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American Bigmouth 

Why Michael Moore won’t shut up

Thursday, Mar 4 2004
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Illustration by Erik Sandberg

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.

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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.

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