I'm still trying to make sense of this whole affair, but let's talk about what we know. There was a major red-carpet premiere in Washington DC for Michael Moore's new movie. Daschle, we know, attended. He also shut down the Senate to attend the film. Other Democratic leaders were there and so was Richard Ben-Veniste, the partisan hack that Daschle appointed to the 9/11 commission and who met regularly with Daschle during the 9/11 proceedings. According to Time magazine, after the movie Moore and Daschle hugged and Daschle promised to be more anti-war in the future. Today Daschle denied that happened to a South Dakota reporter and I tend to believe Daschle since Moore is such a gas-bag. We also know that Moore made fun of Daschle in the movie for being a rubber stamp for Bush. If Moore lied about the hug and given the fact that Moore made fun of Daschle in the movie, why doesn't Daschle tell him off? Why hasn't this been a Joseph Welch moment for Daschle. We've have demagogic menaces before in American politics, of course, and Senator McCarthy and all his absurd charges leap to mind, including his charge that the US Army was full of communists. Joseph Welch, an attorney for the US Army, crystallized the frustration of politicians who had been too weak and scared to speak out against McCarthy during the hearings: "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" My interpretation of this whole mess is that Daschle is too weak to take the high road and denounce Moore. His hold on power depends upon the crazies in the Michael Moore/Deaniac base of the party, which, as The Economist, US News, and dozens of commentators have noted, means that Daschle caters to the nuts, which is a dangerous thing for a major party and our polity in general. Consider that Michael Moore thinks the terrorists who are killing our troops in Iraq every day are "Minutemen." Consider that Michael Moore considers all Americans "dumb." As I've noted before, the editors of the Wall Street Journal called Moore the “Leni Riefenstahl of our time.” 6-28-04. Frank Rich, the liberal New York Times columnist, concluded that Moore could justifiably be compared to Joseph Goebbels and noted that “Mr. Moore is not aspiring to journalistic objectivity when he stirs Prince Bandar, various bin Ladens, the Carlyle Group and the Bush family into a malevolent conspiracy of grassy-knoll dimensions.” 6-27-04. Newsweek said “Moore twists and bends available facts and makes glaring omissions in ways that end up clouding the serious political debate he wants to provoke.” 6-30-04. Moore’s personal comments are even more disturbing. In London, Moore said Americans “are possibly the dumbest people on the planet,” “suffer from an enforced ignorance,” and “our stupidity is embarrassing.” He also lashed out at the US for being “culpable in committing so many acts of terror and bloodshed.” On the Iraq war, he boiled down the justification for a Japanese newspaper: “The motivation for war is simple. The U.S. government started the war with Iraq in order to make it easy for US corporations to do business in other countries. They intend to use cheap labor in those countries, which will make Americans rich.” NY Times, 6-26-04.
What made the Moore movie so consequential--and so scary--was its open embrace by the Democratic Party. Senator Daschle stopped work in the Senate on a defense appropriations bill so Senators and staffers could attend the premiere. Daschle, Senator Barbara Boxer, and DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe attended the premiere, “applauding throughout and giving Moore a standing ovation when it was over,” according to the New Republic. 6-24-04. Senator Bob Graham told the New York Times that “there might be half the Democratic Senate here.” Jason Zengerle of the New Republic noted that the Democrats in the past “kept Moore at arm’s length, deeming him too controversial and mercurial to be of much political use,” but that changed after Moore’s attack on the President as a “deserter” during the New Hampshire primary seemed to make the issue stick and Moore seemed useful to the general cause of shredding Bush. After the movie, Terry McAuliffe said “I think anyone who sees this movie will come out en masse to make sure John Kerry is elected president this November. Credit to Michael Moore for taking time to put this together.” 6-24-04. David Brooks noted in The New York Times that in previous decades “American liberals have had to settle for intellectual and moral leadership from the likes of John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” but now the “liberal grandees Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ted Sorenson, Tom Harkin and Barbara Boxer flock to [Moore’s] openings.” Brooks says the “standards of socially acceptable liberal opinion have shifted.” 6-26-04. Andrew Ferguson thinks the “embrace of Moore’s crackpottery is great news for Moore, very bad news for Democrats – just as the GOP’s kooky flirtations under Clinton did damage it has yet to recover from.” Bloomberg.com, 7-1-04.
Christopher Hitchens latched onto the core inconsistencies in the movie, what he calls the “’let’s have it both ways’ opportunism.” In 2002, Moore thought it wrong for the imperial US to topple to Taliban. Now Moore thinks it irresponsible that more troops weren’t sent. While attacking the Bush administration for creating a climate of domestic fear and trampling civil liberties, Moore then derides the administration for woefully underfunding homeland security and for not implementing more vigorous airline security programs. Saddam’s 30-years of crimes in Iraq aren’t mentioned and in “Moore’s flabbergasting choice of film shots, children are flying little kites, shoppers are smiling in the sunshine, and the gentle rhythms of life are undisturbed.” Slate, 6-21-04. Andrew Sullivan took columnist William Raspberry to task for his inconsistent applauding of Moore’s “sly” movie for reaching the right conclusion but also concluding that it was dishonest: “Raspberry cannot have it both ways. And the fact that he tries to get away with it says a lot about how corrupted the left has become in our national discourse.” New Republic, 6-29-04. And how little leadership the Democratic Senate leader actually exercised.
Despite the absurdity of the movie and the damage it did to public understanding of the war and our standing in the world (it was the first American “documentary” the Chinese ever allowed to be shown in communist China), Daschle said nothing critical. After the movie, Daschle’s enlightening comment was that “Michael Moore obviously intends to spark debate.” It would have been simple for Daschle to be critical since in the movie Moore portrays him as a feeble enabler of President Bush. The Washington Post noted that “Moore hardly spares mainstream Democrats. He calls the party ‘weak-kneed and wimpy.’” 6-25-04. A denunciation of the movie could have been a Joseph Welch (or, if you prefer, a Sister Souljah) moment for Daschle, who in May denounced the “startling meanness” in American politics, and an opportunity for him to distance his party from the militant and irrational left. But Daschle did nothing, thus empowering the conspiracy theorists, perpetuating political “meanness,” preserving his own hold on power by not alienating the Michael Moore/Howard Dean base of his party, and displaying a disturbing absence of moral courage. It was a failure of leadership driven by the calculus of surviving as Democratic leader in the face of pressure from the leftist base which wants Daschle toppled as leader. At least I assume that’s Daschle’s calculus. If Daschle actually believes Michael Moore, that is a much scarier prospect. But I can't believe Daschle actually believes Michael Moore. He just wants to hold onto power despite the degrading effect on our politics and the ultimate goal of succeeding against the odds and creating a stable democracy in the Middle East. Now, we remember who stood up to the likes of McCarthy. In the future, we'll also remember who catered to Michael Moore.