The Battle of Bel Air

I thought about John Kerry in Peter Guber’s living room.

Not Sen. John Kerry, dour and pontifical when he should be upbeat and direct, but young John Kerry, the 24-year-old Navy patrol boat skipper who wrote home from the jungles of Vietnam after surviving a particularly horrific ambush near an unmarked canal by unseen attackers.

"I just lay in the ditch," that John Kerry wrote, "not firing because I wanted to save ammo and because I couldn’t see what I was firing at and I thought about what was happening in New York at that very moment and if people really felt that I was doing something worthwhile while they went down to Schrafft’s and had another ice cream sundae…."

I thought of that line as I stood in Guber’s massive study, eating dabs of tuna tartare off crisp toast rounds, watching my fellow guests argue over the war in Iraq. The day before, June 8, two more American servicemen had been killed in Iraq. Jeremy L. Bohlman, 21, from Sioux Falls, S.D, was reported killed, "in hostile action." Jamie A. Gray, 29, from Montpelier, Vt., died when his military vehicle hit a roadside bomb. I could only imagine what scenes of chaos and grief unfolded around those two deaths, and how removed the vast majority of us are from the daily horrors of this ongoing war.

Such thoughts compelled me to show up when David Frum came to Guber’s Bel Air home to discuss the book he co-wrote with Richard Perle, "An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror" (Random House, 2003). Frum is the former Bush speechwriter who inspired the "axis of evil" phrase and joined with fellow neo-conservatives in pushing for military action in Iraq. Guber is the former head of Sony Pictures Entertainment who has produced such movies as "Rainman" and "Batman."

So there we were. Among the couple dozen or so of us were actress Suzanne Somers and her husband and fellow telemarketing entrepreneur Alan Hamel; radio talk show host Larry Elder; not one but two Los Angeles Times reporters; USC law professor Susan Estrich; Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart; PR expert Michael Levine, who helped coordinate the event; City Councilman and mayoral candidate Bernard Parks; and comedian Bill Maher, who arrived late and, as you’ll see, left early.

The study was huge, set back off a rarified street in the upper reaches of Bel Air, with wide-planked wood floors, a display cabinet stuffed with honors and prizes that ran for 60 feet along a book-covered wall, a 15-foot model of a racing yacht in one corner, a restaurant-worthy wet bar in another and, over the massive fireplace, the poster for "The Color Purple."

After chitchat and introductions, Frum summarized the arguments of his book, but focused mostly on how current critics of the war in Iraq were overreacting to the inevitable messiness of war and underestimating the positive consequences of the invasion. We have deposed a cruel dictator who killed more Iraqis than the war itself; we have put authoritarian Arab regimes on notice; we have prepared the way for a representative government in Iraq and pushed Libya to abandon its hardline stance.

Frum harkened back to Sept. 11 as a reminder that the United States is locked in battle with radical Islam and that Iraq was but one step in defeating these forces and those regimes that support them.

Fairly soon into the Q-and-A, Maher challenged Frum on the wisdom of a war that left America more hated than admired. Frum kept his composure as Maher alternated between speeches, questions and soundbites, advancing from the wet bar nearly to the speaker’s face.

Hamel joined Frum’s defense, accusing Maher of pacifism.

Maher struck back. He wasn’t saying we should do nothing, just that Iraq was the wrong thing. Hamel argued that Germany and Japan were were chaotic as well after World War II. Maher said his dad and mother were "in World War II: and I’m half-Jewish"; the point being he didn’t need a lecture on the efficacy of military force. It’s not whether war is right, it’s whether this was the right war.

It was getting uglier and uglier until International Creative Management CEO Jeff Berg interrupted and asked Maher to keep quiet so others could ask questions.

"If you want to shut me up, fine," Maher said. "No one else seemed to be holding up the other side of the argument."

He crossed in front of the yacht model and stalked out of the room, straight to the parking valet.

"That is not dialogue," Guber said. He said the idea of the evening was to bring people together to engage in open debate on controversial topics, not throw hissy fits.

The evening wound down shortly thereafter. Guber rushed to turn on the Laker playoff on a giant flat-screen, which seemed to magically appear on one of the library’s walls.

People buzzed and tsked over Maher’s display. I was at first quick to dismiss it as half principle and half petulance. Then I remembered what young John Kerry wrote, and thought for a moment that if the Frums and the Perles of the world have been wrong, we haven’t been principled, or petulant, enough.