June 28, 2004
Rich White TrashBy Richard Baehr
Michael Moore has been making a lot of money the past four years at George Bush's expense. If Bush is re—elected, Moore should continue to do very well making his propaganda movies and authoring his 'humor' books attacking the President. Bush in office is, after all, very good copy for Moore's business, which consists almost wholly of making money by ridiculing others. So perhaps it is no surprise that Moore is one of those responsible for getting Bush elected in 2000. And more to the point, he may help re—elect Bush this time as well, whatever his avowed purpose in making the movie.
Moore's new screed, Fahrenheit 911, opened nationally this weekend in about 900 theatres. The movie, the top prize winner at Cannes, may make more money for Moore than his previous film, the Oscar winning Bowling for Columbine. The best—known movie reviewers have been pretty much unrestrained in their praise for the movie (A. O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan). The charge by Moore and the Weinstein brothers at Miramax that the Disney Corporation was trying to prevent the movie from being distributed (a completely false story of course), helped to create early buzz for the film even before its initial showing at Cannes. Moore, a millionaire many times over already, may not be in Mel Gibson's league as a Hollywood money machine, but he has been equally adept at creating controversy for his books and movies, which creates a bigger audience for them, and more cash to fill those very large pockets on his trousers or overalls.
Moore does not look like the kind of guy the Hollywood elites would love. Other than on The Sopranos, there are very few jobs in Hollywood for people who look like Michael Moore. But Moore has been the creator of an unending string of nasty mocking portrayals of the President, red meat for the condescending 'coastals' and lefty 'bobos' of blue state America. Each of Moore's recent books and movies has been fact—checked and proven wanting by those who took the time to do so. That has not mattered to Moore's ready—made audience.
Add to this a general incoherence on political message, other than viciousness towards the President, Israel and corporations, Moore's axis of evil. As Christopher Hitchens has noted, Moore seems to be saying in Fahrenheit 911 that we went to war in Afghanistan for Texas oil and gas interests, who wanted to build a pipeline through the country. Yet he also seems to be saying that Iraq was a mistake because it diverted our attention from going after bin Laden with greater force strength and finishing the job in Afghanistan. As Roseanne Roseanna Danna might have said on Saturday Night Live when confronted with an obvious inconsistency, 'Never mind'.
Thematic incoherence does not matter when the goal is to create enough scatter shots at Bush and his cronies to keep the audience both laughing and angered. It is the anger part, however, where the movie will likely have its payoff.
Moore says he is not in Ralph Nader's camp this time, as he was in the 2000 election. Moore is now fighting—off charges that ads for his film will violate campaign finance laws. During the primary season, Moore endorsed General Wesley Clark. If Moore feels bad about Bush being President, he certainly had something to do with it. During the 2000 campaign, I attended a Nader rally in Chicago. The speakers included such political theorists as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, talk show washout Phil Donohue, Studs Terkel, and Moore. Terkel told the audience that because he lived and voted in Illinois, it was safe to vote for Nader, since Gore would carry the state in any case. Moore was more unabashed in his enthusiasm for Nader. He accompanied the traveling Nader team in appearances across the country, including many contested states.
Since the 2000 election, Moore has made the 'stolen' election of 2000 in Florida a major theme of his book (Stupid White Men). The stolen election charge is categorically false. But if Moore feels guilty about his helping Nader win over 90,000 votes in a state that was decided by only 537 votes, it would be important for him to show that Gore really won the state despite Moore's best effort to make Nader a successful spoiler.
Of course, a Gore presidency would never have created the economic opportunities for Moore that the Bush White House has. And a Kerry Presidency won't either. So it is important to evaluate what impact his current film will have on the campaign. If you already hate Bush, you are part of a ready—made audience for Fahrenheit 911. If you enjoy mocking him in the company of fellow travelers, then it will be close to a religious experience to build your wrath at the President for two hours. It is possible that several million people will see Moore's 'documentary' before the November election.
Moore says he hopes that young people, who don't vote in large numbers, will see the movie and then choose to throw Bush out in November. Maybe this will happen. But there is another possibility. That is that the Moore audience will find John Kerry just a bit too bland for their tastes, too white bread, given the higher order Bush loathing that Moore's movie will help create. If this is the case, then Ralph Nader, with his unrestrained attacks on corporations and big oil, Bush, and Texas, Israel, and the war in Iraq, will seem a lot more palatable, as James Pinkerton suggests.
This is an audience that has been prepared for Moore by Paul Krugman, Molly Ivins and their ilk. After seeing Fahrenheit 911, how many in the audience will become enthusiastic partisans for John Kerry, the man who voted for the $87 billion for Iraq, before he voted against it, and who voted for the Iraq war resolution in the Senate? The Moore partisans are a far—left subset of the Howard Dean forces, who represent the most un—nuanced portion of the American political left.
Can this group fall in love with John Kerry? Will Moore's movie help them do so? In some national polls, Nader has been running north of 5%, more than double his performance in 2000. This is an unrealistic assessment of how he will likely do in November, since he may not be on the ballot in as many states as in 2000, and he may be the candidate of different parties in different states. But the hard left that will cheer Fahrenheit 911 includes a lot of people who will find greater psychic reward in the Nader camp than the Kerry camp, particularly among the young who are not likely to be so pragmatic in their voting selection. In a conversation in New York just after the movie opened this week, Moore provided some empirical evidence that this may well occur, describing a college audience of 200 who viewed the movie, after which half said they would vote for Nader.
Inevitably, as reported in the New York Times on its front page Friday, Kerry will shift his themes towards the center, since that is how he can best appeal to those who are not in ether of the two partisan camps —— the muddled middle or swing voters. This is hardly surprising. With a sharply divided electorate, there are few swing voters to fight over, and a highly partisan campaign won't be very appealing to them.
If there is some possibility that the Moore movie will push leftist partisans to Nader, how about the swing voters? Will the Moore movie push them towards Kerry? I doubt it. First, I don't think most swing voters are a natural audience for Michael Moore movies. Second, though swing voters may have doubts about Bush and Iraq, they also don't loathe him personally, as Moore does. The Moore movie may make them uncomfortable, just as his intemperate rant during the 2003 Academy awards show probably did.
In a recent column, Dick Morris, the former advisor to and now fulltime Clinton deconstructionist, suggested that the former President's new book will likely have a negative effect on the Kerry campaign. Morris has been arguing for some time that the two Clintons want Kerry to lose, but not get wiped out. A Bush blowout win might severely damage the party. But a Kerry win would be worse for the perpetual Clinton family campaign, since it would mean that Kerry would be re—nominated in 2008, and deprive Hillary of her shot at the White House until 2012 at the earliest, when she would be 65 years old. And then, she would have to compete for the nomination with other ambitious politicians, including Kerry's sitting Vice President, perhaps a younger candidate such as John Edwards. The nomination in 2012 will not be hers for the asking, as it might be in 2008, if Kerry were defeated this year.
Morris argues that the new Clinton book with its inevitable focus on the Monica issue will leave a subtle message that is good for President Bush. Namely, all this sordidness on the personal side has disappeared since Bush's election. Say what you may about his policies, he has not personally disgraced the White House. Laura Bush is appealing and not controversial. The Bush daughters have largely stayed out of the limelight. Family has been safe ground for this Administration. For undecided voters, this is a message that the Clinton book may bring to mind. So why did Clinton need to get his book out during this election year?
Odd as it sounds, there may be a strategic partnership between Clinton and Moore as regards the election. Moore is a capitalist at heart, regardless of his faux affections for laid—off auto workers in Flint. There are autoworkers in Kentucky and Tennessee now producing more efficiently—made Japanese brand name cars than were produced in Flint, before the factories closed there. Companies that can't compete will fail, a lesson Moore has never learned, as evidenced by his tiresome screeds directed at General Motors. There is also no evidence of Moore giving his newly—minted millions away to his favorite causes that now presumably have greater needs under the Bush corporate welfare regime.
Moore seems to revel in the adulation of his fans in his speeches at colleges, and when addressing movie audiences. Given his looks, Moore was probably not the most popular guy in his high school class. The accolades have come later in life, and are undoubtedly appreciated, and may have gone to his head. As David Brooks describes in the New York Times, Moore is now the most sought—after America—bashing speaker around the world. Get a very overweight American man to claim that Americans are ugly and stupid, and America—hating people in Europe, whatever their appearance or brainpower, will cheer. As Mathew May has written, the fact that leading Democratic Party elected officials pay tribute to Moore and his toxic message is evidence of the decay of a once significant political party.
But Moore is above all a skillful manipulator of his audiences' or readers' emotions. He has mixed his poison with humor, and thereby reached a much larger crowd. And that manipulation has led to a very fat wallet.
For Bill Clinton, there is both power and money at stake in the coming election. Dick Morris has made the case for the power side. But the money side matters too. During his administration, Clinton partisans excused the sex, and argued that in any case, it was never about money with Clinton. Now the former President charge synagogues $250,000 for an hour talk on why Yasser Arafat disappointed him. He and his wife have earned over $20 million between them so far for two very bad books. Their money is not, for the most part, going to charity either. As both Moore and Clinton must realize, this is a great country. Make it while you can. The celebrity left has not gotten any poorer during the Bush years. For both Moore and Clinton, it is probably in their interest to keep the gravy train rolling. Follow the money.