"There is only one requirement for any of us, and that is to be courageous. Courage defines all other human behavior." -- David Letterman, September 17, 2001
Last week, after the enormity of the events on September 11 began to sink in, President Bush and other leaders like NYC Mayor Rudolph Guiliani urged U.S. citizens to return to their normal activities. But what is "normal" in the wake of September 11? The concept appears to be a work in progress. Nowhere was this more visible than on television, which struggled with the appropriateness of bringing entertainment programming back to the airwaves. If television is any indication, it appears that returning to normal is no small task. Whatever it is, "normal" now includes a deep, collective sense of pain, resolve, fear, and hope -- as well as some chilling harbingers of the changing face of TV.
One of the earliest pushes toward normalcy was the return of The Late Show With David Letterman (CBS) on September 17. God love that gap-toothed lug for the way in which he expressed not only his own sadness and fragility, but that of viewers across the nation. Letterman was everyman incarnate, deeply heartsick and bewildered by the events. He asked how could such a thing happen? Unfortunately, his question, posed to guest and CBS news anchor Dan Rather, provided what I can only call a ghastly display of under-cooked rhetoric and uncritical patriotism.
Rather broke into tears when talking about New York City firefighters, and later while reciting lines from "America the Beautiful." But my jaw fell to the floor at his response to Letterman's plaintive question, "What are the events that pissed [the terrorists] off? What did we do here?" to which Rather replied:
"They see themselves as the world's losers. They would never admit that. We have everything. We win everything ... it drives them batty."
Rather apologized for his tears, but the real offense was his grossly simplistic response to a complex question. If that weren't enough, he went on to tell an unsubstantiated story about a terrorist cell "jumping for joy" as they watched the destruction of the World Trade Center from across the Hudson River.
Rather is entitled to his opinions, but the question was posed to him as a newsman. Is this the best we can expect from him and other news gatherers? Is this the new "normal," to perpetuate an ahistorical, uncritical view of the U.S. government?
While Rather was tearing up on CBS, Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher at ABC was having his own problems. For Maher, the horror of September 11 struck very close. Political commentator and frequent guest Barbara Olsen died on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon building. She was en route to appear on Maher's show.
In his opening remarks, Maher said something that would sadly be forgotten: "I do not relinquish, nor should any of you, the right to criticize, even as we support, our government. This is still a democracy, and they're still politicians."
When guest Dinesh D'Souza said the terrorists were not cowards, as they've often been characterized, according to ABC program transcripts, Maher replied:
"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."
Somehow, Maher's comments were translated as saying he believed those who served in the U.S. military were cowards. Show sponsors Fed Ex and Sears Roebuck promptly withdrew their ads, reportedly in response to customer complaints. The next day, Maher was attacked from all sides, including network colleagues on The View. The morning following Maher's comments, the women of The View discussed his lack of judgment and timing, with Joy Behar saying, "What does he know -- he's a comedian."
Maher spent the week retracting his comments on the ABC Web site and on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno: "In no way was I intending to say, nor have I ever thought, that the men and women who defend our nation in uniform are anything but courageous and valiant, and I offer my apologies to anyone who took it wrong. My criticism was meant for politicians who ... have not allowed our military to do the job they are obviously ready, willing and able to do."
I'm not a Maher fan, but the fact that his words were first misconstrued and then taken to be inappropriate struck me as another in a string of burgeoning threats to our civil liberties. If it's not appropriate to speak up now, when will it be? Is this what we have to look forward to in the new, "normal" world order -- a progressively tighter rein on freedom of speech?
The one bright spot in the week was the star-studded telethon on Friday, America: A Salute to Heroes. The event appeared on 31 broadcast and cable networks and aired in more than 200 nations. Talent -- ranging from Neil Young to Tom Hanks to Will Smith and Muhammad Ali -- worked for free, and the networks relinquished millions of advertising dollars. But all of that was not what made it an unprecedented event. The profound gift of the show was in its serenity after days of heart-pounding grief. It was reverential without being maudlin, proud without harnessing the increasingly clangy language of patriotism. It was an extraordinary moment captured on television. I find myself praying it won't be the last.