Taking Dead Aim at the GOP Elephant

Michael Moore teases the mind. Watch his movies and intuitions become full-fledged ideas, suspicions turn into convictions, and news stories hazily remembered gain connections. His sources are one reason for his success. The bedrock of his new documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” is fact and expert opinion. His artistry makes it entertaining and compelling.

Take the opening scene. George Bush “stole” the presidential election four years ago because the Democrats let him get away with it. Al Gore, the voter’s choice, allowed the recount to be conducted in the courts by lawyers. He didn’t rally his supporters, but characterized the crisis as a matter of law.

In his bestseller, “American Dynasty,” Kevin Phillips said Gore reacted with “trite expressions of civic concern” rather then voicing “democratic outrage.” If the campaign for Bush drew its fervor from a hatred of Clinton, so should Gore have called for his supporters to uphold the “thwarted will of the people.”

With a bold strategy, Gore could have built support for his election. Based on that strategy, even if he lost, he could have given the Democratic Party forward momentum going into the next election. Tapping popular anger would have reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to democracy. Our core beliefs would move from the realm of pious platitudes and to the arena of vital political realities.

On Dec. 12, 2000, the five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who made George W. Bush president declared that there is no universal right to vote for a president, writing that “the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors.” Citizens have no vote “unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election” as the means for picking members of the Electoral College. Had Gore enlisted popular support his election, the public would have condemned the Court’s language rather than confining the debate to a select group of academics.

Michael Moore’s conclusion is comparable to Phillips, but the presentation is accessible and entertaining, one that gives Moore a grander stage on which to persuade. Moore is only amplifying arguments made by other responsible observers and participants. He is a polemicist and an artist, who can make a serious point while splicing in old clips from the “Dragnet” television series. Moore is also a satirist, whose sense of humor underscores his assertions. As a result, people leave the theater satisfied that they have seen a “good movie” as satisfying as any drama or action film.

In this scathing attack on the failures of the Bush administration, Moore alleges no conspiracies. That’s right—“Fahrenheit 9/11” offers no conspiracy theories. Few will believe me unless they carefully watch the movie. One unforgettable scene shows Bush sitting in a Florida classroom after learning that a second plane has attacked the World Trade Center. At the time, everyone found his reaction odd. Even the newspapers mentioned it.

In 2002, in “Bush At War,” Bob Woodward, a more felicitous chronicler of the current president than Moore, described the moment: “[Bush’s] face has a distant sober look, almost frozen, edging on bewilderment.”

Moore has not seized upon anything new, just driven home the point. After making his case, showing a frozen Bush staring ahead after being told by Chief of Staff Andrew Card that the United States had been attacked, Moore’s voice is heard on film, snarling that there was “nobody to tell him what to do.”

As Moore’s critics charge, this might be pure propaganda, but it could also be that after examining the facts Moore found the president to be missing in action. Was the president shocked that his anti-terrorism advisors had warned that Osama Bin Laden would attack the United States and he had never made it a priority? Or was he worried that his family’s connections with high-ranking Saudi officials would create a political embarrassment for a presidency during its first year in office? That is the question Moore raises without spinning any conspiracy theories. But, picture after picture attest to George H.W. Bush’s ties to the Saudis.

What then do these pictures mean? Immediately following the terrorist attacks, the Saudis received special treatment. The nation’s planes grounded, the various members of the Bin Laden clan were allowed to leave the United States on September 13, 2000 on chartered planes. No conspiracy is alleged, but a retired FBI agent says it would have been better if these family members could have been subpoenaed and asked questions. Moore notes that on September 13 Bush had dinner with the Saudi ambassador, a singular and unusual event. No allegation is made about what they talked about, but the fact receives the attention it deserves. Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, has written two books alleging that investigation of the ties between the Saudi government and terrorist groups has gotten a low priority from U.S. officials.

Beyond making such information more accessible, Moore’s other major achievement is a moral one. He reminds us that the human suffering from the Iraq war is terribly real, and that Bush’s remarks about “bring it on” and “smoking out” Osama Bin Laden totally misunderstood a gruesome reality. Moore is enough of a humanist to show the Iraqis burned by napalm as well as the American troops with amputated limbs, though some media critics and political pundits might dismiss these images as mere sentimentality.

It is Moore’s great strength as a filmmaker that he can be serious and still give us plenty of time to chuckle and reflect about our elected leaders and the decisions they make in our names—a mix of intellectual stimulation and exhilaration seldom found in a movie.

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