Buzz Around Moore's Movie May Be Able to Shake the Election

By Terry M. Neal

The Washington Post

Friday, June 25, 2004; 7:16 AM

The booze was flowing and the room was buzzing at the swanky new Leftbank restaurant in Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood Wednesday night. The cause for celebration was the D.C. premier of "Fahrenheit 9/11," and director Michael Moore's pals picked up the tab.

They could afford it. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the brothers who donate big money to Democrats and who bought the rights to the controversial new film, are already rich. But their decision to distribute the movie after Disney, Moore's original distributor, refused, will make them that much richer -- and possibly influence a presidential election.

The question that started every conversation at the party was, "What did you think?" To be certain, most of the crowd consisted of Democrats and left-leaning activists and journalists. So you know what they think. But a good number of moderate and conservative types attended the premier too, if only out of curiosity. And many of them came out agreeing that the film is powerful and entertaining.

During the screening at the Uptown Theatre, I sat next to a newspaper reporter who was raised in an activist Republican party family, whose sister worked previously for the Bush White House and who considers herself moderate. She cried through the second half of the movie, which featured graphic images of injured and killed Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers and focused on the U.S. military's efforts to recruit minorities and poor whites.

She and others who don't hew to Moore's hardcore lefty vision of the world gave him credit for, if nothing else, presenting an incredibly cohesive and emotionally stirring piece of work.

"There's no way people are not going to come out of this hating Bush," she said. Which, of course, is exactly what the GOP fears. Conservative opposition is not based on the belief that this is just some commie-pinko rant that'll be ignored by the masses.

The White House, furious about the Bush-bashing, anti-war movie, has wisely decided to take a low-key approach, allowing surrogates to do most of the work—and they've done it with zeal. One California-based organization, Move America Forward, has orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to theaters around the country, demanding that they refuse to show Moore's movie. Conservative talk radio and television hosts have filled their segments with rants against it. And the president's father called Moore a "slimeball."

The conservative group Citizens United announced Thursday that its president, David N. Bossie, had filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, asserting that television ads for the movie are restricted under some of the new campaign finance rules created by the McCain-Feingold legislation.

The announcement was originally scheduled for Tuesday, and, at Wednesday night's party, Chris Lehane, the former spokesman for Al Gore's presidential campaign and new media strategist for Moore, seemed almost disappointed.

"We wanted to thank them for sending people to the movie," he said, flashing a broad smile at Moore.

I caught up with Moore at the party just after midnight as he was leaning on a booth, daintily picking at a small plate of sliced tenderloin. Lehane was nestled up to the ear of his new client -- no doubt planning their defense against the conservative assault on the movie that opens Friday in 900 theaters nationwide. That's nine times as many theaters than carried his last film, the anti-NRA "Bowling for Columbine."

Moore was animated when talking about his critics.

"That's the difference between our side and their side. Even when we disagree, we're respectful of freedom of speech," he said. "But when they disagree, they try to shut you down. Well it's un-American. And it's wrong, and people are not going to stand for it. People in this country don't like to be told they can't watch something or see something."

Moore said his movie is "two-hours of irrefutable facts."

The movie breaks little news. What it does, however, is string together old news in a way that fits Moore's ideological perspective.

Is it propaganda? Of course it is. Moore makes it no secret that he wants Bush out of the White House, and this is his case for why that should happen. Echoing the common view among liberals that the mainstream media has been soft on Bush and lazy in general, he said his movie is simply a bridge to span the void.

The only difference between Moore's movie and the opinions that conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News's Bill O'Reilly spout every day on radio and TV is that it comes from the left and it's condensed to two hours rather than spread over hundreds of hours on the airwaves.

Democrats and liberals are so excited about Moore because they believe he is one of the rare polemicists on the left who manages to balance preachiness with entertainment.

The attacks from the right have only seemed to embolden Moore. Clearly he relishes the fight, which not only allows him to play the role of David to the GOP's Goliath, but helps drum up publicity for his film. Typically efforts to suppress free speech have the opposite effect. Just ask former Broward County, Fla., sheriff Nick Navarro, who famously propelled the talentless "rappers" 2 Live Crew to fame in the early 1990s by trying to put them out of business.

Critics, academics and others are predicting that the movie will become a cultural phenomenon, somewhere on the order of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

The film has shattered records at two New York City theaters where it has already opened. But of course, New York is not the entire country. The film seems unlikely to change minds that are set in stone. But judging by the reaction of the crowd in Washington, it does have the potential to move people off the fence.

If this year's presidential election is as close as the one in 2000, it won't have to move many to make a difference in the outcome.