Love him or hate him, Michael Moore will not be ignored. A blistering assault on President George W. Bush, Moore’s new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, accuses the White House of dithering while terrorists plotted to attack America, lying to the public about the Iraq war and being in the pocket of rich Saudis—including the family of Osama bin Laden. “I’m not trying to pretend this is some sort of…fair and balanced work of journalism,” Moore, 50, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “I would like to see Mr. Bush removed from the White House.”
While Bush’s Democratic opponent John Kerry has yet to comment on the controversial film (opening this weekend in more than 500 theaters), plenty of prominent liberals? have embraced it. Madonna has hailed it, while celebs such as Drew Barrymore, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and Meg Ryan have packed advance screenings. “Leo”—that would be DiCaprio—”plans to do everything he can to encourage young people to see it,” says the actor’s spokesman. Ditto for former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who lobbied unsuccessfully to overturn Fahrenheit’s R rating so it could reach the widest possible audience.
On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Fahrenheit has been condemned as reckless propaganda. “Something as absurd as this film is simply not worth dignifying with a response,” says White House press secretary Scott McClellan. Move America Forward, a conservative group, is calling on citizens to protest the film, and its founder Howard Kaloogian calls Moore “a domestic enemy.”
Moore is bristling for a fight, setting up a “war room” run by Democratic-party strategist Chris Lehane to respond to right-wing criticism. But do Fahrenheit‘s attacks on the President bear up under close scrutiny?
•THE BUSHES AND THE BIN LADENS
In Fahrenheit, Moore makes much of the close relationship between the Bush family and Saudi Arabia. As a young man, George W. received $50,000 from James R. Bath, a friend who served as a financial adviser to a brother of Osama bin Laden, to launch his oil company Arbusto. Indeed, many journalists believe that the bin Laden family were probably invested in Arbusto, but investigative reporter Bill Allison, managing editor of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., says the link between George W. and Osama “is a pretty shaky connection.” The vast bin Laden family says it disowned its most notorious member years ago. “I find it hard to believe that the business ties Moore and others have laid out would have inhibited Bush from going after Osama,” says Richard W. Murphy, ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Ronald Reagan. “It’s silly.”
•THE SAUDI FLIGHTS
Moore’s charges that the White House allowed Saudi royals and members of the bin Laden family to flee the country after 9/11, when all other flights had been grounded, have also been widely reported. But the bipartisan 9/11 commission has found that no Saudi planes left before air traffic officially resumed, and the FBI says none who left had terrorist ties. Richard Clarke, Bush’s former counterterrorism chief who is praised by Moore for taking on the Administration, has since said that he bears responsibility for allowing the Saudis to leave. Ian Cuthbertson, director of the Counter-Terrorism Project at the left-leaning World Policy Institute and critic of the President, says it was the right thing to do. “Keeping them here would have caused all kinds of problems,” says Cuthbertson of the potentially adverse effects on U.S.-Saudi relations. “There’s a genuine belief that to get anything done in the Middle East you need Saudi backing.”
•GEORGE H.W. BUSH’S FINANCIAL INTERESTS
Moore asserts that Bush-family finances prompted the invasion of Iraq, highlighting the fact that George H.W. Bush was once an adviser to the Carlyle Group, a private global investment firm that also owned a chunk of a defense contractor that manufactured U.S. Army vehicles used in the invasion. “Urban legend,” says a Carlyle spokesman, who says that to avoid a conflict of interest, the former President had no financial stake in any company that did business with the government. Still, few dispute that the presence at Carlyie of the former President and several members of his Cabinet bought it wide influence in Washington. “Access equals power,” says Allison.
•THE SEVEN-MINUTE VIDEO
Some believe Fahrenheit is at its most persuasive when there is less of Moore: There is strong footage of angst-ridden recruits in Iraq, a U.S. soldier fondling an Iraqi prisoner and a videotape of President Bush in a Florida elementary school classroom for nearly seven minutes after hearing that a second plane had struck the Twin Towers. The Administration told the 9/11 commission that the President was trying to project an air of calm, but some feel Moore’s camera tells a different story—one certain to enrage conservatives. Moore’s camp is ready to rumble. “If they disagree with something, they should come forward and say, ‘Here’s where this was wrong and why,’ ” says Cuomo of those who find fault with Fahrenheit. “Then we will all benefit, because the truth will come out.”
J.D. Heyman. Sandra Sobieraj and Robert Schlesinger in Washington, D.C., Kathy Ehrich in New York City, Wendy Grossman in Houston, Michael Haederle in Albuquerque, Oliver Jones in Los Angeles and Ellen Piligian in Flint