Right to Left
Conservative critics have derided it as propaganda. Liberal supporters have praised it as a powerful indictment of a foreign policy gone awry. The film has grossed more than $100 million since it opened. And on July 29, when the lights dimmed on a crowd of more than 150 San Antonians at the Bijou Theatre, the opening scenes of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 were met with silence.
In a show of hands, more than half the crowd said they were seeing the movie for the first time. A Republican state senator sat behind two liberal activists. Businessmen wearing suits sat next to scruffy-looking students. The tension was palpable, but when the pudgy Moore drove an ice cream truck around the Capitol, reciting the USA Patriot Act through a megaphone, the theater burst out in a collective fit of laughter. This was followed by a few jeers, but mostly laughter, when Moore ambushed several unsuspecting Congressman in a failed attempt to enlist their children in the war effort.
The World Affairs Council of San Antonio sponsored a community discussion following the film. Representing the conservative viewpoint was Ray Sullivan, chairman of Sullivan Public Affairs and a former deputy chief of staff and campaign spokesman to Governor Rick Perry. Speaking for the liberal viewpoint was Jan Jarboe-Russell, writer for Texas Monthly, Express-News columnist, and author of Lady Bird, A biography of Mrs. Johnson.
(It should be noted that the World Affairs Council, by using Jarobe to convey the "liberal viewpoint," played into the stereotype that the media is liberal. While Jarboe is known for her progressive stance on issues, neither the E-N nor Texas Monthly are beacons of the Left.)
Disregarding the moderator's call for even-handedness, Sullivan eschewed any discussion of Fahrenheit 9/11's strengths or weaknesses, engaging instead in a highly partisan, disingenuous attempt to smear Moore's patriotism. "This movie dishonors the victims of 9/11, our soldiers and the folks in this country who are working to prevent acts of terrorism," he said, calling Moore a "deceptive propagandist" who "very few people knew about before this film." When Sullivan raised the Monica Lewinsky scandal, some audience members groaned.
His only attempt at substantive criticism was to say, "`that` the film clips comments from Condoleeza Rice and the President to change their meaning and context." Yet Sullivan himself omitted the fact that the Bush Administration has been selective about his information by relying on intelligence from Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress while disregarding that of the CIA, as Seymour Hersh recently reported in The New Yorker.
Jarboe, on the other hand, was thoughtful and even-handed. "A requirement of mature citizenship is that both sides of the spectrum consider the other's argument," she said.
"I spent some time thinking about what Moore got right here and what he got wrong," she said. She dissected some of Moore's conspiracy theories. "Where Moore went overboard is to suggest that Bush's family's financial ties to the Saudis were in any way a factor in the President's decision to go to war in Iraq," she said. "I have read Craig Unger's book, The House of Bush and the House of Saud, which Moore bases much of his theories on, and I simply don't believe Bush's finances had anything to do with the President's decision."
She seconded Moore's indictment of the press' supine behavior saying, "`that` the press and Congress, just about everyone gave Bush a free pass. The pressure to conform was and remains enormous."
Both panelists agreed that this movie would have minimal impact on the election. Sullivan said, "I think this is a film that only certified Bush-haters will watch." Jarboe agreed.
But one participant stood up and said to Sullivan, "I am one of those independent voters and I think you ought to answer Moore's charges instead of smearing him. I think a lot of people like me are going to see this movie." •