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Party politics

June 20, 2004|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't immediately clear as the evening began that Peter Guber's "open dialogue" on terrorism -- held in his comfortable Bel-Air study the size of a city block -- might devolve into biting punditry and outright heckling. But that may be because Bill Maher arrived late.

Early on, the mood was subdued. Pensive, even. It was, after all, just three days after Ronald Reagan's passing, and while L.A. Councilman Bernard Parks munched porcupine shrimp on skewers and posed with Suzanne Somers, hundreds of devotees were blessing the former president's coffin 35 miles northwest in Simi Valley.

Guber's gathering had its own element of serious reflection, despite the turquoise-and-blond distraction that was Somers: Terrorism was the salon topic. The evening's attraction was conservative author David Frum, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush. He'd flown in from Washington, D.C., for an appearance on Dennis Miller's CNBC talk show to promote his new book, "An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror," which he wrote with former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle. Publicist Michael Levine heard about his visit and organized a forum for his client Guber. The June 8 event was the first in a series of political discussions that Guber plans to host.

Guber, chief of Mandalay Entertainment, explained his intent this way: "The facts are, the world is a dangerous place. I'm trying to create a dialogue, not just on why it's dangerous, not just on how come it's dangerous, but what personal action to take and what community or national action to take."

After agents, publicists and journalists had settled at a mahogany bar, on leather ottomans and plush couches, Frum got started. For 30 minutes his monologue leapt from fierce defense of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to sharp criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies to apocalyptic warnings of the terrorists attacks to come.

"The terrorists themselves have kind of a Hollywood problem," Frum said, "which is, they have, with their last attack ... raised the bar as to what's going to count as a success next time.... That's why there hasn't been another 9/11. They have to do something at least as spectacular as that."

Just as Frum wrapped up his take on Islamic extremists, Maher broke in. "You really think President Bush understands what they think?" he asked, moving closer to Frum. "His big thing is, 'They hate us for our freedom.' Do you think he understands? What they care about, what their idea of freedom is, isn't what we care about. Their idea of freedom is making sure their sister doesn't wear a miniskirt."

Soon Guber's "open dialogue" dissolved into the Maher-Frum Show. At some point, the violence in the Middle East became World War II and Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler. And suddenly Frum, Guber and Somers' husband, Alan Hamel, were comparing Maher's opposition to the Iraq war with the American isolationism that they said led to the death of 6 million Jews.

"I'm half-Jewish!" Maher shouted in his defense. "Both my parents were in World War II!"

Frum and Maher argued for the next half-hour, exhausting the rest of the guests with rhetoric. Finally, ICM chairman and CEO Jeff Berg answered everyone's prayers and asked Maher to "give it a rest."

"OK," Maher said. "I'll leave." And he did, despite Somers' pleas for him to stay.

"Come back, Bill!" she shouted. "You're very interesting!"In a show of sportsmanship, or perhaps self-preservation, Maher, star of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," asked Frum on his way out: "I'll see you on my show?"

Frum replied amiably, "Any time."

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