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The Moore on terror

Both Bill Clinton’s autobiography and Michael Moore’s film have launched political war on the West Wing. Robert Foyle Hunwick looks at the double-barrelled assault on the Republican incumbent.

In the United States this month, two of America’s modern liberal icons will throw their hats into the ring in separate attempts to convince voters of their current president’s awfulness. Bill Clinton accompanies the publication of My Life with a publicity blitz that will no doubt draw all political heads towards his as he espouses a message designed to create maximum Democratic nostalgia for those golden days of a booming economy and peaceful foreign policy. His pronouncements this month are unlikely to include direct support for would-be successor, John Kerry, he’s too much of a self-publicist for that and, besides which, a Kerry presidency would certainly stymie any 2008 Hillary nomination. But it would be almost impossible for some of the Clinton shine not to rub off on the Democrats this summer.

White House aides must wish that the subtle politicisation that characterises the Clinton approach were adopted by their other publicity nightmare, the ‘blue collar’ steamroller that is Michael Moore. On the contrary, Moore has adopted the same bullish tactics as his nemesis has with the War on Terror (or TWAT, to give it its proper acronym).

Ostensibly, there appears to be little in common between the Ivy League-educated philandering ex-president and the documentary-maker for whom the words ‘fat’ and ‘slobbish’ unfortunately seem to be the first to spring to mind.

Yet the pair have both spent the last two years making money from extensive speaking tours, making witty speeches to groups of left-thinking Europeans and Americans and publishing books to be bought by the same people. Both also have been involved in personal showdowns with the Bush family. Clinton’s battleground was the 1992 election where, after a campaign characterised by scandal and dirty tricks, he denied former CIA chief George Bush Sr the dignity of a two-term presidency.

Moore has had numerous anecdotal encounters with Bush family members, admitting in Stupid White Men that whenever he has, “for some reason they always seem to get the upper hand.” This year, though, he clearly intends to set that right. The message of his new film Fahrenheit 9/11 is very clear indeed: he intends nothing less than to topple the president.

Of course, the 2004 Oval Office showdown has already distinguished itself as one of the most talked-about in living memory. It follows a year of plummeting domestic support, when any Bush appearance outside the US has been punctuated by rioting and protests from across almost every sector of society, and barely a day passes without fresh evidence of Bush administration profiteering, misinformation and illiberal behaviour being reported even in the American press. The culmination of all this is the sadly undemocratic display of the G8 summit on a heavily fortified Sea Island, Georgia- as much to protect them from their own electorates as the terrorists they purport to be defeating. Feelings seem to run so high on this one across the Western hemisphere that it almost seems acceptable to use the old cliché, this time, it’s personal.

Personal is certainly what Moore gets in his two hours polemic. One of his best digs is an already notorious clip of Bush reading ‘My Pet Goat’ to a class of children on the morning of 9/11. As he is informed that ‘America is under attack,’ a stopwatch appears in the corner as audiences wait for a reaction - it takes a full seven minutes before he stops staring incoherently into space and begins to marshal a response.

In Europe, home of the ‘non’ vote, he has already been lauded as though his work is done - having sold millions of his books on the continent, last month he was awarded the Palme D’Or at Cannes to serve as a kind of official seal on his anti-Bush campaign. Although Quentin Tarantino, the jury’s president, insisted the award was for artistic, and not political, reasons, it would be impossible (even irrational) not to have a political response to this film. A Republican, no matter how much he covets montages, will be less enthused about its merits than a Democrat.

It is surely this audience that Moore must worry about most- the American voter. Selling anti-Americanism to the European art community is like telling UKIP supporters that under the European Constitution, it will be illegal call themselves English- fun, but too easy.

Moore faces a far more pitiless task in the States. When Bowling for Columbine won its Oscar, he faced howls of protests from indignant hecklers at the ceremony when he used his speech to condemn Bush and Iraq. It is all very well for Hollywood to snuggle up to Moore in the sun at Cannes- you should have seen the rows of frozen celebrities in LA in 2002: acting legends, paralyzed with fear, lest a single movement be interpreted as a political gesture at the box office.

Fortunately, Americans are slightly less blinkered than they were two years ago. The media emerged from under its red, blue but predominately white flag to challenge and criticize the Bush administration after nearly three years under a cosh of hysteria and patriotism. The change is not complete- Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner attempted to block distribution of Fahrenheit 9/11, for example, but the incident was widely reported as being linked to Disneyland resorts in tax-friendly Florida: Jeb Bush country.

Eisner emerges from the incident badly. The film will be released on 500 screens of the sort normally reserved for Hollywood’s billion dollar bloodbaths and the DVD is expected to be released before the November polling day as part of a concerted effort to ram the film into the American consciousness.

Its commercial success seems certain, its stated aim less so. There are an estimated 1 in 27 Americans whose vote is still ‘up for grabs’ as well as millions of Republicans who doubtless remain relatively unaware of the kind of claims about Bush that Moore is making. Getting them as far as the cinemas will be a job in itself, especially when his target audience are those people for whom The Passion of the Christ was their first cinematic visit in years. Moore is aware of the battle ahead- he has hired two former Clinton advisers to help him wage the propaganda war against the West Wing.

Those of us in Britain who will watch the match perhaps with a certain degree of disdain may well be advised to prepare for the war to come home. Moore has promised to make a similar film about Tony Blair; if he releases it before next year’s General Election he way well find it easier to sway an island than a continent.