hole in his pocket.
“I want to make one key point: This hurts,” he said. “I’m doing this to say to all the rich liberals out there … I’ve got some money, but I don’t have, like, billionaire money—not even close. But if I can do it—if Bill Maher can do this—then a lot of other people can, too.”
Clarification: The original version of this piece suggested that the Citizens United decision allowed unlimited campaign contributions from the rich as well as corporations and unions. Unlimited individual contributions have been legal since 1976; the Citizens United ruling put corporate and union gifts on the same legal footing as individual donations.