The Party of Michael Moore
The following is an excerpt from Theodore Hamm, The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics (New Press, May 2008).
One month after Fahrenheit 9/11 made its opening splash, Michael Moore became a controversial presence at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. It was here where he finally got to climb in the ring with Bill O’Reilly. On the convention’s opening day, the show’s host had run “into Moore on the street and persuaded him to enter the No Spin Zone,” a dubiously named segment where O’Reilly rips into guests whose politics he doesn’t like. When Moore insisted that the exchange should take place in a “neutral setting,” O’Reilly tried to coax him by offering Moore something unique: “I never give anybody the opportunity to ask me questions,” the host said, implying that he would give his guest that rare honor. Instead of highlighting Moore’s “lies,” O’Reilly proceeded to flip the script by arguing that the filmmaker had unfairly called Bush a “liar” for his claims regarding WMD in Iraq. When Moore said that the president plainly had done so because “he said something that wasn’t true,” O’Reilly shot back that Bush’s statements had been “Based upon bad information given to him by legitimate sources.” Pro-war mainstream commentators like ABC’s Ted Koppel would soon echo O’Reilly’s defense of Bush.
Such tit-for-tat volleying between Moore and O’Reilly continued for some time, before giving way to a wide-ranging, increasingly heated debate over examples of possible parallels for the Iraq conflict including Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and the fall of the Soviet Union. Each figure refused to concede a single point, and each sanctimoniously sought the higher ground. The clash of the titans ended thusly:
Moore: You would sacrifice your life to secure Fallujah?
O’Reilly: I would.
Moore: When can we sign him up? Let’s sign him up right now.
O’Reilly: That’s right, you’d love to get rid of me.
Moore: Where’s the recruiter? No, I want you to live, I want you to live.
O’Reilly: I appreciate it. Michael Moore, everybody. There he is.
Even as they swung from different sides of the plate, the two cleanup hitters used the same heavyweight bat. And in spite of their mutual contempt, the two media titans appeared to deserve each other.
The battle was by far the biggest viewing attraction of the evening’s convention coverage, the bulk of which took place on cable TV, since the major networks allotted only one hour of coverage to the DNC per night. O’Reilly, not surprisingly, felt that he had emerged victorious. As he stressed on the following night’s show, the host believed that he had effectively rebutted the charge that Bush had lied the nation into war, and that he “didn’t get baited” by Moore’s “red-meat questions” about Fallujah. (For New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley, however, Moore’s questioning had “badger[ed] O’Reilly into submissive silence.”) Notably, one of O’Reilly’s guests on the follow-up show, Boston Globe political reporter Rick Klein, questioned whether either figure had won the showdown. It was “great theater, great gladiator theater,” Klein said. A bit peeved, O’Reilly then asked whether Klein had gained any insights from the interview. Klein responded, “I learned that when two people get in the room and they both strongly believe their arguments[,] you’re not going to convince each other of it. I think Mr. Moore made an argument, you made an argument, and it was great to watch.” Klein’s larger point was that didacticism, no matter whether from the right or the left, results only in preaching to the choir, not winning over new converts.
Yet as soon as it debuted in late June, Moore loudly began to trumpet what he saw as Fahrenheit’s resounding success in winning the hearts and minds of Red State voters. On the Monday after it opened, Moore addressed thousands via the Internet at “Turn Up the Heat: A National Town Meeting on Fahrenheit 9/11,”an event organized by MoveOn. “It was the number-one movie in every single red state in America,” announced a gleeful Moore. “Every single state that Bush won in 2000, it was the number-one film in it.” Moore’s fever pitch continued with a letter dated July 4 that he posted on his Web site. “Where do I begin? This past week has knocked me for a loop,” the missive began. It continued, “Fahrenheit 9/11, the #1 movie in the country, the largest grossing documentary ever...Did Karl Rove really fail to stop this? Is Bush packing?” The filmmaker then cited a slew of box-office records it set—including that Fahrenheit “instantly went to #2 on the all-time list for largest per-theater average ever for a film that opened in wide-release,” and that it surpassed Rocky III’s record for the biggest opening weekend gross for any film that opened in fewer than one thousand theaters. Indeed, over three million viewers saw the film that weekend, for a gross of nearly $24 million, which already made it the most successful documentary of all time.
But beyond the numbers, it was the numerous examples of the work’s apparently glowing reception in the heartland that Moore found most encouraging. From the Deep South to Anchorage, the film was opening eyes, he said. NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. had taken his crew to see it, thus inspiring the filmmaker to write: “Whoa! NASCAR fans—you can’t go deeper into George Bush territory than that! White House moving vans—START YOUR ENGINES!” In places including Greensboro, North Carolina, and Oklahoma City, audiences gave it standing ovations, and theater managers reportedly “were having a hard time clearing the theater afterwards because people were either too stunned or they wanted to sit and talk to their neighbors about what they had just seen.”Not far up the road from Oklahoma City, “[l]adies’ church groups in Tulsa were going to see it, and weeping afterwards.” Similar anecdotes poured in from across the nation, many having been reported in reputable outlets like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. “The most heartening response to the film,” Moore said, “has come from our soldiers and their families. Theaters in military towns across the country reported packed houses.” The local paper in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, reported the reaction of a soldier’s wife who declared her strong support for the film, which gave Moore “the resolve to make sure as many Americans as possible see this film in the coming weeks.” Moore was certainly no novice in the art of self-promotion, but, based on the box-office numbers and the amount of media attention, his hype about the film did indeed appear to have substance.
Moore was also confident that the film was winning over audiences not associated with the left, whether in Red State or Blue. He told Charlie Rose that he agreed with an unnamed reviewer who had predicted that the film “is going to preach to a second choir, not the choir of the left, but the choir of the left out.” The filmmaker had heard many reports of moviegoers coming out of the theater explaining their desire to vote for the first time. Accordingly, Moore’s team had made voter registration cards available in many theaters. Moore’s many detractors nonetheless found a silver lining in the public reaction to the film. In mid-July, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough happily reported a Washington Post poll’s finding that “Americans’ approval of the president’s handling of the war on terror has actually shot up since the release of Fahrenheit 9/11. And John Kerry’s numbers have gone down during that same time period.” For Scarborough, the time was right for John Kerry to launch a “Sister Souljah moment,” meaning that Kerry should take a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook by very publicly disavowing a controversial left figure—in this case, it would have been Kerry attacking “Michael Moore’s brand of hate speech.” That the Democrats needed to distance themselves from Michael Moore quickly became conventional talking-head wisdom. During the DNC, Nightline devoted an entire program to the filmmaker’s apparently problematic presence in Boston for the convention. “Inside the hall, it’s all about projecting a positive message,” began Ted Koppel’s opening voiceover. Then came a flurry of bromides—“All of us can win,” “We are one people,” etc.—from Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama, and other party figureheads. This stood in sharp contrast to Moore, who was shown outside the convention declaring that “Bush lied.” This facile distinction between the “upbeat” Democrats and Moore’s “overheated rhetoric” soon gave way to a substantive discussion between Koppel and Moore regarding the party’s position on Iraq. Though Koppel maintained that Bush did not lie about WMD, but had instead relied on bad intelligence, the host did share Moore’s criticisms of Kerry’s position at the time, which was that the United States needed to “internationalize the job.” Koppel for his part observed that “talking about internationalizing the war sounds lovely, but [there are] no armies out there that are going to be coming.” Moore was then forced to explain how he could support a candidate whose views of the war were out of sync with his own,as well as those of a majority of the party’s delegates. “Because John Kerry will have to respond to the will of the people,” Moore said, hopefully. Thus, beneath the superficial story line regarding the “problem” Moore was creating for the party, there actually lay no real conflict at all: Moore was rallying the base behind a candidate and a party that had no line on the war. Along with MoveOn and many other antiwar activists, Moore was letting the Democratic Party leadership off the hook for its nonposition on Iraq.
A month later, at the Republican National Convention in New York City, the filmmaker’s highly visible presence inside the convention—which he was covering for USA Today as a columnist—nonetheless helped the Republicans in their effort to portray the Democrats as the party of Michael Moore. On the convention’s opening evening, GOP “maverick” John McCain went after Moore, in the name of defending the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. (The day before, Sunday August 29, upwards of one million people protested against both Bush and the war in the streets of New York City, impressing even the New York Post and forcing the Republicans into a counteroffensive.) “Our choice wasn’t between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and a graver threat,” McCain declared. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,”the Republicans’ own “war hero” continued, “Not our political opponents. And certainly not, certainly not, a disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam’s Iraq was an oasis of peace.” Sitting in a balcony seat, Moore was then memorably shown flashing an “L” (for loser) sign with his hand to both McCain and the booing delegates. Fahrenheit 9/11 and its creator had thus become such a hot button for Republicans that McCain could rile up the party faithful by merely mentioning the filmmaker, even though McCain later admitted (to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews) that he had not even seen the film.
In one of his USA Today columns, Moore lashed back at McCain (“a courageous war hero now reduced to carrying water for the Bush campaign”) and rather unconvincingly defended his portrayal of preinvasion Iraq: “Human-rights groups say thousands of civilians were killed because of our bombing. I thought it would be worthwhile to show some of the faces of Iraqi people who might soon meet their death.” The column, however, barely concealed the filmmaker’s evident glee at being the center of attention on the RNC’s opening night. “I know Republicans are mad that my film may have convinced just enough people to tip the balance in this election,” the provocateur said. In case anyone questioned the work’s influence, Moore noted that twenty million people had now seen it. McCain, he maintained, had lost his audience on the convention floor after making his comment about the film. Instead, the delegates now began to focus on their preferred target: the enemy liberal filmmaker. McCain, the director stated, “must have wondered why a party that promises to protect us from terrorists booed my name more loudly than Saddam’s or Osama’s.” The answer was twofold: Moore had succeeded at inserting himself into the center of political debate during the 2004 campaign, and the Republicans were glad to keep him in the spotlight.
Yet barely had the dust begun to settle on the election before conservative factions in the Democratic Party began to kick it up again, aiming it specifically in the direction of Moore. The Democratic Leadership Council, or DLC—a small but highly influential group that had nurtured conservative New Democrats like the Clintons and Joe Lieberman—immediately blamed the Moore crowd for the party’s stinging defeat. In an early December op-ed in the Wall Street Journal—provocatively titled “Get the Red Out”—DLC figureheads Al From and Bruce Reed argued that the party lost because of its position in the war on terror. Henceforth, they said, the party needed to adopt a “muscular foreign policy.” The Democrats, From and Reed maintained, need to “be the party of Harry Truman and John Kennedy, and not of Michael Moore...[who] does not represent the Kennedy or Truman tradition in the Democratic party of patriotism and security.” Moore eagerly returned the fire. On his Web site, he referred to the “pathetic sight of the DLC (the conservative, pro-corporate group of Democrats) apologizing for being Democrats and promising to ‘purge’ the party of the likes of, well, all of US!” The DLC, he said, was small in number, with the group’s annual dinner attended by only about two hundred people. This he contrasted with MoveOn’s membership (over two million), and the total audience for Fahrenheit (over fifty million), among other indicators. While Moore expressed confidence that his views in fact represented those of the majority of Democrats, From and other members of the DLC stressed their belief that the country was now dominated by a Republican majority, which is why the Democrats needed to move to the right. That Moore’s positions on Iraq or the war on terror had not been in any way adopted by the Kerry campaign seemed not to matter to either side in the debate. The DLC simply wanted to blame Moore in order to suit its own agenda, while the filmmaker rightly stood his ground in the name of his.
Hyperbole notwithstanding, the question of Moore’s actual influence on the 2004 election remains in dispute. In his book The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy (2005), the National Review’s Byron York offered an analysis more detailed and specific than the book’s overheated title would suggest. Seeking to dispel the idea that Fahrenheit had won over Red State voters, York broke down the box-office numbers using information provided by Nielsen EDI, a film division of the ratings giant. The Nielsen data, York said, “revealed a picture of Fahrenheit 9/11’s performance that bore almost no resemblance to Michael Moore’s hype.” The Nielsen numbers measure a film’s performance in various regional markets. As York summarized the findings, Fahrenheit, in fact, did well only “in blue states, and even then only in the most urban parts of those blue states.” Its strongest market shares were in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The film’s weak showing in Red State cities like Dallas and Houston may not have been surprising, but more problematic was its poor performance in Orlando, Tampa, and other Florida cities, as well as in Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, and other places in the South. Las Vegas and Phoenix were not located in battleground states, but the film’s lackluster returns in those cities suggested that it was not resonating in the Sun Belt, either. Despite Moore’s initial boasting about how the film had sold out in its opening weekend in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Tulsa, the numbers in those places ended up being way below market share. Based on the actual numbers, York maintained that “Moore’s claim that his documentary was a ‘red-state movie’ was simply untrue, and all the articles based on its alleged national appeal were, in the end, just hype.”
But even if the film did not swing any of the Red States, Fahrenheit’s impact on shoring up the resolve of voters in the Blue States to go to the polls cannot be underestimated. To an extent unmatched in the annals of media history, a documentary film had become a focal point of national debate. That same work now stands as a document of a particular time, capturing as it did the feverish desire of many millions of Americans to get rid of the Bush II regime. The dust has now settled, and what remains is a provocative, but not particularly persuasive, critique, perhaps most valuable as a compilation of archival footage of the Bush gang’s first term in office. Its success in becoming a lightning rod during the campaign ultimately owed much to Moore’s unmatched appetite for, and ability to generate, media controversy. In a response to a postelection rumor that Hollywood, in retaliation for Bush’s victory, might honor Fahrenheit at the Academy Awards, O’Reilly vowed, “If Hollywood nominates this propaganda tract as Best Picture, you will see a backlash against the movie industry that you have never seen.” That laurel was never bestowed, of course. But when Moore returned with his next film in 2007, O’Reilly was still very much on the warpath.
In Sicko, Moore would not exactly depart from his didactic style, but—in highlighting an issue (the need for national health care) without backing a specific policy or politician—the work followed in the tradition of Bowling for Columbine far more than Fahrenheit. The mostly positive critical reaction saw a recent nemesis return, this time with a nod of the cap. Writing in Counterpunch, Ralph Nader, who after the 2004 election wrote a column there asking “Will the Real Michael Moore Ever Re-Emerge,” now viewed Sicko as Moore’s “best move yet.” Nader did express hope that Moore would go beyond his general endorsement of national health care to contribute his resources and influence to the widespread grassroots movement behind HR 676, John Conyers’s legislation calling for a single-payer system. In a memorable showdown with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in which the activist filmmaker berated the host and his network for their coverage of the war, Moore would in fact express his support for the bill. (On Blitzer’s show, Moore would also speak favorably about the new Al Gore, and not rule out supporting Hillary Clinton.) Meanwhile, The New Yorker, a fixture in doctors’ offices across the land, ended up running two separate pieces about the film, first a blistering assault by the magazine’s lead film critic, David Denby, who objected to Moore’s rosy portrayal of socialized medicine, calling him an “absurdist of outrage.” The following issue then carried a critique from Atul Gawande, an author and practicing surgeon. Although far more favorable in his assessment than Denby, Gawande nonetheless concurred with the critic in stating that Sicko “doesn’t offer solutions” and that it’s simply “an outrage machine.”
Somewhat surprisingly, in arguing that Moore had not advocated a specific solution, the left and liberal critics missed the larger message of Sicko, which at one point included Soviet propaganda footage and ended with an almost socialist realist portrayal of Cuba. Indeed, Moore’s film went well beyond making a case for why private health care insurance companies should be put out of business or why national care was so necessary. It was most surprising (or, perhaps, least) that the critic who best captured the real solution that Moore put forth was none other than Bill O’Reilly. In early July 2007, O’Reilly renewed his attack on Moore in one of the host’s “Talking Points Memo” segments (which he followed that night with the “Ridiculous Item of the Day,” about Hollywood liberals’ financial support for the “far-left zealot” Al Franken). Early in the segment, O’Reilly played a clip from a 2002 interview he did with Moore, in which the host asked the filmmaker, “How liberal are you? Are you a socialist, a communist?” Moore responded to the red-baiting by stating that he had “never understood those terms. Because when you grow up in a place like Flint, Michigan, there’s no liberal or left community there.” But for O’Reilly, Sicko clearly demonstrated that “Moore is a socialist. He wants a liberal government to provide cradle-to-the-grave entitlements and to have the right to seize personal assets through draconian taxation.” Just in case socialized medicine appealed to any of his viewers, O’Reilly felt compelled to sketch out the greater dangers it portended. If “national health care is passed, ”Fox’s leading man stated, “I can assure you that Michael Moore and his acolytes will tell you that decent food is a human right, and so is decent housing. And a dignified retirement. And child care for working people, and on and on and on.” O’Reilly, of course, derided such a pleasant-sounding society as a “nanny state.” Thus, while Michael Moore may often seem like an outsized presence on the American political landscape, and the left’s version of Bill O’Reilly, in the final analysis, only one of these figures is creating propaganda calling for a more egalitarian world.