What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11

Posted: July 14, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of occasional articles on what George Mason experts have to say about a current topic. These are personal opinions and do not reflect an endorsement by George Mason University.

If the Bush administration learned anything from the Richard Clarke episode, it was that the best political strategy is disengagement, according to Colleen Shogan, assistant professor in the Public and International Affairs Department. She points out that when the White House decided to combat Clarke’s most controversial allegations after his book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, started to gain renown, the result was increased attention toward Clarke and more problems for the president.

Colleen Shogan
Colleen Shogan
Courtesy Colleen Shogan

“The administration is certainly upset by Fahrenheit 9/11, since it portrays the president as glib, intellectually lazy, and downright inept,” she says. “But any attempt to contradict [director] Michael Moore’s portrayals will only lead to more free media coverage for the film. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the White House must hope the firestorm surrounding the movie is short-lived.”

Shogan notes the movie is unlikely to alter the opinions of the coveted “on-the-fence” voters. “Those who are still undecided about the election are unlikely to spend $10 to see a movie about politics, war, and alleged corruption,” she says. “But if anti-Bush organizations, such as MoveOn.org, use scenes from the movie that effectively question the president’s legitimacy and leadership, it could spell trouble for the Republicans. The most disturbing clip, showing Bush boasting about the war on terror and his golf swing in the same breath, has already been aired repeatedly. Any portrait of the nation’s commander-in-chief as a carefree ne’er-do-well could prove politically damaging for Bush in November.”

The most significant aspect of Fahrenheit 9/11 is its challenge to the Bush administration’s careful management of the president’s image, says Jeremy Mayer, assistant professor in the School of Public Policy.

Jeremy Mayer
Jeremy Mayer
Courtesy Jeremy Mayer

“The vast majority of Americans have never seen the seven minutes of Bush reading My Pet Goat in a Florida classroom on Sept. 11, 2001, after he has been told that America is under attack,” he says. “It could damage Bush’s image of decisiveness, strength, and masculinity.” On the other hand, Mayer says, it’s a long way to the election. Moreover, he asks, how many Republicans and independent voters will see the movie?

“What is most intriguing for me is that the lines I see for this movie have a high percentage of young people, who have the lowest voter turnout of any age group,” he says. “If Moore is speaking to a group that is largely alienated from politics, his one-sided portrait of the president may end up having a small effect in November. In a close election, that could be important.”

At the same time, Mayer doesn’t think the Federal Election Commission will consider advertisements for the movie a violation of campaign finance laws. “However, if they rule it legal, expect that in next presidential election, both sides will release ‘documentaries,'” he says. “This will allow them to run negative ads with impunity under the guise of advertising for their ‘films.’ If the history of campaign finance law teaches us anything, it is that each new strict regulation begets new loopholes, in which campaigns find a way to use the First Amendment to get heard.”

Pop culture and film expert Cynthia Fuchs, associate professor of English, sees Fahrenheit 9/11 not only as a political argument, but also as a money-making venture that epitomizes the movie business.

“I think it’s smart and manipulative, and Lions Gate, et al. used the news buzz brilliantly to create the huge first weekend,” she says, adding that other summer blockbusters will top Fahrenheit 9/11 in the coming weekends. “The buzz about Fahrenheit 9/11 has to do with frustration and anger at the [Bush] administration, but also with the movie business, marketing, and must-sees.”

In her review for PopMatters.com, Fuchs writes, “Despite the film per se’s purported potential influence, politics is a more slippery business, a function of daily indoctrinations—news, the Internet, Friends, detergent ads—as much as by any overt flag-waving. Moreover, documentaries, even purposely entertaining ones, don’t tend to reach huge or very diverse audiences, rarely appealing to viewers not already interested in or persuaded by their subjects. Reagan, for instance, suffered no ill effects from the pre-election release of Barbara Trent and David Kasper’s Coverup: Behind the Iran Contra Affair in 1988. Still, the noise attending Fahrenheit 9/11 is loud, and not only because Moore has hit up numerous talk shows. Much like the controversy over The Passion of the Christ, this noise has to do with staking out sides and asserting some sort of ‘truth.’ And, similar to [Mel] Gibson’s film, Moore’s will re-convince believers, and will only annoy those who, like Bill O’Reilly, see Moore as a blustery, self-absorbed showman.”

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