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Just moments before his big speech on Iraq in Iowa today, Barack Obama nearly got bogged down in his own quagmire, as he struggled to answer a question from Bill Maher on the Bible as a moral guide. How, the late-night comedian asked Obama, could the Ten Commandments bar swearing and Sunday shopping, but not rape or incest?
The actual answers are embargoed until late tonight, when the mashup feature goes live on Yahoo! So I’m being a bit vague here. But I think I can get away with telling you this much: It sounded like Obama was about to agree that the Ten Commandments were hypocritical—before he pulled himself clear by turning the question around and condemning the religious right.
Obama was one of eight Democratic candidates to participate in the presidential primary “mashup” hosted by Yahoo!, the Huffington Post, and Slate. Charlie Rose asked most of the questions, drawing on suggestions from the users of all three sites. Maher was brought in to ask each candidate a final “wild card” question. When Bill Richardson heard that a question was coming from Maher, he looked like he’d been caught in midair turbulence. For others, Maher’s off-the-wall questions led to the uncomfortable spectacle of them having to pretend to laugh long enough and hard enough to figure out what they were going to say in response. Most began with a variation on the formula, “I really love Bill Maher … ”
The candidates participated by remote satellite in locations from Fargo to Houston. They even had a hookup to whatever planet Mike Gravel lives on. Rose ran the show from his studio in the sleek, futuristic Bloomberg building in New York, which feels like a really cool Shanghai bank circa 2020. While other media companies are laying off reporters by the busload, Bloomberg is looking for places to put additional snack buffets for its workers. I thought they were going to force a chateaubriand on me. In the screening room where reporters watched the feed from Charlie Rose’s interview sanctum, a small group of invited guests noshed on delicious catered food. Hey, isn’t that Richard Belzer? (And shouldn’t he be a Fred Thompson man?) And there’s Nora Ephron. I’d like to say it was Slate that drew the boldfaced names, but I think they’re Arianna’s friends.
Maher addressed topics from whether marijuana should be legalized to whether Americans should be told that they are fat and stupid. If you want to hear only his questions, they will go live with the rest of the video clips later tonight. And if you’re the kind of person who thinks Maher’s questions only help al-Qaida, there was plenty of serious stuff about Iraq, education, and health care, as well. Though those topics have been covered a lot this year, there’s news. In her health-care answer, Hillary Clinton beat up on the insurance companies more brutally than I’ve heard her do before. Clinton also called Obama and Edwards phonies (not her precise word) for attacking her for taking money from insurance companies while taking money themselves from people who work for insurance companies. Clinton and Obama both answered, or I should say ducked, a question about the new Moveon.org anti-Petraeus ad in nearly identical fashion. John Edwards’ lame dodge was to say he hadn’t seen it.
If you’re sick of me and my colleagues getting between you and the presidential candidates, you will like this event. You can construct your own ideal debate from the video building-blocks provided. No smarty-pants pundit or producer will be throwing out Chris Dodd’s answers because Dodd is an asterisk in the polls. You can serve yourself the full Chris Dodd experience (including his answer on whether he’d legalize pot). Or you can create some hot Gravel-on-Clinton action, if that’s what you’re into. This may be the first political forum in either party in which no candidate complained about not getting enough airtime. They all talked long. But you can watch short.