The company they keep
Do the democrats really want to join forces with Michael Moore? It sure looks like it. Last week, Moore's documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 opened in Washington with an audience that included Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Sens. Tom Daschle, Barbara Boxer, and Tom Harkin, Congressmen Henry Waxman, Charles Rangel, and Jim McDermott (who before the war said that he believed Saddam Hussein more than George W. Bush), and the 9/11 commission's most partisan member, Richard Ben-Veniste. The film received a standing ovation. In Manhattan, Democratic National Committee Treasurer Maureen White hosted a showing of the film for local big contributors. Seldom have leaders of a political party promoted a commercial film so shamelessly.
But there are some serious problems with this documentary. In it, Moore says that President Bush arranged for members of Osama bin Laden's extended family to be flown out of the United States after September 11. But former antiterrorism official Richard Clarke, no admirer of Bush, has said that he alone made that decision. Moore says the bin Ladens were not processed by the FBI; the 9/11 commission says they were. Moore is misleadingly selective. He shows footage of Taliban leaders in Texas in the 1990s when Bush was governor. But they were invited by an oil company, not Bush. The Moore film offers footage of children flying kites in Iraq but is silent about Saddam's atrocities. "The real problem with the film, the really offensive thing about it," writes blogger Jeff Jarvis, a Democrat, and not a Bush supporter, "is that in Fahrenheit 9/11 we--Americans from the president on down--are portrayed as the bad guys."
It's amazing that any politician, however opposed to Bush, would want to be associated with this film or its maker, a man who said shortly after the 9/11 attacks: "We, the United States of America, are culpable in committing so many acts of terror and bloodshed that we had better get a clue about the culture of violence in which we have been active participants." As for the current situation in Iraq, Moore has written: "The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not 'insurgents' or 'terrorists' or 'The Enemy.' They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow--and they will win." Are these messages Democrats really wish to embrace?
Moore emphasizes his working-class roots in Flint, Mich., and his dedication to the workingman. But he seems to have nothing but contempt for most Americans. "They are possibly the dumbest people on the planet," he told the anti-American British tabloid the Mirror . "We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance. We don't know about anything that's happening outside our country. Our stupidity is embarrassing."
Picking sides. There is an unmistakable note of condescension here, of snobbery--a note that is echoed in many Democrats' attitudes toward President Bush and much of his constituency. On the campaign trail, John Kerry and other Democratic candidates have made snide remarks about Bush's supposed lack of intelligence and verbal infelicities, remarks that elicited knowing laughs from the audience.
It is a tactical mistake, of course, for a politician to assume his opponent is an idiot; he may turn out to be smarter than that and outsmart you, as George W. Bush did in his debates with Al Gore. And it is a strategic mistake for a political party to assume that the great mass of voters are stupid; they may just disagree with you, just as most voters disagree with Michael Moore on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Presumably, McAuliffe, Daschle, and the other Democrats had a good time laughing at Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11. And they might take comfort from the fact that it had the highest first-weekend gross of any documentary ever, beating out Jackass: the Movie. There is indeed a large constituency that hates Bush and would rather see the United States humbled in Iraq than a Bush victory in November. But it's dangerous for a party and a presidential candidate to be identified so closely with those who hold such views. If you are seen as rooting against America, as Michael Moore seems to be, it's awfully hard to get a majority of Americans to vote for you.
This story appears in the July 12, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.