They're back! OK, the "vast right-wing conspiracy" Hillary Clinton warned about never really went away. But they've found new purpose in the campaign to stop the distribution of "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's latest documentary. And just as the energetic conservative elves succeeded in making Bill Clinton ever more popular with the American public, so do they seem to be driving up public interest in Moore's film, which is expected to have the biggest opening for a documentary film ever, in a scheduled 888 theaters.
The convergence between the anti-Clinton and anti-Moore movements is personified by the tireless David Bossie, whose Citizens United made headlines savaging the president in the late 1990s. It's been a big week for Bossie and Citizens United. First they were busy producing anti-Clinton ads to run during the former president's star turn Sunday night on "60 Minutes," while Bossie was scurrying to cable studios to denounce the memoir "My Life" and promote his new book, "Intelligence Failure: How Clinton's National Security Policy Set the Stage for 9/11." Then Bossie scheduled a Wednesday press event in front of the Federal Election Commission, where he will demand that the commission take some sort of unspecified action to regulate the screening of "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- presumably because of the anti-Bush documentary's power to influence the coming presidential election. "Documents will be hand delivered to several government agencies immediately following the media briefing," the group's press release soberly states.
Anyone still wondering whether "Fahrenheit 9/11" has the far right squirming about the documentary's possible effect on the November presidential election?
Over the past week, attacks on the film reached fever pitch. They involved right-wing-conspiracy veterans like Bossie, but also some relative newcomers. (And Moore felt obliged to hire a war room led by Democratic political consultants Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani.) So far the campaign doesn't seem to have hurt Moore. The real question is whether "Fahrenheit 9/11" can be anywhere as entertaining as the sometimes surreal campaign to derail it.
The Moore bashers include former California assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, whose Move America Forward launched a letter-writing campaign last week against a select number of theaters that planned to show "Fahrenheit." Kaloogian was part of a cabal that takes credit for recalling Gov. Gray Davis. Now they've set their sights on Moore.
"We've sent out probably well over 200,000 e-mails," says Melanie Morgan, a talk radio host, of the MAF campaign. With no small dose of glee, Morgan says of the cinemas targeted by MAF's letter-writing campaign: "We've been causing them an enormous amount of aggravation."
Such aggravation is hard to measure. No theaters have canceled showings of "Fahrenheit" at this point. And the MAF group doesn't seem to have had the most useful intelligence in its campaign. A lowly theater payroll employee inexplicably listed on MAF's e-mail list of "leading movie executives" is confused about how he became a central front in the War on Moore (he did not wish to be identified). As he sat in his office Friday, messages pinged into his in box. Dryly, he read aloud his favorites: "'I will never see a movie again' ... 'I will not support a business that aids a piece of crap sub-human like Moore in spreading his anti-american bullshit ...'"
More important, though, after the grass-roots political group MoveOn launched a counteroffensive, letters of support for the film's release began outpacing negative letters (according to an unscientific survey of five theater owners) at roughly 3-to-1. Jennifer Caleshu of the Little Theatre, in Rochester, N.Y., says she's received on the order of 3,000 e-mails. For every letter accusing her of soothing terrorists by showing the film, she says, seven are encouraging. Caleshu says that to every negative e-mail she's received she replies by quoting the First Amendment. "I've gotten some real personal hate mail back about that," she says.
MAF vice-chair Morgan blames the deep pockets and international tentacles of financier George Soros for backing MoveOn to support the movie. (The group says it has secured pledges from 109,000 people to see the movie when it opens.) But MAF itself has been dogged by reporting on its ties to conservative power brokers. An investigation by the Web site Whatreallyhappened.com, which snooped around MAF's domain registration info, revealed that it is no ordinary citizen's movement.
The webmasters were careless enough to leave the contact information for the Sacramento public relations firm Russo, Marsh and Rogers. That gave away the fact that the supposedly grass-roots Web site was the creation of one Douglas Lorenz. A Russo employee, Lorenz was the information-technology guy for Bill Simon, the candidate too conservative to beat ultra-unpopular then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2000. He's listed on the DefendReagan.org Web site (which rallied the fight against CBS's Reagan movie last year) as the "grassroots coordinator," apparently foreshadowing his role in creating the faux-grass-roots Move America Forward Web site. "Doug has been very active in developing volunteer political organizations," his bio says, "and utilizing advanced technologies to extend their reach." (Lorenz did not reply to Salon's request for an interview.) The P.R. firm's namesake, Sal Russo, was chief strategist of the Recall Gray Davis committee, and the firm itself has Republican ties that run far and deep.
For Kaloogian (who did not return calls from Salon for this story) the failure of Move America Forward represents a reversal. Seven months ago, Kaloogian spearheaded a nationwide campaign to have CBS's movie "The Reagans" yanked, calling for advertiser and audience boycotts. The movie was eventually ghettoized on the network's sister channel, Showtime (though CBS executives insisted, unconvincingly, they were unaffected by boycott threats). But other Kaloogian stunts have fizzled. His threatened recall of California's moderate attorney general over gay marriage went nowhere, and an accusation that Asian-American state assemblymen were violating their oaths of office for supporting Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist falsely accused of being a spy, was widely dismissed. ("He's a mosquito on an elephant's back," says longtime California Democratic Party strategist Bob Mulholland of Kaloogian.)
It now seems that MAF is doing little more than providing free publicity for "Fahrenheit 9/11," whose tag line now smirks, "Controversy? What controversy?" But there have been a few bad breaks this week for "Fahrenheit." Moore wanted a PG-13 rating for the movie; the Motion Picture Association of America claims that certain "bad words" require it receive an R-rating. For one thing the word "motherfucker" is used more than once in the film, in the context of troops quoting the Bloodhound Gang radio single "The Roof Is on Fire." On Monday, writing on behalf of backers IFC Films and Bob and Harvey Weinstein's Fellowship Adventure Group, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo released a letter questioning the MPAA's reasoning. Asked Cuomo: "[Why] should the film not be rated a PG-13 as was 'The Lord of the Rings,' a film that is saturated with slaughter, butchery and corpses -- human and extraterrestrial?" On Tuesday, the MPAA denied the appeal.
Then this week Newsweek published a report by reporter Michael Isikoff that accuses Moore, and author Craig Unger (author of "House of Bush, House of Saud," which was excerpted in Salon), of something close to "fanaticism" in a portion of the movie discussing how Osama bin Laden's family members were mysteriously spirited out of the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Unger, writes Isikoff, "appears, claiming that bin Laden family members were never interviewed by the FBI. Not true, according to a recent report from the 9/11 panel," and the Newsweek author points out that the FBI found "[n]one had any links to terrorism."
But Unger says the article missed the point. "As I made clear to Isikoff on the phone, and should be clear in the movie, and is clear in my book," Unger says, "what did not take place was a serious criminal investigation into the murder of 3,000 people ... if you have a criminal investigation, you talk to innocent people." And there's no evidence, he says, that the FBI checked its own terror watch list before letting the bin Ladens depart.
Still, the film's opponents haven't given up. Most recently the MAF is promoting a report reprinted in the Guardian that the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah has endorsed "Fahrenheit." Gianluca Chacra, the managing director of Front Row Entertainment, the movie's distributor in the United Arab Emirates, confirms that Lebanese student members of Hezbollah "have asked us if there's any way they could support the film." While Hezbollah is considered a legitimate political party in many parts of the world, the U.S. State Department classifies the group as a terrorist organization. Chacra was unfazed, even excited, about their offer. "Having the support of such an entity in Lebanon is quite significant for that market and not at all controversial. I think it's quite natural." (Lions Gate did not return calls asking for comment.) Adam Rubin, a spokesman for MoveOn, calls it "an utterly ridiculous distraction from the actual substance of the film."
Of course, you can always find an unpopular leader in the Middle East to fuel buzz about a movie someone doesn't want you to see. After all, Yasser Arafat loved Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which was so popular with right-wing Arafat haters and so unpopular among many Jews (Arafat's blurb-ready review of Gibson's movie: "Moving"). In the end, Moore's movie will be judged by how many Americans turn out to see his film. And after the attacks and counterattacks of the last week, that number only grew.