Penn Jillette on Obama, Gary Johnson, Hitchens, and peace

Penn Jillette discusses his new book Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 13, 2012 — Today marks the release of Penn Jillette’s “Every Day is an Atheist Holiday,” the much-anticipated follow up to his 2011 book, “God, No!”

Jillette, renowned illusionist, author, actor, Emmy Award-winner, Celebrity Apprentice contestant, and half of the acclaimed Penn and Teller duo, is currently the host of his own podcast entitled Penn’s Sunday School. He took a break from his busy schedule this weekend to speak with me; he was refreshingly open, candid, and willing to give his opinion on any number of subjects.

Given the recent election and Jillette’s self-proclaimed libertarianism, I asked what he would like to see come from a second-term Obama administration. “Being a libertarian, I am very happy there will be a sense of social freedom,” said Jillette. “I wish that Obama would embrace that more, and be more respectful to people who want to smoke marijuana. I wish he would be more respectful to the state, and state’s rights like Colorado, and the other states that voted for that and not go after marijuana, but Obama giggles about dope smoking and doing cocaine, but still seems thrilled to send people to prison for that.

“I hasten to add that I have never had a sip of alcohol in my life,” he added, “and never a puff of marijuana, but I do believe that freedom matters and that should be everyone’s right. I wish he were more open and more accepting of people who are different like gays and so on. I wish he was not using the Patriot Act and having kill lists and detaining people without trials.”

Jillette went on to say that he would like to see the formation of a new political movement in the United States. “I wish we had a peace movement in this country. I wish there were somebody voicing publicly and aggressively that we should be killing many, many, many, fewer people. All that being said, America will come together much more now that the election is over. I wish we had a candidate that was a peace candidate because Obama and Romney were identical on war and foreign policy. I wish we had a candidate that was for more freedom because Obama and Romney were identical in all of that.”

Election night brought speculation that the United States was slowly embracing libertarianism; that victories for recreational marijuana and gay marriage symbolized a potential shift toward a libertarian direction of personal freedom. Jillette remains unconvinced.

“I just don’t know. I don’t know. People still seem to think that they should vote themselves money. They seem to think there is stuff which they think is the government’s job, when it’s really the individual’s job. You have to be careful as a libertarian because you can sound very Republican. I don’t want people who are in poverty, in pain, or suffering, to suffer because it’s for their own good and they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I want to help them. I want us all to help them. I just don’t want to use guns to do it.”

One libertarian victory was the accumulation of more than one million votes by party presidential candidate Gary Johnson during the recent election cycle. When I pointed out Johnson’s returns to Jillette he offered, “One of those one million was mine, by the way.” Given Jillette’s intense political interest, I wondered aloud whether Americans might see Jillette 2016 bumper stickers in the next election cycle. “I don’t think so”, he chuckled, “I have a job. I love my job, and I have no desire to do anything else. I also wouldn’t have a chance. I don’t think I’m made of the right stuff to be a politician. I think I’m made to be a loose cannon.”

As his book titles suggest, Jillette is a proud atheist. In “God, No!”, Jillette explores his atheism through an effective, enlightening series of amusing, tender, and sometimes sad anecdotes. “Everyday is an Atheist Holiday” promises even more Jillette adventures. “No matter what the title is, what the subject is, I’m using it as an excuse to tell stories,” he said.  

Jillette recounted one of his favorite stories in the new book, which involves him persuading Nobel Prize winner Arnold Penzias to tell a dirty joke on stage at the TED conference in front of Jonas Salk, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. For those who watched Jillette on The Celebrity Apprentice, the new book includes behind the scenes accounts of his tenure on the show, and an entire chapter has been dedicated to bittersweet memories of close friends Tommy Ardolino and Christopher Hitchens, both now deceased.

During our conversation Jillette spoke at length about Hitchens, whom he misses terribly. The writer and public intellectual passed away in December last year after succumbing to esophageal cancer. Jillette recalled a story of when the two were supposed to appear together, shortly before Hitchens passed away.

“I was scheduled to do a couple of TV shows. He and I had books that were out at similar times. We were both booked on CNN, and I was looking forward to seeing him. We were in New York, and I went to the studio, and the producer there told me that Christopher Hitchens was not going to be on the show. He had called and said he was very sick. Someone joked in the room and said, ‘He’s just been drinking.’ I said, ‘No. He’s always drinking. If he were drinking he would be here. He really is sick, he has to be.’ Everybody kind of laughed it off. That was the day it was clear that Hitchens was very, very sick. I didn’t see him after that. It’s amazing to say that. I didn’t realize it until I just said it to you.”

Penn Jillette is an interesting mix of sensitive guy, intellectual, comedian, and gentleman; he was a pleasure to interview. Outspoken on his own views both political and religious, Jillette nonetheless greatly values and welcomes the opinions of others: “One of the things that matters most to me is that we are a country that is as different as individuals as we can possibly be. I think that’s the reason why we live - to be different from one another and to learn from one another.” And his simple advice to the youth of the world? “Read everything, and be kind.”


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Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly is currently a college student majoring in History and Political Science. His writings have appeared in The Daily Local, Lew Rockwell.com’s blog, The Washington Times, Antiwar.com, and Freedom’s Phoenix Online Digital Magazine. He has been a popular guest political contributor to numerous national radio shows across the country, offering his perspective on a wide array of issues. 

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