Roger Ebert, who died today at the age of 70, will always be remembered for what his work gave to the world of film, but his interests were in no way insular. As a prominent voice in American culture, Ebert took the same measured and empathetic approach with politics as he did with movies, advancing progressive causes when he felt he had the understanding to do so, often with the same keen eye. In 2004, for instance, he told Howard Stern, “We have a guy that’s going to be in the Senate from Illinois named Barack Obama, who’s going to be, I think, very important to the future of this country.” Along with his encyclopedia of reviews, Ebert’s views on government will live on in many forms.
Ebert grew up in “a liberal household” and “remembers his parents praying for the success of Harry Truman in the election of 1948,” according to an obituary in the Sun-Times. At the University of Illinois, he started writing as a freshman by publishing a journal of “politics and opnion.” Those interests never waned, and publicly picked up especially in his later years, as he took to the Internet.
On his popular Twitter account, Ebert embraced the quippy commentary of a new age. Of his most popular tweets ever, most are about politics:
But he also wrote in long-form on varied issues of the day, a sampling of which we’ve collected below.
“We’ve Seen This Movie Before,” on Aurora, film, and gun control, 2012:
That James Holmes is insane, few may doubt. Our gun laws are also insane, but many refuse to make the connection. The United States is one of few developed nations that accepts the notion of firearms in public hands. In theory, the citizenry needs to defend itself. Not a single person at the Aurora, Colo., theater shot back, but the theory will still be defended. […]
This would be an excellent time for our political parties to join together in calling for restrictions on the sale and possession of deadly weapons. That is unlikely, because the issue has become so closely linked to paranoid fantasies about a federal takeover of personal liberties that many politicians feel they cannot afford to advocate gun control.
“The Newtown killings,” Sandy Hook and Columbine, 2012:
“Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
“In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them.
“The body count,” on guns, 2012:
I’m tired of repeating the obvious. I know with a dread certainty that I will change nobody’s mind. I will hear conspiracy theories from those who fear the government, I will hear about the need to raise a militia, and I will hear nothing about how 9,484 corpses in a year has helped anything. That is a high price to pay. What depresses me is that half of my fellow countrymen are prepared to pay it.
“Put up or shut up,” on Obama birthers, 2010:
We know, because they’ve said so publicly, that George W. Bush, his father and Sen. John McCain do not believe Obama is a Muslim. This is the time – now, not later – for them to repeat that belief in a joint statement. Other prominent Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul also certainly do not believe it. They have a responsibility to make that clear by subscribing to the statement. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh must join, or let their silence indict them. Limbaugh in particular must cease his innuendos and say, flat out, whether he believes the President is a Muslim or not. Yes or no. Does he have evidence, or does he have none? Yes or no.
To do anything less at this troubled time in our history would be a crime against America.
“Pundits turned critics miss point of film,” on the politics of JFK, 1992:
Thank God for President Bush’s stomach flu. It gave the op-ed pundits something to write about other than Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” Never in my years as a newspaperman have I seen one subject pummeled so mercilessly and joylessly as this movie that questions the official wisdom on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Saddam Hussein did not receive half the vituperation the op-ed crowd has aimed at “JFK.”
“Traveler to the undiscovere’d country,” on Christopher Hitchens and cancer, 2010:
Hitchens shows himself as a man temperamentally driven to test his own opinions. He reasons instead of proselytizing. He exists as that most daring of writers, a freelance intellectual. He’s a good speaker, can be funny, has bad teeth, is passably good-looking, and is at no pains to be a charmer. He’s popular because he’s smart. He says nothing merely to be politic, although in some situations he may keep his meaning coiled well within.
“BP’s tree fell on my lawn,” on the oil spill and energy dependence, 2010:
In my view, the overall neocon strategy for quite some time has come down to this: Maximize corporate profits in disregard of legal and traditional safeguards by all means necessary. Now that Paul Wolfowitz has written that the Iraq War was about oil, not WMD, a decade of obfuscation has been discarded. We are still fighting there. And in Afghanistan. where we are now told the Taliban has been advised and assisted for years by the Pakistan Secret Service. We give $8 billion a year in aid to Pakistan. In some sense, we are subsidizing our enemies.
“‘Death Panels.’ A most excellent term,” on health care, 2009:
Of course the term is inspired by a lie. There are no conceivable plans to form “death panels” or anything like them. The Obama plan, which has some bipartisan support, doesn’t seek or desire to get involved in any decisions about who should live and who should die. But now we hear “death panel” repeated so often that the term has taken on a sort of eerie reality, as if it really referred to anything.
“Ten things I know about the mosque,” on the Ground Zero Mosque, 2010:
1. America missed a golden opportunity to showcase its Constitutional freedoms. The instinctive response of Americans should have been the same as President Obama’s: Muslims have every right to build there. Where one religion can build a church, so can all religions.
“New Agers and Creationists should not be President,” on religion in politics, 2009:
I adamantly support the right of any candidate to profess any faith, or none. And in the separate case of their New Age or Creationism beliefs, I emphasize my words “should not” rather than “can not” be President. If a candidate professes the story of Creation as an ancient legend or symbol, as so many do of Adam and Eve, that is quite understandable and has long precedent. […]
My only purpose today is to state early and often that if a Presidential candidate believes early humans used saddles to ride on the backs of dinosaurs, as they are depicted at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, that candidate should not be elected President.
“How I believe in God,” on his own religion, 2009:
I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors. I think what happens in them is socio-political, not spiritual. I believe the Prosperity Gospel tries to pass through the eye of the needle. I have no patience for churches that evangelize aggressively. No interest in being instructed in what I must do to be saved. I prefer vertical prayer, directed upward toward heaven, rather than horizontal prayer, directed sideways toward me. I believe a worthy church must grow through attraction, not promotion. I am wary of zealotry; even as a child I was suspicious of those who, as I sometimes heard, were “more Catholic than the Pope.” If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect that our own deserve.