Sure, Michael Moore may have won an Oscar for his 2002 film, Bowling for Columbine. And the French film jury at Cannes this spring may have fawned all over his latest effort, Fahrenheit 9/11. But few imagined that the filmmaker from Flint, Mich., would try to play kingmaker in the 2004 election.
Now that Moore's relentless screed against President Bush has broken box-office records, that scenario is haunting conservatives, whose clumsy efforts to suppress the movie have only increased its appeal. So could this be the first Presidential election ever decided by a film? Not likely, but Moore is creating buzz -- and a political machine -- that can only hurt Bush in a razor-thin contest.
Moore is straightforward about Fahrenheit's goal: to deny Bush reelection. The movie itself defied expectations and grossed $24 million on its debut weekend of June 25, establishing it as the biggest nonmusical documentary ever. Moore's distributor is preparing to more than double its screens to 2,000.
Lefty Moore can thank conservatives for some of that boffo reception. The right-wing group Citizens United petitioned the Federal Election Commission on June 24 to restrict advertisements for the movie, charging that they are political ads. Others pressured theater owners to shun the movie, only generating more attention.
But the bad news for Bush supporters doesn't stop there. Moore plans to use the movie as an organizing tool. On June 28, he conducted a virtual town hall meeting with the liberal group MoveOn.org. Moore exhorted the 55,000 listeners who logged in or turned out at 4,600 MoveOn parties around the country to sign up as foot soldiers in an anti-Bush crusade. Once people see his flick, said Moore, anyone who once supported Bush and the war in Iraq "will feel deceived and betrayed, and they will respond with a vengeance."
That's a stretch. The movie tenaciously attacks the President for his decision to invade Iraq, his fealty to wealthy supporters, and his pre-September 11 inattention to terrorism. But Moore is largely preaching to the converted. While a BusinessWeek-Ipsos poll of 1,002 adults during Fahrenheit's opening weekend found that an enormous share of respondents, 77%, had heard about the movie, only 17% of Republicans were inclined to see it, vs. 62% of Democrats and 40% of independents. Few said viewing the film would influence their vote. Still, says Ipsos pollster Janice Bell, "people tend to underestimate how much they are influenced by the media."
One of the movie's biggest boosters is shock jock Howard Stern, formerly a rabid Bush supporter. Stern claims to have turned on the Prez after reading Moore's book, Dude, Where's My Country? -- an epiphany that closely coincided with the Federal Communications Commission crackdown on so-called airwaves smut. A poll conducted for the centrist New Democrat Network claims that 4% of the electorate are swing voters who regularly hear Stern's anti-Bush rants. MoveOn is targeting undecideds, too. Members are being asked to take fence-sitters to Fahrenheit or invite them over to watch the DVD. The release date? This fall -- just before the election.
Democrats fret that Presidential candidate Ralph Nader could take critical votes from John Kerry this fall. But they might be overreacting. At the end of June, Nader had a spot on the ballot in only one of nine states that are complete toss-ups -- Florida. In five others, the campaign hasn't even hired state coordinators to collect signatures.
Spokesman Kevin Zeese points out that Nader has until August or September to file in such battleground states as Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. And standards are low: In Wisconsin, just 2,000 signatures can get a candidate on the ballot. Where access rules are tougher -- as in Missouri and New Hampshire -- the campaign will hire professional petition gatherers.
Then the real battle begins: Democrats say they'll sue, as they have in Arizona, to keep Nader off the ballot in every state. Zeese is disgusted. "Sending lawyers into every state to undermine the efforts of tens of thousands of voters is undemocratic," he says.
Remember how the Bush Administration once claimed Iraq would bankroll its own reconstruction? Well, so far it has. The $24 billion Washington earmarked for reconstruction has been so snarled in red tape that only $3 billion had been disbursed by Apr. 30, according to a June 28 General Accounting Office report. Meanwhile, $11 billion in Iraqi funds were spent -- even though the country's oil patch is in disrepair. Seized assets have helped tide over the effort -- but the U.S. will soon have to pony up.