These are not the times to be caught in the middle of a dumpster fire unless you’re ready to get burned. That Bill Maher lit the fire isn’t surprising, though his courting outrage is his bread and butter. That he put Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse in the middle of his fire was, well, one of the possibilities that Sasse should have anticipated. After all, Sasse knew Maher was Maher before he went on the show.
Shortly after 10 p.m., Mr. Maher, the comedian and host of HBO’s “Real Time,” was talking to Mr. Sasse on his program about the boundaries between adolescence and maturity, and how adults in California still dress up for Halloween.
When Mr. Sasse said this did not happen in his state, Mr. Maher said, “I’ve got to get to Nebraska more.”
Mr. Sasse replied: “You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”
Mr. Maher said: “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger. No, it’s a joke.”
Maybe it was a joke to Maher, because he’s so edgy, but saying “no, it’s a joke,” doesn’t make it funny.
Maher has fought against political correctness, in general, and language, in particular, which may be laudable as a general concept. His execution of the concept usually left much to be desired. I was never a fan. Like watching Samantha Bee, it was guaranteed to make me wince, if not feel a burning desire to throw something.
Sasse earned a doctorate in American History from Yale University. He taught at the University of Texas and served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2010, he was named president of Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska.
He has a new book out, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, and he’s doing the tour. He would have done better to take the high road than travel through Maherville.
The problem wasn’t just that Maher uttered a word that is too taboo, too offensive, too wrong for TV or any person who isn’t completely out of touch with its implications and reactions today. The problem for Ben Sasse is that he smiled or chuckled in reaction to it. Sure, some in the audience laughed, but then, they’re there to see Maher’s show, so they’re hardly the metric for humanity. Sasse, however, did two things: he laughed. He did not condemn Maher’s language.
One of the impossible questions from the last election was how the United States ended up being constrained to make a choice between two of the least desirable candidates possible. Where were the good people? Where were the smart people, the ones who could not only do the job, but do a better job of it than the worst possible choices. And that’s what makes this one word so damning.
Ben Sasse may well be the type of conservative candidate whom we would want to run for higher office. Progressives may hate his policies, but they would hate any conservative just for not being progressive. But Sen. Sasse possesses the intelligence and principles that one would wish for in a candidate, even if he’s not your candidate. And yet, there he was, on this braying jackass’ show, smiling at the unsmileable.
Will this taint him in perpetuity? He should have said something immediately. It may be true that he was shocked, that he wasn’t sure what to do in response to Maher’s mouth, but that’s an unsatisfactory answer. Will he smile when Putin casually mentions that he’s taking Ukraine? One of the things Sasse must have in his toolbox is the ability to know when to leap to his feet and yell, “I object.” If he doesn’t, the objection is waived. It’s a brutal rule, but it’s a rule nonetheless.
While Sasse possesses many attributes that suggest he has a bright future as a public servant and in politics, there is one he has yet to gain. Experience. He entered the Senate in 2014. He’s young, and looks even younger. His background is academia, where deliberation prevails. And he didn’t see this coming. Bear in mind, his offense wasn’t that he uttered the word, but that he smiled and failed to object. It’s still an offense, but not as heinous.
There is an argument to be made, best made by Lenny Bruce, that creating taboo words gives them powers they don’t deserve. By uttering them, we take back their power. This is a fine argument for Maher, but does Sasse little good. He didn’t make the decision to take back this power.
But this will be an important, and painful, experience about getting caught in the crossfire that others lay down without his knowledge or expectation, and that a United States Senator, a possible candidate for higher office, has to be ready to deal with it. Ben Sasse cannot allow a guy like Bill Maher to dictate the circumstances he will find himself in, and when a character like Maher creates an untenable situation, he needs to know where the line is to stop smiling, even if only to be polite as folks from Nebraska are wont to be, and say no.
There is a skill that serves a good trial lawyer well, the ability to process the things happening around him quickly enough to know when something has gone amiss, and the guts to stand up and call it out. Ben Sasse may have never been a trial lawyer, or a lawyer at all, but it’s a skill he obviously needs to gain. He blew this objection.
This should not end any expectations for the future, however. Better it be seen as a teachable moment, a learning experience, because without smart, young, principled conservatives available to run for office, we are left only the least desirable, most despicable, candidates possible. Have we learned nothing from the last election?
*Full disclosure, I am an Admiral in the Great Navy of Nebraska.