Mad as Bill

Article excerpt

Byline: Lloyd Grove

Wall Street is occupied. Bipartisan rage is flying. And HBO's Bill Maher says, What took you so long?

In many ways, Bill Maher is a testament to the enduring power of the American Dream. As a shy, precocious 10-year-old growing up in white-bread River Vale, N.J.--the son of a radio newsman and a nurse--he habitually stayed up late to watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He vowed silently to himself ("I would never have had the balls to say it," he recalls) that one day he not only would be one of Johnny's guests, he'd have a television show of his own. "I didn't want to be on it, I wanted to own it," Maher tells Newsweek, noting that he ended up making 30 appearances on the late-night legend's show. "I wanted to be Johnny Carson."

As he reminisces about his race to the top--a life of wealth and fame, flashy women, and critical acclaim, only briefly punctuated in those struggling early years by a stint as a dope dealer in Spanish Harlem--Maher, 55, steers his all-electric Tesla Roadster (price tag: $120,000) toward downtown Los Angeles. His destination: the bedraggled encampment of tents, Porta Potties, and angry souls ringing City Hall known as Occupy L.A. It's the local chapter of Occupy Wall Street, which has quickly become a national protest movement against social injustice, income inequality, and a hodgepodge of grievances amounting to a raging rebuke of the American Dream.

"They Poison Our Air, Water, Land, Bodies, Minds, and Dreams," says a handpainted cardboard sign resting in the mud on the periphery of the tent city and crudely capturing the spirit of the gathering. There's little doubt who "they" are: the Upper 1 Percenters--a malevolent elite of grasping corporations, greed-head bankers, and corrupt politicians who have managed to ruin the economy for the other 99 percent, betray the public trust, and bring millions of hard-working citizens to their knees.

Carefully stowing his Tesla in a parking structure--until today, Maher confides, he'd never risked driving it on a freeway for fear of hitting a pothole and blowing a tire--he enters Occupy L.A. on the down low, dressed in celebrity incognito, a black leather jacket covering his wiry 5-foot-8 frame and a New York Giants cap shoved down over his face. He is, of course, recognized immediately.

In due course, Maher is surrounded by a crowd of ragtag admirers, many of them looking the worse for wear, having braved the elements for five or six weeks. Over the throbbing of nearby bongo drums, Maher suddenly finds himself conducting an impromptu teach-in on the state of the American body politic.

"The most important thing is what you're doing--so keep doing it," Maher tells the crowd. "It sends a real message that people are in the streets because it's the only other way to get your voice heard if you don't play the game the way it's been played, with lobbyists and congressmen who are too influenced by corporate money."

To whoops and applause, he adds: "Don't let them convince you to come inside and put on a suit and hire a lobbyist. That's how you lose. This is how you win."

At which point a young man with stringy blond hair strolls by and coos campily: "He's sooo handsome!"--prompting Maher to start laughing.

"Hemp will save the world!" shouts a jeans-clad woman with graying hair.

"If I had some hemp, I might agree with that," retorts Maher, a publicly enthusiastic marijuana smoker.

"You should run for office," an aging Latino man urges. "We need senators like you." More whoops and applause. "You gonna run for president?"

"No, no, I can't," Maher replies. "First of all, I'd lose. We can't even get an atheist in Congress, let alone for president." Later, he elaborates: "I think religion is bad and drugs are good. How can you get elected, just starting with that?"

He would certainly get the support of some voters, however. …