To read Michael Moore’s new memoir, Here Comes Trouble, is to realize that the lefty filmmaker has—for all his opposition to it—had a very good war. Before 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, he was a localized nuisance, a spur in the flank of corporate America, and a Pied Piper of far-left activists. That began to change the moment he won an Oscar for his anti-gun documentary, Bowling for Columbine. Rather than the usual curtsy and wave, Moore seized the spotlight, damning President Bush from the podium as a “fictitious president” who won a “fictitious election” and was now taking the country to war for “fictitious reasons.” Just four nights after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with most of the country in lockstep with its commander in chief, the speech bombed. Even Hollywood booed.
“What I didn’t understand then,” Moore writes in a book of two dozen personal vignettes, including this first detailed account of his odyssey after 9/11, “was that it had to start somewhere, someone had to say it.” Moore credits himself with launching the backlash against President Bush—firing “the first small salvo” in what would later become a national fusillade—and a few other triumphs besides. Since 9/11, he has published two bestselling books, released four of the 10 highest-grossing documentaries of all time, and barnstormed College Town U.S.A., signing up droves of enraptured young voters.
Now he is directing his outrage at President Obama, a man he helped win office in 2008. “I don’t understand why he’s chosen the path he’s chosen, why he did not come in fighting for the working people of this country,” Moore tells Newsweek. “He could have been a great president. He could have pulled us back from the abyss.” Instead, “he came in more as Neville Chamberlain, wanting to appease Republicans.” Moore hasn’t even decided whether he’ll vote for Obama again in 2012; he likes Jon Huntsman on the Republican side, saying “it’s crazy time over there” and Huntsman is the only “sane candidate.” “If the Republicans were smart, they would nominate [him].”
But Moore is also showing signs of mellowing. Now 57, he is looking back over his years, and smiling. Aside from the 9/11 story, all the anecdotes in this volume cover Moore’s birth through his mid-30s, the years of his greatest political awakenings, including a misguided campaign for Richard Nixon, run-ins with Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy, and a surprising amount of prepubescent sex talk. He is planning a second volume to cover the period up to the present day. But politically he feels like a lot of the work is already done.
“I think I’ve been successful in changing people’s minds,” he says. “If you look at the positions I held a decade ago, when I was out on a limb, I still hold them, but I’m not out on a limb anymore.” As if to savor the moment, he says he’s taking a break from making documentaries, and even his speech seems to have slowed. “It’s just how I feel, I guess.”
It’s a long way from the tomato-throwing of 2003. After his Oscar speech, Moore says, he was accosted by angry stagehands. At the airport, “Department of Homeland Security officials purposely keyed” his pristine statuette, “scratching long lines into its gold plate.” And back at home in Michigan, an unwelcoming committee dumped waist-high manure in his driveway, and bedecked his yard with signs saying, “Traitor!” “Move to Cuba!” “Leave or Else!” Moore, of course, did no such thing.
His best-known film, Fahrenheit 9/11, a fast-and-loose indictment of the Bush administration, appeared just over a year later. To his fans, and a now-growing base of antiwar activists, it was greeted like another stone tablet brought down from Mount Sinai. To others, maybe even to most Americans, it was seen as an unpatriotic assault, a traitorous work in a time of war. People began to move away from Moore at restaurants or menacingly toward him in public. The pundits were particularly savage. “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore,” conservative political commentator Glenn Beck said flatly.
Moore (who says he’s up to an hour and a half on the elliptical machine but is otherwise inert) responded by buying some muscle. For the next two years, a squadron of ex-SEALs and other veterans of the Special Forces surrounded him or his home at all times, often intercepting hapless attackers. One would-be assailant wielded a pencil. Another uncorked a cup of hot coffee. A third tried a club. Altogether, Moore’s security firm recorded at least 430 credible threats, including a plan to blow up his house. “What had I done to deserve this?” Moore wonders in the book, perhaps a bit disingenuously. With a big tent of bipartisan critics, his legacy is far from cleanly decided.
It’s silly to fault one man for standing athwart history, yelling stop, and merely slowing it down. But at the same time, Bowling for Columbine didn’t lead to stricter gun laws (quite the opposite); Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to deny President Bush a second term; Sicko, his case for single-payer health insurance, was followed by anything but; and his most recent film, Capitalism: A Love Story, hasn’t spurred revisions to the system. “Temporary setbacks,” Moore says, when asked about this track record. “I just think change takes time.”
In the meantime, times keep changing. Bin Laden is buried at sea. Bush is in eclipse. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, and Moore doesn’t think 9/11 or foreign policy will factor much, if at all, in the upcoming election. “It will all center on jobs and the economy and who owns this country, working people or Wall Street,” he says. If so, it may also center on Michael Moore.