American Bigmouth

The right, and even some on the left, would love to shut up Michael Moore. But he aint budging

John Kerry just trounced the competition in the Iowa caucuses, and I'm on the phone with Michael Moore in New York, wondering why he endorsed General Wesley Clark. No one expected Moore to throw his weight behind Kerry—too aristocratic, too self-controlled. It was Howard Dean who seemed a better fit with Moore's raucous populist style than the reserved and patrician-looking Clark. But sitting in his editing room working on a new film, Moore comes on sanguine and eager to stress what's right about all the Democratic candidates.

"They all come from the same place," he says serenely. "'Don't beat up on the workingman.'" Other things being equal, Moore's president of choice remains Dennis Kucinich, but he knows his favorite doesn't have a prayer, and given that all the candidates are "to the left of Gore in 2000," he says he'll go with any of them who can get George Bush out of office.

Except, apparently, Howard Dean. Moore insists—twice—on his admiration for what Dean has done to energize young people to become politically involved. "But spend 10 minutes in the same room with Dean," he says, "and you're asking, do you want to support him?"

Why?

"He's kind of a prick."

There's a moment of revisionist silence, followed by Moore's trademark high-pitched giggle. "Prickly, really. I hate to slag him, but as you look at him, where will he win?"

This is Michael Moore: the bigmouth we all know and the more unexpected sober pragmatist who, cattiness aside, turns out to have been as right about Dean as he was wrong about Clark. It's Moore the famous bigmouth, not the pragmatist, that people pay attention to, and depending on whether you're a fan or a critic, his outspokenness is either his greatest asset or his greatest liability. Last year, standing at the podium, accepting his Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, he called Bush a fictitious president running a fictitious government, and embarrassed much of old Hollywood. This year, standing on a platform next to Wesley Clark, he called Bush a deserter, and embarrassed the four-star general. Moore was unrepentant in both cases. Here's his Web site apology over Bush's National Guard record: "What I meant to say is that George W. Bush is a deserter, an election thief, a drunk driver, a WMD liar and a functional illiterate. And he poops his pants."

As things have played out over the last few weeks, Moore's remarks about Bush's military record turn out to be inaccurate, yet nearer the mark than probably even he thought possible. And though it was the Boston Globe that originally broke the story, he's not above taking credit for getting the message out. Moore is proud of his lip—and so, apparently, are the legions of fans at home and abroad who have made his books and films runaway best-sellers and box-office successes, with a little help from the marketing departments of some of the very conglomerates he fingers as the root of America's troubles. After a post–September 11 fight over its anti-war tilt, Stupid White Men ("the No. 1 best-selling nonfiction book of 2002!" his Web site crows) was published by HarperCollins' Regan Books, owned, along with Fox News, by Rupert Murdoch, and publisher of right-wingers Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. The book remained on the New York Times best-seller list more than 14 weeks—without ever being reviewed in the paper. Last year's best-selling Dude, Where's My Country? was published by the former AOL Time Warner. Even Roger & Me, Moore's first film and the one that got him noticed, was released by Warner Bros. Bowling for Columbine was distributed by MGM. And the new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, about the unholy business ties between the Bush and bin Laden dynasties, which he hopes to finish in time to take to Cannes in May, will be released in August by that tiny cottage industry, Disney, via Miramax. By any measure except his wardrobe, Michael Moore—a schleppy, old-fashioned populist who not too long ago had his satirical television show canceled for lack of interest—is a hot property. The question is, should we be pleased or sorry?

* * *

October 2003. Moore isn't just a public speaker these days: He's a road show, and he doesn't travel light. Outside the tony Santa Monica hotel Shutters on the Beach, two assistants, Jason and Jonathan, scurry back and forth, loading a sleek black sedan with copies of Dude, Where's My Country? Moore's sister Anne, a pleasant, no-nonsense woman in jeans and no makeup, with the same milky-blue eyes and quick wit as her brother, presides over the action. Anne is a criminal-defense attorney, but on this tour with a double mission—to promote Dude, Where's My Country? and persuade America to join him in removing Bush from office—she's her brother's roadie, as calmly efficient and unruffled as he is jumpy and distracted.

I sit with Moore in the back of a second car; in front are an Asian driver and a tall African-American security guard chatting quietly into his palm. (Moore later explains that he receives occasional death threats.) We are headed to Eagle Rock, where Moore is scheduled to hold a press conference and then speak to students and faculty at Occidental College, a campus of fellow travelers if ever there was one.

I'd been apprehensive about spending time in an enclosed space with someone as unstoppably "on" as Moore is in public. The previous day he and his entourage had swept like a tsunami into Borders in Santa Monica, where several hundred of his fans had waited two hours to have their copies of Dude signed. He yelled out his "stop Bush" routine, bantered with everyone who approached the table, and turned this ordinarily decorous bookstore into a circus. One-on-one, though, Moore is refreshingly wary and ill at ease, even a little nervous. Like many performers, he seems to deflate like a pricked balloon without a large audience to play to. Once reassured that I'm not an attack dog, he relaxes into a charming, thoughtful and savvy conversationalist. He's no less prickly than Dean, but there's little evidence of the brash, self-promoting blowhard one sees poking out of his movies, or the overly solicitous nanny who's rightly been called on the carpet for condescending to the ordinary people he champions in his movies. Hunched as always in a black jacket over a maroon T-shirt and jeans, an incongruously timid stubble of beard, and a baseball cap marked "University of Denver," Moore wears the slightly haggard look of one who's recently lost a ton of weight. He's still a bulky Midwesterner ("If you were to travel with me to Michigan, I'd be one of the skinniest people at the airport," he says), but he's dropped 50 pounds on a slow, low-carb diet that involves no foods labeled nonfat. "They're full of sugar," he says. "It's all bullshit."

Losing weight is not the only change in lifestyle that has accompanied Moore's financial success. With his wife, Kathleen Glynn, who co-produced Bowling for Columbine, and a not especially politically minded daughter who just graduated from college, Moore divides his year between a log cabin in Michigan (seven months, he's careful to point out) and a $1.2 million apartment in Manhattan (five months). Not bad for the son of a clerical-worker mother and a father who made spark plugs for General Motors in Flint, Michigan. Moore is alternately wry and touchy about his newfound affluence, insisting that he lives above a Baby Gap store, as if that somehow made his living quarters more proletarian. He has few material needs to indulge, he says, other than a passion for country music.

It's clear, though, that Moore has new promises to keep—which may be why, on the way to Occidental, we're stopping off to distribute free copies of Dude not to striking grocery workers at a local Vons, but to the people he worked with on Bowling for Columbine at MGM. The prospect of even a small audience clearly jazzes Moore, and as we sweep through the warren of cubicles in the studio building, he's already revving up for my benefit, and that of a friendly but slightly nonplused group of midlevel executives.

"Quick, Moore's here, get under the desks," he whispers theatrically, and as we pass a life-size cardboard cutout of an action figure who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he mutters, "Hitler groper."

Still, notwithstanding the booing that went on at the Oscars last year (Moore insists the heckling came from the suits in the gallery, not the creative types down below), Moore would be the last to deny that the entertainment industry has done well by him. When I point out the obvious, that he's become part of the corporate enemy he's been attacking ever since Roger & Me, he responds rather lamely that a lot of former '60s radicals are working in the business now (some were even in SDS!) and that even Miramax's Harvey Weinstein is a standup guy with "very committed political beliefs and a desire to see change." And he concedes under pressure that the youthful political passions of today's suits are neither here nor there when it comes to the global sins of big business. "As long as they can make money off me, it virtually doesn't matter what the message is," he admits. "Which is kind of sad when you think about it." He laughs. "But that is the fatal flaw of capitalism. They'll sell you the rope to hang themselves with if they can make a buck off it."

Spoken like a true Marxist. But Moore is quick to deny ever having read a word of Das Kapital, or anything else by Marx. "I'm not proudly stating that, it's kind of embarrassing," he says, looking more gleeful than ashamed. For someone as smart and analytical as he is, Moore is quite the anti-intellectual. To some degree this is a matter of class background—Moore is a college dropout from a local campus of the University of Michigan. Unlike many on the academic or intellectual left, he refused to dismiss Wesley Clark merely because he's a soldier. Where Moore comes from, many working people joined the Army, whether out of altruism or financial necessity, and his own father was in the Marines. Moore's parents were not politically active, but they read the newspapers and discussed public events with their kids, and their brand of Irish Catholicism meant taking up collections for César Chávez or the Berrigan brothers. (Moore's father goes to Mass every day, and he too, despite his opposition to the church's position on birth control and the status of women, identifies as a Catholic and goes to church "when I just want some peace and quiet and to think.")

Moore and his two sisters (besides Anne, there's Veronica, who teaches early-childhood education) came by their politics more organically than theoretically. Growing up in Flint, the company town of what was then the world's largest corporation, General Motors, they witnessed firsthand the decline of paternalistic capitalism and the plight of the workers that became the subject of Roger & Me. At the same time, they were raised in what amounted to a mini–welfare state, where powerful unions took care of most of their members' basic needs, right down to prescription eyeglasses. No wonder there's so much fellow feeling between Moore and Canada, which has socialized medicine, not to mention Europe, where he is hugely popular. In England, Stupid White Men recently outsold soccer star David Beckham's biography, and with only a fraction of the marketing hype. Moore hotly denies that he's popular abroad because he's a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment. "The feedback I get," he says firmly, "is that people can distinguish between the American people and the American government."

It's not hard to understand why conservatives can't stand Moore and why there are several Web sites exclusively devoted to zealously combing his every speech, book and movie for inaccuracies. For all Moore's protestations that liberals are less nasty and more laid-back than conservatives, he is one of the few on the left who hacks away at the right with its own methods, and he's usually more to the point. While Matt Drudge pants away on his Web site trying to drum up sexual dirt on John Kerry, Moore is busy firing off "Dear George" letters out of his, calling Bush on his policies at home and abroad. He remains the left's only well-known shock jock. And it's unlikely that either Al Franken or Molly Ivins, both of whom have anti-Bush books on the best-seller lists, would have gotten the book deals they did without Moore's trailblazing hits. Moore lacks the intellectual chops of either, but he's a deft popularizer and a very funny guy.

Which may be one reason why so many liberals and leftists, at least those who are over 30, don't like him. One New York Times piece fingered him as a senior member of the "Bush-hating left," and Daniel Okrent, introducing himself as the paper's new ombudsman, wrote snootily, "I'd rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore." And few on the left are likely to be amused by his "endorsement" of Oprah, Paul Newman or the Dixie Chicks for president. Moore has been dumped on by organs as disparate as Alexander Cockburn's shrill far-left rag Counterpunch and the staidly democratic-socialist Dissent, which last spring heaped scorn on Moore's confrontational tactics, sniffed at his gifts as an entertainer, and accused him of cynicism for railing at both political parties. This last is absurd—you only have to spend five minutes in Moore's company to realize that sincerity is one quality he possesses in spades.

But even in England, the liberal newspaper The Guardian last November suggested that Moore has gotten sloppy and become a "left-wing version of loud-mouthed ultra-conservative shock-jocks such as Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter." And in our sister paper LA Weekly, Marc Cooper recently dismissed Moore as "a bloviator" and "a self-promoting clown."

It's true that Moore has an ego the size of a house, though this hardly places him beyond the pale of most entertainers or politicians. It's true that there's a reductive vulgarity to some of his political analysis. His writing can be hurried and maddeningly simplistic, and he's not above venturing into territory he knows next to nothing about. (When I mention that his analysis of the Middle East conflict in Dude is a bit crude, he mumbles something about "writing for an American audience," a curious remark for a self-professed champion of the average American's intelligence.) He has a terrible habit of creating spurious correlations, then bumping them up into spurious causality—which is how he arrived at the much-lampooned conclusion in Bowling for Columbine that, because the bombing of Kosovo took place within hours of the Columbine shooting, there was an inescapable connection between United States foreign policy and the American obsession with guns.

Still, Moore is an activist, not a theorist, and one turns to activists for inspiration, not nuance. Moore should probably get out of the endorsement racket—he didn't do the general any good, and his target audiences seemed to pay little attention. The big trade unions endorsed Richard Gephardt, and when that failed, threw in their lot with Kerry. And the kids went with Dean before the primaries began. Moore's greatest gift is as a rabble-rousing orator, a figure sorely needed on the prim liberal-left. And for all his carefully crafted, yet utterly sincere, persona as a defender of the working stiff, his primary audience is not the unions or the average guy, but—like Dean's—highly educated youth in high schools and colleges who are looking for political leadership. Barry Glassner, a USC sociology professor whose book The Culture of Fear is the backbone of Bowling for Columbine, and who is seen in the movie walking around South LA with Moore to show we have nothing to fear from inner-city black men, says that once the movie was out he, like Moore, became a sort of folk hero to friends' teenage sons who hitherto had considered him beneath their notice. The overwhelming majority of venues on Moore's multicity tour are campuses. Rather defensively, he says that's because they have the auditorium space—but so do sports stadiums, and he rarely holds court there. Watch Moore do one of his dog-and-pony shows on a college campus, and you see why he has half the left-leaning youth of America eating out of his hand.

* * *

We pull up to a side entrance at Occidental, and Moore is up and out of the car, loping toward a room off the auditorium, where he's scheduled to speak to a small group of local journalists. Press conferences don't bring out the best in him. Moore doesn't seem to understand that journalists get paid to ask awkward questions and refuse to be seduced. He's a man who desperately wants to be loved, and if he sees criticism, he assumes attack, and responds in kind. For someone who gets down on Howard Dean for being prickly, he's awfully sensitive himself. One unfortunate fellow makes the mistake of asking Moore about reports of inaccuracies in his work.

"These are not critics, but people who disagree with me politically," he tosses off testily, and launches into a checklist of the teams of fact checkers he employs, and the fact that in all four of his books there hasn't been a single lawsuit against him, and that his opinions might be wrong, but the facts are right. He alludes mysteriously to the good works he does in private, then slips in a coy disclaimer: "But I don't like to talk about them in public." When this fails to bring them round, he says, "And now it's time for me to play you a song," and closes out with a round of "Lean On Me," which is met with a less-than-appreciative silence.

The huge auditorium, on the other hand, is packed to capacity and buzzing with excitement—the Mohawk on a young man sitting behind me fairly quivers with anticipation. A sizable overflow crowd mills about outside, and Moore does what he's done at almost every public appearance on this tour—he goes out and gives them a potted version of his speech. Inside, his staff has set up a hilarious clip from Moore's television show The Awful Truth, in which Arab-looking gas-station attendants ("Undercutting the Infidel Since '91!") offer heartland Americans "Saddam Gas for Food" to be distributed to the Iraqi people.

Back inside, Moore is greeted with a standing ovation from an audience he's kept waiting for close to an hour. Radiant and visibly pumped, he thanks the audience for "having me during Marriage Protection Week," salutes the college as the first to adopt a no-sweatshop policy, dons a proffered Occidental baseball cap—and then points out that it was made in Taiwan. Though much of his speech is rehashed from Dude and his Web site, Moore is very quick on his feet, and he's a natural extemporizer. Not that this crowd needs much working up. One lonely, earnest Young Republican in jacket and tie asks why Moore is always dumping on the right. "You've acknowledged that the Republicans control everything," he quavers plaintively. "Who are the Angry White Males?" The student is rewarded with loud boos from the crowd (someone shouts, "They have all the money because they stole it from us!") and a few canned words from the maestro praising the Republicans for being organized and having the courage of their convictions. Almost everything that comes out of Moore's mouth is greeted with raucous cheers and foot-stamping. Limbaugh is in rehab! Drug offenders should be let out of prison right now! Then, warming to one of his central themes, that Americans are being kept in a state of enforced ignorance, he tells them that according to a recent study, 85 percent of American students couldn't find Iraq on a map, while a staggering 11 percent couldn't find the United States. "You should not be allowed into a country if you can't find it on a map," he roars. Then he asks for a Canadian C-student and an American A-student to come onstage—in seconds he has two eager volunteers—and gives them a quiz predesigned to show how even the most average Canadian intellect knows more about America than the brainiest American knows about Canada—or the rest of the world. The rapturous applause eggs Moore on to a passable Schwarzenegger imitation. Then he passes out post cards urging the students to mail them to Bush asking about the ties between the Bush and bin Laden dynasties—and leaves them laughing.

* * *

Moore rarely uses the language of class struggle, and he won't own to being a socialist—he looks alarmed at the very mention of the word. Most Americans would do the same, and Moore knows that. Call him a populist, though, and he all but purrs.

"I am in the mainstream of public opinion," he says.

American populism has a long history, and in this country the term has almost infinite elasticity and a shape-shifting capacity to move with the times and the political temper. Right now, Moore is playing on a very crowded field. In an election year, everybody and his uncle is eager to declare himself a man of the people—including Bush, one of the most irritating and disingenuous practitioners alive of folksy language. Moore likes to portray himself as an old-school man of the people—he tells me proudly that his favorite movie of 2003 was Seabiscuit, the (highly doctored) history of a horse who came up from nothing, and brought with him the adoration of millions of unemployed workers in the Depression. But it's not that simple. Moore is naturally inclined to social movements—and to using them to take over political parties. He is the very embodiment of American populism, and of its limits in a country where many people on fixed incomes still firmly believe in the possibility of getting rich quick. Look at Michael Moore, and you see a man of the people. Look at him lately, and you see a man who got rich quick. As Larissa MacFarquhar points out in her recent New Yorker profile of Moore, this is unlikely to faze his following among the workers, who admire his riches. To some degree, his shelf life as a radical activist and motivator will depend on the balance he can sustain between average Joe and overnight success in presenting himself to young people. To a greater degree, it will depend on his ability to stick to the substance of his beliefs. When all the criticism is said and done, Michael Moore believes in universal health care, employment and education. He believes in gun control. He thinks taxes are a good thing. He believes in equal rights for the usual minorities. He believes businesses should treat their workers decently and share their profits. He believes in an enlightened participatory democracy to get and keep all of the above. He tells people that listening to a Michael Moore rant is not enough—beyond laughing, beyond being entertained, they have to get off their asses and get involved, and he gives them tips on how to do it. He may be prickly, but who cares? He's also right.

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