"Boy, what an awakening"

Lila Lipscomb, the mother at the heart of "Fahrenheit 9/11," talks about becoming radicalized in front of the camera.

Published July 8, 2004 1:01PM (EDT)

Two years ago, if you had asked Lila Lipscomb what she stood for, she would have referred you to the flag in her garden and her four grown-up children. Her priorities were, in descending order of importance, family, faith, country and a place where all three met, what she might have called "service": two of her children were in the military and she worked in the public sector, at an employment agency designed to get people off welfare. She is, as she puts it, "an extremely strong woman. And I've raised my daughters to understand that they come from a long line of strong, independent women. So the men in our lives have to be very unique. Hence Pops."

Pops is her husband, Howard, a car-factory worker. He has accompanied Lipscomb to London today by way of moral support and sits across from her in the hotel suite, eyes brimming. What she is saying is not easy for either of them. Lipscomb describes an event that changed their lives and forced a seismic shift in their political perceptions; a shift that she hopes millions of her fellow Americans will be making between now and election time in November. To her surprise, and the surprise of all who know her, Lipscomb is becoming a figurehead in the fight to oust George Bush.

It is two weeks since Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's polemic on the war in Iraq, was released in America, and in that time Lipscomb's voice has emerged as the film's most powerful. As with any project generated by Moore, the film will be loved and loathed in equal measure, but whatever one thinks of him, it is hard to resist the testimony of 50-year-old Lipscomb, a mother from Flint, Michigan, who still flies a flag in her garden, but is down to three children and a handful of ruptured assumptions where other certainties used to be.

The scenes in which she recounts the story of her son Michael's death have had cinema-goers sniffing into their sleeves. "For many years," says Lipscomb, "I thought I had to control everything. I had a real controlling spirit. But, boy, when the army stands in your house and tells you that your oldest son is killed, all that flies out the window. Over this last year and a half, I've been known to cry a bit."

The power of Lipscomb's story lies in the sharpness of the U-turn she made and her eloquence in speaking about it. Initially, she supported the war, on the assumption that the government knew best. But just two weeks into the conflict her 26-year-old son, a sergeant in the US army, was shot down while serving as a door gunner in a Black Hawk helicopter. Five other soldiers died with him. A week or so later she received his last letter, in which he told her he thought Bush had lost the plot and that they shouldn't be in Iraq, that the whole thing was folly. Moore got wind of it when Lipscomb and her family were featured in Newsweek magazine and he flew to Flint, his hometown, for a meeting.

"Michael Moore said he'd already been around America interviewing all different types of people [for the film]. It was the most incredible experience; he was sitting in our living room and all of a sudden, during the talking and sharing, a tear fell from his eye. His producer said afterwards, 'Michael found it, he found it, he found what the movie was going to be about!'"

Lipscomb should by rights have been suspicious of Moore. She is a Democrat, but a conservative one. She is, or at least was, deeply conformist and even now if the draft was enforced, wouldn't urge desertion, because that would be breaking the law. "I instilled in my children, as it was instilled in me that, regardless of who is elected the president of the United States of America, it is the position that you honour. It doesn't matter if they are Republican or Democrat. Boy, what an awakening."

She had seen Moore's first film, Roger and Me, a documentary about the devastating closure of Flint's General Motors plant, and been impressed. When he asked her to participate in Fahrenheit 9/11 she went away and watched his last film, Bowling for Columbine. This also, she thought, had merit. But she had other reasons for taking part; chiefly guilt, for not having spoken up sooner, for having, she says, been complacent and gullible enough to believe Bush's arguments for war.

"The reason I didn't hesitate was because I was carrying my son's words with me. And as a mother I have to carry each and every day the fact, could I have done a little bit more? Could I have been more vocal so that the president would not have been given that much authority within himself? And nobody can make that go away. My son got sent into harm's way by a decision made by the president of the United States that was based on a lie. Would my son still be here today if I had had my uprising then?"

The day Michael decided to join the army, she says, "I was so proud of him, so proud of him. It was the first grown-up, manly decision that he'd ever made in his life." She knew the risks  her daughter Jennifer served in the first Gulf war  but she also thought it a smart career move for people in their position, a low-income family. Then, over Christmas 2002, on his last home visit, Michael said something surprising. "I so vividly remember. I walked out of my bedroom and we have a long hallway upstairs and he was standing there and he said he would have to go to Kuwait and then to Baghdad. And he said he didn't support the war, that he didn't know why he had to go over there. We talked about fear. I was petrified, because in my mind I was thinking that's where Bin Laden is, because that's what we'd been told."

She knows better now, she says, about the failure to find a connection between Bin Laden and Iraq, about the failure to prove the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Moore's film follows her to the White House, where she tries to have it out with someone, but is refused entry. Instead, she is berated by a passer-by who accuses her, as an antiwar campaigner, of "staging" many of the conflict's tragedies.

"My son is dead," she says. "That is not staged." And her legs buckle under her.

In its first three days, Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed $21.8 million  Harry Potter took $11.4 million over the same period  across 868 cinemas in America; that number will rise this week. Lipscomb is rapidly becoming a celebrity. She was spotted twice at airports on the way to Britain. "Yeah. Isn't that awesome? And I'm just a mother from Flint."

The downside is that she will probably experience more hostility from people who find her stance unpatriotic. "Yes, oh yes. There's a few I'm sure who hate me. But that's OK. Because that's what America is all about, you are free to hate who you want to hate and like who you want to like."

But so far, she has had only positive responses. The letters and emails are pouring in, many, she says, from the parents of soldiers serving in Iraq who have echoed the sentiments of her son. She is a member of Military Families Speak Out, an American organisation for people "with relatives or loved ones in the military" who oppose the war in Iraq. "Through us, their voices will be heard."

She has heard from people all over the country, "just incredible, incredible, men calling and leaving messages, sobbing and thanking me for my courage. Women just going 'Yeahhhh! Michael has a hell of a mother.' And then the night of the Flint showing [of Fahrenheit 9/11], there was a message from a young lady named Tracy." Tracy had been friends with Michael when they were children and hadn't known he was dead until she saw the film; she had to be carried out. Tracy is in the navy and on her way to Iraq.

The most surprising letter came from a man Lipscomb knew only slightly, who had sold her her house. "It was a full-page, handwritten letter from a man  that in itself is unique . He said he'd seen the film and when he got home he had to write. He had always been a very strong Republican, but his views are now changed."

Lipscomb's employers have been supportive. Her friends in Flint have been stunned. She wonders if her phone has been bugged and how her unlisted number seems to have become so quickly and widely known. "Interesting, isn't it?" And she wonders if she will ever get to the White House. It is on her to-do list. "When I go to Washington DC as an American citizen I have a right, I have a right to go to the White House and I'll not stop until that right is given back to us. My son's blood paid for that White House, and I can't go in? That's my White House. I'm furious." What would she say to Bush if she met him? "God have mercy." She shakes her head. "God have mercy."

Now, instead of telling them to trust authority, Lipscomb is raising her seven grandchildren to question it. "I tell them: if you don't understand something, ask. And if you still don't understand it, go to the next level. And the next. And the next."

With this in mind, she intends to hold off deciding who to vote for (she knows who she isn't voting for) until she has sussed out John Edwards, the running mate announced this week by Democrat candidate John Kerry. "I really don't know anything about this man. I'm not going to listen to what the TV says; I'm not going to listen to what the radio says. I have to find a way for him to answer my questions, either by sitting down with him, or by being at one of his rallies. That's how serious this is to me. I'm not playing."

By Emma Brockes

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