The Moment of Truth — July 3, 2004

Just Call Me Ishmael

Welcome to the Moment of Truth, the fragrant ambergris, essential attar of the sweetest of perfumes, anointer of regal foreheads, that lies at the center of the rotted corpse of the blasted cetacean politic.

I was sitting in the Strand Theatre, in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, watching Michael Moore’s “Farenheit 9/11.” The Strand looks like a place where 19th Century Methodists held camp meetings. It’s red, white and blue inside. A big VFW hall, maybe. The crowd was multi-ethnic and of all ages. It was a great place to see the film.

I was staying at the Pequot Hotel. The hotel is named after the same Indian tribe for which Hermann Melville named Captain Ahab’s whaling ship in Moby Dick. The Pequod in Moby Dick was also a multi-ethnic reflection of the best and worst reasons the USA unites peoples. There are a lot of allegorical and allusive connections to be made between the novel Moby Dick and the act of watching “Farenheit 9/11” in a colonial plywood barn of a theater with a demographically mixed audience on a Massachusetts Island. One might cast Moore as Ahab and Bush as the incarnation of pure malevolence. Or one might cast Bush as Ahab, on a megalomaniacal mission to destroy evil and dragging the ship of democracy down to destruction in the process. Or one might cast Michael Moore as the whale because he is fat and white.

All of the above would yield fruit for thought.

Let me preface what comes next with the following: There are a lot of critics rushing to point out exaggerations and to assert prevarication on the part of Moore. Lefty cartoonist Ted Rall says Moore makes too much of the airlift of Saudi royalty out of the country two days after the Trade Center massacre. He says it’s common practice to get foreign dignitaries out of the country if their lives are in danger. A moment’s reference to the obvious will call Rall’s judgment into question. The limited number of flights in general, the actual purpose of the visit of the so-called dignitaries, and their close business ties to the President, plus the fact that they were family members of the number one suspect in the crime yet were hustled off without even a cursory questioning, more than warrant Moore’s detailed focus on the airlift of the Bin Laden family. And Moore’s point that, had Clinton helped the family of a terrorist get out of the country, he would have been burned at the stake by the punditry is well taken, and justifies the close examination of the Bin Laden family evacuation in itself.

Many such nitpicky criticisms require detailed examination, albeit of perhaps well-publicized evidence, that Moore’s film itself codifies into easily referenced chunklets.

But back to the scene on Martha’s Vineyard in the Strand: The theater was packed, and during the movie about three people walked out, and I think two of them came back with popcorn. Fortuitously, the one person whom I know for sure left the theater in impatience if not disgust was sitting next to me. She was a teenage girl there with her friends. Her friends stayed. Before she left, though, I got a small clue as to why she found the documentary not to her liking.

On the screen, George W. Bush is staring into space as elementary school kids read a book. Chief of Staff Andrew Card comes over to him and whispers into his ear that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center, and that America is under attack.

The President, as we persist in calling him, continues to sit, staring into space, his eyes moving a little as if his brain is dipping in and out of REM sleep. It is now that the girl next to me hisses her criticism of the documentary:

“Well, what’s he SUPPOSED to do?”

About a half hour later, she went out to make a call on her cell, came back briefly to gesture to her friends, and left.

And I began composing in my head a letter requesting that I be given the Congressional Medal of Restraint for the fact that the imprint of my shoe heel was not forever embossed on that young woman’s forehead. Because my initial, and I think natural, instinct was to whip off my shoe and do the Nikita Kruschev one-step on that little civics-class reject’s noggin. I wanted to shake her till her thirtieth birthday, shouting, “What’s he supposed to do? He’s the President! The country’s under attack! He’s supposed to jump into action as commander in chief of the Armed Forces. You think Eisenhower would’ve just sat there for seven long minutes? You think Nixon would have? Clinton? Carter? I have no idea what Bush I, Ford, or Reagan would have done, but I have to think that Reagan at least would have wanted to do some Great Communicating. Do you not know what the President’s job is? Do you not know that the President is supposed to be so involved in the affairs of state that even the hint that we might be under attack should send him into a meeting with the Joint Chiefs?”

But I neither said nor did any of those things. I just ignored her. But her attitude, I’m afraid, is only the most extreme version of the way Bush’s supporters think about him and approach criticism aimed at him. Truth, reality, facts, logic ≠ these are all liberal strategies to make the President look bad. Facts and logic, truth and reality ≠ they’re un-American. And ever since Reagan, the President has been held to lower and lower standards of integrity, intelligence, talent, and job performance. The level of policy discourse in the US mainstream media is utterly puerile and without merit. I don’t think FOX News is entirely responsible for that degradation, but it’s certainly played a major roll.

Does the President really have a job? Is he actually supposed to do something during a national emergency, or is his duty only to tell us how to think about the emergency, to interpret it for us? Is the President merely the advertising spokesman for the agenda of the cronies in his cabinet? I think Republicans, despite what they might say, truly answer in their heart of hearts, “Yes, the President is the pitch man for the economic, cultural and imperial aspirations of the nation’s most ambitious Christians.”

Well, I disagree. And I’d be glad to put the imprint of my heel on the forehead of any Republican who wants it.

The thing Moore didn’t show in his film is the scene, later that day, when Bush and company are deposited by helicopter on the White House lawn. I remember watching that live on TV. It was after a long stretch of none of us knowing where the President was. His handlers had apparently decided that, just in case the nation survived this attack, it would be good for Bush to be able to look back and point to having had some kind of presence that day. And his handlers must have said, “People are going to think that you aren’t the master of your own agenda because you yourself didn’t realize the import of today’s events immediately. So, when you get off the helicopter, we’ll let you walk all by yourself from there across the lawn to the White House, and that will show you being strong and independent.”

But as Bush walked alone across the lawn, he looked weird. He looked out of the loop, as if he were the only one not discussing the urgent state of affairs. Clinton would have been conferring with someone; everyone else in the nation was talking to someone, or wanted to be; ANY OTHER President would have had a group of advisors around him, keeping him supplied with second-by-second reports on the progress of every facet of federal action. He would have been in the process of making decisions. He would have been on the job. But what do Republicans think? Why do they think Bush walked alone across the lawn? Do they think, “Well, what was he SUPPOSED to do?”

Because if that’s what they think, THEY’RE exactly the reason Michael Moore’s movie is necessary. It takes a great effort to put the obvious in such a form that even those who refuse to admit the obvious are forced to confront it. And in the so-called Red States, ticket sales and opinion interviews indicate that Americans across the political spectrum appreciate the effort.

When I came out of the Strand, the line for the next showing was wrapped around the block. For one evening, the reasonable members of our society had hope that the nation’s headlong pursuit of its own catastrophe might be interrupted for a while.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!