Politically impolite

On his West Coast book tour, filmmaker, author and satirist Michael Moore plays to SRO crowds from Nevada County to San Diego

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Michael Moore’s career is on fire. He is nearing the end of a long nationwide book tour promoting Stupid White Men, a savage and funny attack on America’s status quo. He’s been greeted by standing-room-only crowds everywhere he’s gone, and the book has reached No.1 on The New York Times’ non-fiction best-seller list.

Employing his razor wit, keen eye for irony and sympathetic sense of the absurd, Moore has reached out to many in this country who are beginning to question the nation’s moral compass as we get mired in a never-ending war against an undefined enemy while things go to hell at home.

By using humor to make his point about serious matters, Moore has taken on the role of a modern-day Mark Twain or a more-contemporary Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Moore’s sweep through California included a stop in Grass Valley, “the middle of nowhere in a congressional district represented by a right-wing Republican,” Moore would later write in an e-mail to friends and fans, referring to our very own Rep. Wally Herger.

He further described his visit to Grass Valley, noting that “so many have come from hundreds of miles across the Sierras that can’t get in, so I tell the hundreds out in the street that I’ll stick around and do a second show. Three hours later they are still there, and I do it all over again.”

Actually, there were about 75 people on the sidewalk outside the theater in Grass Valley who couldn’t get in to hear his talk that day. But, as reported, he did agree, without hesitation, to do a second show.

I know because I was there. Though I hadn’t exactly traveled across the Sierras, I had come some 80 miles into the foothills from Chico to hear Moore talk and to try to interview the popular humorist. Standing in the lobby of the performing arts center in Grass Valley, News & Review Calendar Editor John Young and I waited for Moore to arrive.

We were inside while a throng of people waited outside for the doors to open. As members of the media, we had contacted Moore’s sister Anne, a former Nevada County public defender, who was making arrangements for his stop here. The event was free and set up on a first-come-first-served basis.

There was only one other media person here besides John and me, a guy from the Oroville Mercury-Register, who announced he’d gone through the publisher to get an interview. For some reason, the local paper, the Grass Valley Union, did not bother to send a reporter.

The show was supposed to start at 3 o’clock. By 2:45 John and I, staked to the best seats in the theater, started to get nervous. If we stayed put, we might miss out on a chance for the interview, and the guy from the Oroville Mercury-Register, the guy who went through official channels, would get an exclusive.

(I later learned we had nothing to worry about. Publisher HarperCollins, part of Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire, had refused to fund the entire tour. The California leg was actually financed, in part, by the late-night TV show Politically Incorrect, which had invited Moore as a guest and paid for his trip to Los Angeles, where the show is produced. Moore just didn’t take the most direct route, stopping along the way instead in places like Grass Valley, Arcata and Berkeley.)

Soon after the doors opened to the general public, we decided to give up our front-and-center seats to go into the lobby to wait for Moore.

Walking back into the lobby, I tried to make eye contact with Anne, who was running around trying to take care of details while getting pestered by people like us: “Where is he?” “How’s he getting here?”

She was incredibly gracious and pleasant under the circumstances. When a guy with a clipboard and a stack of petitions asked for her signature, she sighed, stopped, asked what it was for—amend the Three Strikes law—and signed.

There were other signature gatherers working the lobby as the region’s rustic hippies and aging, rumpled lefties made their way into the performing arts hall. There was a card table where a man sold black T-shirts emblazoned with the words “American Terrorism Inc.” The community radio station KVMR had a table and asked for financial support. The station was to broadcast Moore’s talk live.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Still more tables had other referendum petitions and their attendant signature gatherers. One in the corner sold copies of Stupid White Men. Moore had promised a book signing after his show.

A serious-looking woman carrying a Green Party sign walked through the lobby. A man with long, unkempt gray hair approached me with a clipboard and asked me to sign a petition to save ancient trees.

“It will prevent the cutting of any tree that started growing before 1850, the year California became a state,” he explained.

“But how would you know?” I asked. “Do you count the rings after it comes down and then if there are not enough say, ‘Oops, shouldn’t have cut that one'?”

He assured me there actually is a scientific way to measure using core samples. So I signed, and we both felt a sense of smug self-satisfaction.

Moore has been criticized for preaching to the choir. And by the looks of it, the choir was in full attendance here in Grass Valley. I wanted to ask him if he ever got heckled. That was, if I got the chance to interview him.

At a few minutes past 3 o’clock, a light ripple of excitement made its way through the crowded lobby. Anne caught my eye to let me know her brother had arrived.

I heard the folks out on the sidewalk, the 75 or so who didn’t get in, start applauding. Then I saw him, a tall, broad man, moving above the crowd, green Michigan State Spartans baseball cap perched on his head. He was smiling, greeting his fans.

As soon as he entered the building, the guest of honor was ushered into the room where the press waited—all three of us.

Moore is a big man. He had a short, scraggly beard and was wearing a blue windbreaker, blue jeans and a dark-blue polo shirt. He seemed upbeat and very attentive to his surroundings. He was drinking from a plastic bottle of Alhambra water.

“Let’s sit down,” he said after our introductions had been made.

He was asked about the people left outside.

“Yeah, absolutely I’ll do a second show,” he said with enthusiasm. “I wasn’t going to until I saw all those people out there. I said I’d stick around and do it again if they want me to.

“I know how that is ‘cause I’m always so bad at being on time for anything. I’ve missed some great stuff in my life, man. So I know how these people feel.”

Moore then told me he remembered the Chico News & Review from 20 years ago, when he was putting together a weekly paper back in his hometown of Flint, Mich. He can recall the CN&R today because it was one of only a handful of alternative papers in the nation at the time.

The warmth in Moore’s greeting was genuine, and I was a bit surprised. To tell the truth, I was expecting, based on his sometimes caustic, smart-ass attitude, not to mention his run of success, that he would be, well, somewhat of a pompous prick.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Instead he came across like a regular guy. He could have been the funny, smart kid who sat next to you in biology class and who would get you in trouble by making you laugh at exactly the wrong moment, one of those rare people who made high school just a bit more tolerable.

In fact, Moore makes a reference in Stupid White Men to his own high school experience, when he recounts running for and winning a seat on the local school board while still in school. The voting age had just been lowered to 18, making it legal for Moore to run. And he did, on the platform: “Fire the principal and the assistant principal!”

“Alarmed at the idea that a high school student might actually find a legal means to remove the very administrators he was being paddled by, five local ‘adults’ took out petitions and got themselves added to the ballot, too,” Moore writes.

But the adults ended up splitting the adult vote five ways, and Moore garnered “the vote of every single stoner between the ages of 18 and 25.” The day after he’d won, Moore said, he walked past the assistant principal’s office with “my shirt tail proudly untucked,” and the assistant principal called him “Mr. Moore,” instead of “Hey you!”

After graduating from high school, Moore attended a community college in Flint but dropped out the day he got tired of driving around looking for a parking space. He’s since made successful movies, including his homage to the merciless rusting of the industrial Midwest, Roger & Me; produced television shows like the viciously funny TV Nation and The Awful Truth; and written best-selling books, including Downsize This!, a critical (and humorous) observation of the fading American dream.

Stupid White Men was published Sept. 10 but not released until about a month ago for reasons of political sensitivity on the part of publisher HarperCollins. As such, the book has an odd, distant feel to it. For the most part the book is based around the events of the 2000 presidential election, which Moore charges was handed to George W. Bush. As the title indicates, the book is about how white guys like Bush, Al Gore, Bill Clinton ("one of the best Republican presidents we’ve ever had") and the CEOs of major corporations have gotten America into such an economic and social pickle.

Because of its controversial nature—one chapter is called “Kill Whitey"—Moore said getting the book off the ground was a struggle from the start.

“I presented three different proposals to the publisher HarperCollins of the book that I wanted to do. And they rejected all three proposals. One was called ‘The Execution of Michael Moore, a Memoir'—stories I wanted to tell from my life that I thought would be illuminating. But they said no.

“The next proposal was ‘Dow Wow Wow,’ one of the chapter titles [in Stupid White Men], which was going to be about how we’ve had an economic downturn and there is a recession, but that it’s just a lie. I was going to make a whole book out of it and just tell the stories of what’s happening so that people can really see what’s going on. That the rich made off like bandits in the ‘90s,and now they want to make sure that nobody else comes asking for their slice of the pie.

“The third proposal was a variation on this, but there were too many things in there that I think they found too outrageous. I had a chapter called ‘Late Night Instant Messaging with Osama bin Laden.’ Basically, this is a year and a half ago, and we were going to do all of these [instant messages] with bin Laden. They said no to that.

“So finally I submitted this book and said that this is the last one I am submitting. I think they just kind gave up, and I gave up, and it became this book. But that wasn’t the title that was on it. They didn’t like that title I had, so they came up with a title I didn’t like.

“The original title was ‘Bring Me the Head of Antonin Scalia.'’ He laughs. “They thought it was violent. I thought it was biblical. They came up with ‘Mad Cow, Mad Dow,’ which is lame.

“And in this whole process they were trying to get me to write. First the publisher said, ‘I want to you write something for me that is not politics at all. Like, do a book on relationships. Do a book on how men should bring back chivalry.’

“I said ‘You just signed a contract with me; don’t you know who I am?’

"'Yes,’ she said, ‘but we want to release the other side of you that’s in there.'”

At that point sister Anne came back in to confirm that Moore would stay for a second show for those still waiting out front.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” he said. “But Anne, I don’t want to cut these people short,” he added nodding toward the three-member press corps.

Turning back to the interview, Moore said a deal was finally struck, the book was written and then published last fall. But that was on Sept. 10, and all the rules changed the next day. The book was not released. A couple of times, he said, the publisher threatened to “pulp” the book unless he agreed to rewrite parts of it.

“It was only going to come out if I was willing to rewrite it,” Moore said. “I was to remove all my harsh messages to [Bush].”

That would include the chapter called “Dear George,” in which Moore says, “In short, you’ve been a drunk, a thief, a possible felon, an unconvicted deserter, and a crybaby. You may call that statement cruel. I call it ‘tough love.'”

In the book, Moore never refers to Bush as the president without qualifying the title with quote marks.

“They wanted the quote marks removed as well as my reference to the ‘thief in chief.’ Whatever other names I’d come up with, they wanted those out of there, too. They wanted the letter to Bush completely removed from the book. It was pretty ugly.

“Finally, one night they basically told me, ‘All right, we’ve had it. We’re going to pulp this book, and you’re not going to get it back because the contract says we get to hold onto it for a year.’ By then the book would be slightly irrelevant.”

The stalemate ended in a thoroughly fitting manner, Moore said.

"[HarperCollins] decided to finally put it out when a group of librarians basically found out that they were going to ban the book. So they started getting inundated with librarian mail.”

It’s reported that Moore had “let slip” in a speech to librarians that the book was facing censorship.

Moore agreed that the grace period following Sept. 11 had passed and that the release of the book meant the Bush administration was once again fair game for social critics.

“I think the reason it’s done so well and shot so fast up the list is, well, I’d like to believe it’s because it’s a well-written book and has good grammar and interesting ideas. But honestly, I think that for five or six months people have had to coop up their feelings.

“As Americans we like to express our feelings about what’s going on, and we like to be able to dissent. But we’ve been told by [White House Press Secretary] Ari Fleischer to watch what we say and watch what we do.

“And we’ve watched laws being passed that say that we could be arrested for inciting, not a riot or not anything violent, but just for inciting any sort of opposition to the government, basically. Or, for that matter, any of the things I do on my TV show, which would be illegal. They are illegal now if you read the law by its letter. I couldn’t go into a corporate lobby and demand to speak to the CEO. That would be seen as an act of terrorism now.

“These are not nice times, and I think people are really kind of sick of it. I think the response to the book has been in part because of that. Nobody likes to be told they can’t read something.

“Frankly, I would rather have had the book do as Downsize This! did. With that one, we got to, like, 14th or 15th on The New York Times’ Best Sellers list. I would actually rather have had that and not had to go through what I did from September through December to get this book out and now be No. 1 on the best-seller list. It’s a hot book because they were going to censor it, and now everybody wants to see what they were going to censor.”

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Anne came back and interrupted him once again. With her was a middle-aged couple whom she wanted to introduce to Moore.

“Oh yeah, I’m really glad you’re here,” he said. They talked for a while and he finally told them, “You hang in there, OK?”

When he came back he explained the couple were the parents of Laura Wilcox, the 19-year-old Grass Valley woman who died in January 2001 when a mentally ill man went on shooting rampage in the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department where Wilcox was an intern.

Moore had agreed to give all the proceeds of the books he sold that night to a scholarship in the slain woman’s name. He’s donated his profits to various causes and groups in every city he’s visited on this tour.

“Yeah, I give 100 percent of whatever I make, which isn’t a lot,” he explained. “I mean, I get three or four dollars a book.”

Then Anne came back again and she wasn’t going to let this go on any longer. His audience, she said, had waited long enough.

“Geez,” he replied in mock irritation. “I never knew she was so pushy! Time to go.”

He excused himself as Anne walked him into the lobby while explaining the many petitions waiting for his signature.

“What’s the tree thing?” he asked.

“Ancient trees,” she said, leading him away. “It’s on the Green Party table in the lobby.”

Forty-five minutes after he was scheduled to begin, Moore walked out on stage to his patient audience. There would be no hecklers on this evening. Everybody was on the same political page and ready to hear a dissenting opinion after months of silently toeing the line.

He began by talking about—what else?—the young century’s major event, whose timing kept it out of Moore’s book. He asked why, if those believed responsible for the attack were mostly from Saudi Arabia, we chose to bomb Afghanistan.

“We’re not going to go get the guys who did it,” he said. “We’re going to go get the landlord. Can you imagine if 15 of the 19 hijackers had been Cuban? Do you think they just would have taken a dart and thrown it at a map and said, ‘OK, let’s go bomb Peru'?”

Despite evidence, he said, that most of the hijackers as well as the funding came from Saudi Arabia, the U.S. decided to bomb Afghanistan, “the poorest country on Planet Earth.”

“Well, we can’t bomb our oil supply, right?” he concluded. “We gotta keep those SUVs running.”

And so he went, covering subjects either not mentioned or else the intellectual extension of ideas and thoughts from his book. And I think it’s fair to say we can expect a new one. The final sentence on the “About the author” page of Stupid White Men says, “Barring success, this will be his last book.”

Don’t believe it. Too much has happened since that last one for Moore to put down his pen.

A few days after his visit to Grass Valley, Moore wrote in an e-mail:

“I have visited the most out-of-the-way places in California and, no matter where I go or how right-wing the congressman is that represents their district, all sorts of people are desperate to get inside to be with the thousands of others who want to be part of ‘United We Stand Against the Thief-in-Chief.’

“Grass Valley, Hayward, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Ukiah, Arcata, Berkeley, Westwood, East L.A., Koreatown (L.A.)—I wish all of you could see what I have seen. In every town, at every stop, huge throngs of Americans who are sick and tired of the silence that has been demanded of them lest they be thought of as ‘unpatriotic’ should they dare to question the actions of George W. Bush and company. That’s what this tour is all about.

“It’s time to come out and start acting like Americans again."