Michael Moore: I was the most hated man in America
In his 2003 Oscar acceptance speech, Michael Moore denounced President Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Overnight he became the most hated man in America. In an exclusive extract from his new book, Here Comes Trouble, he tells of the bomb threats, bodyguards and how he fought back
Michael Moore. Photograph: Scott McDermott
Michael Moore, guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 7 September 2011 20.00 BST
‘I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it … No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out [of him]. Is this wrong? I stopped wearing my ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ band, and I’ve lost all sense of right and wrong now. I used to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I’d kill Michael Moore’, and then I’d see the little band: What Would Jesus Do? And then I’d realise, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t kill Michael Moore. Or at least you wouldn’t choke him to death.’ And you know, well, I’m not sure.”
Glenn Beck, live on the Glenn Beck show, 17 May 2005
Wishes for my early demise seemed to be everywhere. They were certainly on the mind of CNN’s Bill Hemmer one sunny July morning in 2004. Holding a microphone in front of my face on the floor of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, live on CNN, he asked me what I thought about how the American people were feeling about Michael Moore: “I’ve heard people say they wish Michael Moore were dead.” Hemmer said it like he was simply stating the obvious, like, “of course they want to kill you!” He just assumed his audience already understood this truism, as surely as they accept that the sun rises in the east and corn comes on a cob.
To be fair to Hemmer, I was not unaware that my movies had made a lot of people mad. It was not unusual for fans to randomly come up and hug me and say, “I’m so happy you’re still here!” They didn’t mean in the building.
Why was I still alive? For more than a year there had been threats, intimidation, harassment and even assaults in broad daylight. It was the first year of the Iraq war, and I was told by a top security expert (who is often used by the federal government for assassination prevention) that “there is no one in America other than President Bush who is in more danger than you”.
How on earth did this happen? Had I brought this on myself? Of course I had. And I remember the moment it all began.
It was the night of 23 March 2003. Four nights earlier, George Bush had invaded Iraq. This was an illegal, immoral, stupid invasion – but that was not how Americans saw it. More than 70% of the public backed the war. And on the fourth night of this very popular war, my film Bowling for Columbine was up for an Academy Award. I went to the ceremony but was not allowed, along with any of the nominees, to talk to the press while walking down the red carpet into Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre. There was the fear that someone might say something – and in wartime we need everyone behind the war effort and on the same page.
The actress Diane Lane came on to the stage and read the list of nominees for best documentary. The envelope was opened, and she announced with unbridled glee that I had won the Oscar. The main floor, filled with the Oscar-nominated actors, directors and writers, leapt to its feet and gave me a very long standing ovation. I had asked the nominees from the other documentary films to join me on the stage in case I won, and they did. The ovation finally ended, and then I spoke: “I’ve invited my fellow documentary nominees on the stage with us. They are here in solidarity with me because we like non-fiction. We like non-fiction, yet we live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it’s the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of orange alerts: we are against this war, Mr Bush. Shame on you, Mr Bush. Shame on you! And anytime you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up! Thank you very much.”
About halfway through these remarks, all hell broke loose. There were boos, very loud boos, from the upper floors and from backstage. (A few – Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep – tried to cheer me on from their seats, but they were no match.) The producer of the show ordered the orchestra to start playing to drown me out. The microphone started to descend into the floor. A giant screen with huge red letters began flashing in front of me: “YOUR TIME IS UP!” It was pandemonium, to say the least, and I was whisked off the stage.
A little known fact: the first two words every Oscar winner hears right after you win the Oscar and leave the stage come from two attractive young people in evening wear hired by the Academy to immediately greet you behind the curtain. So while calamity and chaos raged on in the Kodak, this young woman in her designer gown stood there, unaware of the danger she was in, and said the following word to me: “Champagne?” And she held out a flute of champagne.
The young man in his smart tuxedo standing next to her then immediately followed up with this: “Breathmint?” And he held out a breathmint.
Champagne and breathmint are the first two words all Oscar winners hear. But, lucky me, I got to hear a third. An angry stagehand came right up to the side of my head, screaming as loud as he could in my ear: “ASSHOLE!”
Other burly, pissed-off stagehands started toward me. I clutched my Oscar like a weapon, holding it like a lone man trapped and surrounded in the woods, his only hope being the torch he is swinging madly at the approaching vampires. All I felt at that moment was alone, that I was nothing more than a profound and total disappointment.
That night I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and turned on the TV. For the next hour I watched the local TV stations do their Oscar night wrap-up shows – and as I flipped between the channels, I listened to one pundit after another question my sanity, criticise my speech and say, over and over, in essence: “I don’t know what got into him!”
“He sure won’t have an easy time in this town after that stunt!” “Who does he think will make another movie with him now?” “Talk about career suicide!” After an hour of this, I turned off the TV and went online, where there was more of the same, only worse – from all over America. I began to get sick. I could see the writing on the wall – it was curtains for me as a film-maker. I turned off the computer and I turned off the lights and I sat there in the chair in the dark, going over and over what I had done. Good job, Mike. And good riddance.
Bombarded with hatred
When we got back to our home in northern Michigan, the local beautification committee had dumped three truckloads of horse manure waist-high in our driveway so that we wouldn’t be able to enter our property – a property which, by the way, was freshly decorated with a dozen or so signs nailed to our trees: GET OUT! MOVE TO CUBA! COMMIE SCUM! TRAITOR! LEAVE NOW OR ELSE!
I had no intention of leaving.
The hate mail after the Oscar speech was so voluminous, it almost seemed as if Hallmark had opened a new division where greeting card writers were assigned the task of penning odes to my passing. (“For a Special Motherfucker …” “Get Well Soon from Your Mysterious Car Accident!” “Here’s to a Happy Stroke!”)
The phone calls to my house were actually creepier. It’s a whole different fright machine when a human voice is attached to the madness and you think: “This person literally risked arrest to say this over a phone line!” You had to admire the balls – or insanity – of that.
But the worst moments were when people came on to our property. These individuals would just walk down the driveway, always looking like rejects from the cast of Night of the Living Dead, never moving very fast, but always advancing with singleminded purposefulness. Few were actual haters; most were just crazy. We kept the sheriff’s deputies busy until they finally suggested we might want to get our own security, or perhaps our own police force. Which we did.
We met with the head of the top security agency in the country, an elite outfit that did not hire ex-cops, nor any “tough guys” or bouncer-types. They preferred to use only Navy Seals and other ex–Special Forces. Guys who had a cool head and who could take you out with a piece of dental floss in a matter of nanoseconds. By the end of the year, due to the alarming increase of threats and attempts on me, I had nine ex-Seals surrounding me, round-the-clock.
Fahrenheit 9/11: the fightback
After the Oscar riot and the resulting persona-non-grata status I held as the most hated man in America, I decided to do what anyone in my position would do: make a movie suggesting the president of the United States is a war criminal.
I mean, why take the easy road? It was already over for me, anyway. The studio that had promised to fund my next film had called up after the Oscar speech and said that they were backing out of their signed contract with me – if I didn’t like it, I could go fuck myself. Fortunately, another studio picked up the deal but cautioned that perhaps I should be careful not to piss off the ticket-buying public. The owner of the studio had backed the invasion of Iraq. I told him I had already pissed off the ticket-buying public, so why don’t we just make the best movie possible, straight from the heart – and, well, if nobody liked that, there was always straight-to-video.
In the midst of all this turmoil I began shooting Fahrenheit 9/11. I told everyone on my crew to operate as if this was going to be the last job we were ever going to have in the movie business. This wasn’t meant to be an inspirational speech – I really believed that this was going to be it. And so we spent the next 11 months putting together our cinematic indictment of an administration and a country gone mad.
The release of the film in 2004, just a little more than a year after the start of the war, came at a time when the vast majority of Americans still backed the war. We premiered it at the Cannes film festival, where we were awarded the top prize, the Palme d’Or, by an international jury headed by Quentin Tarantino. It was the first time in nearly 50 years a documentary had won the prize.
This initial overwhelming response to Fahrenheit 9/11 spooked the Bush White House, convincing those in charge of his re-election campaign that a movie could be the tipping point that might bring them down. They hired a pollster to find out the effect the film would have on voters. After screening the movie with three different audiences in three separate cities, the news Karl Rove received was not good. The movie was not only giving a much-needed boost to the Democratic base (who were wild about the film), it was, oddly, having a distinct effect also on female Republican voters.
The studio’s own polling had already confirmed that an amazing one-third of Republican voters – after watching the movie – said they would recommend the film to other people. But the White House pollster reported something even more dangerous – 10% of Republican females said that after watching Fahrenheit 9/11, they had decided to either vote for John Kerry or to just stay home. In an election that could be decided by only a few percentage points, this was devastating news.
The movie would go on to open at No 1 all across North America. And, to make matters worse for the White House, it opened at No 1 in all 50 states, even in the deep south. It opened at No 1 in military towns such as Fort Bragg. Soldiers and their families were going to see it and, by many accounts, it became the top bootleg watched by the troops in Iraq. It broke the box office record long held by the Star Wars film Return of the Jedi for the largest opening weekend ever for a film that opened on 1,000 screens or less. It was, in the verbiage of Variety, major boffo, a juggernaut.
And in doing all of that, it had made me a target.
The attacks on me that followed were like mad works of fiction, crazy, madeup stuff that I refused to respond to because I didn’t want to dignify the noise. On TV, on the radio, in op-eds, on the internet – everywhere – it was suggested that Michael Moore hates America, he’s a liar, a conspiracy nut and a croissant-eater. The campaign against me was meant to stop too many Republicans from seeing the film.
And it worked. Of course, it also didn’t help that Kerry was a lousy candidate. Bush won by one state, Ohio.
There was a residual damage from all the hate speech generated toward me by the Republican pundits. It had the sad and tragic side-effect of unhinging the already slightly unglued. And so my life went from receiving scribbly little hate notes to fullout attempted physical assaults – and worse.
Living with bodyguards
The ex–Navy Seals moved in with us. When I walked down a public sidewalk they would have to form a circle around me. At night they wore night-vision goggles and other special equipment that I’m convinced few people outside CIA headquarters have ever seen.
The agency protecting me had a threat assessment division. Their job was to investigate anyone who had made a credible threat against me. One day, I asked to see the file. The man in charge began reading me the list of names and the threats they had made and the level of threat that the agency believed each one posed. After he went through the first dozen, he stopped and asked: “Do you really want to keep going? There are 429 more.”
I could no longer go out in public without an incident happening. It started with small stuff, such as people in a restaurant asking to be moved to a different table when I was seated next to them, or a taxi driver who would stop his cab in mid-traffic to scream at me. The verbal abuse soon turned physical, and the Seals were now on high alert. For security reasons, I will not go into too much detail here, partly on the advice of the agency and partly because I don’t want to give these criminals any more of the attention they were seeking:
• In Nashville, a man with a knife leapt up on the stage and started coming toward me. The Seal grabbed him from behind by his belt loop and collar and slung him off the front of the stage to the cement floor below. Someone had to mop up the blood after the Seals took him away.
• In Fort Lauderdale, a man in a nice suit saw me on the sidewalk and went crazy. He took the lid off his hot, scalding coffee and threw it at my face. The Seal saw this happening but did not have the extra half-second needed to grab the guy, so he put his own face in front of mine and took the hit. The coffee burned his face so badly, we had to take him to the hospital (he had second-degree burns) – but not before the Seal took the man face down to the pavement, placing his knee painfully in the man’s back, and putting him in cuffs.
• In New York City, while I was holding a press conference outside one of the cinemas showing Fahrenheit 9/11, a man walking by saw me, became inflamed, and pulled the only weapon he had on him out of his pocket – a very sharp and pointed graphite pencil. As he lunged to stab me with it, the Seal saw him and, in the last split second, put his hand up between me and the oncoming pencil. The pencil went right into the Seal’s hand. You ever see a Navy Seal get stabbed? The look on their face is the one we have when we discover we’re out of shampoo. The pencil-stabber probably became a convert to the paperless society that day, once the Seal was done with him and his 16th-century writing device.
The lone bomber
And then there was Lee James Headley. Sitting alone at home in Ohio, Lee had big plans. The world, according to his diary, was dominated and being ruined by liberals. His comments read like the talking points of any given day’s episode of The Rush Limbaugh Show. And so Lee made a list. It was a short list of the people who had to go. At the top of the list was his No1 target: “Michael Moore”. Beside my name he wrote, “MARKED” (as in “marked for death”, he would later explain).
Throughout the spring of 2004, Headley accumulated a huge amount of assault weapons, a cache of thousands of rounds of ammunition, and various bomb-making materials. He bought The Anarchist’s Cookbook and the race-war novel The Turner Diaries. His notebooks contained diagrams of rocket launchers and bombs, and he would write over and over: “Fight, fight, fight, kill, kill, kill!”
But one night in 2004, he accidentally fired off a round inside his home from one of his AK-47s. A neighbour heard the shot and called the police. The cops arrived and found the treasure trove of weapons, ammo and bomb-making materials. And his hit list.
I got the call some days later from the security agency.
“We need to tell you that the police have in custody a man who was planning to blow up your house. You’re in no danger now.”
I got very quiet. I tried to process what I just heard: I’m … in … no … danger … now. For me, it was the final straw. I broke down. My wife was already in her own state of despair over the loss of the life we used to have. I asked myself again: what had I done to deserve this? Made a movie? A movie led someone to want to blow up my home? What happened to writing a letter to the editor?
As the months wore on, even after Bush’s re-election, the constant drumbeat against me only intensified. When Glenn Beck said that he was thinking of killing me, he was neither fined by the broadcasting regulator nor arrested by the NYPD. He was, essentially, making a call to have me killed, and no one in the media at that time reported it.
And then a man trespassed on our property and left something outside our bedroom window when I wasn’t home. It terrorised my wife. He even videotaped himself doing this.
When the police investigated, he said he was making a “documentary”. He called it Shooting Michael Moore. And when you went to his website, and the words Shooting Michael Moore came on the screen, the sound of a gunshot went off. The media ate it up, and he was asked to appear on many TV shows (such as Fox News host Sean Hannity’s). “Coming up next – he’s giving Michael Moore a taste of his own medicine! Moore now has somebody after him!” (Cue SFX: KA-BOOM!) He then provided video and maps of how to illegally get on to our property.
I will not share with you the impact this had, at that time, on my personal life, but suffice it to say I would not wish this on anyone. More than once I have asked myself if all this work was really worth it. And, if I had it to do over again, would I? If I could take back that Oscar speech and just walk up on the stage and thank my agent and tuxedo designer and get off without another word, would I? If it meant that my family would not have to worry about their safety and that I would not be living in constant danger – well, I ask you, what would you do? You know what you would do.
President Bush to the rescue
For the next two and a half years, I didn’t leave the house much. From January 2005 to May 2007, I did not appear on a single TV show. I stopped going on college tours. I just took myself off the map. The previous year I had spoken at more than 50 campuses. For the two years following that, I spoke at only one. I stayed close to home and worked on some local town projects in Michigan where I lived. And then to my rescue rode President Bush. He said something that helped snap me out of it. I had heard him say it before, but this time when I heard him, I felt like he was speaking directly to me. He said: “If we give in to the terrorists, the terrorists win.” And he was right. His terrorists were winning! Against me! What was I doing sitting inside the house? I opened up the blinds, folded up my pity party, and went back to work. I made three films in three years, threw myself into getting Barack Obama elected, and helped toss two Republican congressmen from Michigan out of office. I set up a popular website, and I was elected to the board of governors of the same Academy Awards that had booed me.
I chose not to give up. I wanted to give up, badly. Instead I got fit. If you take a punch at me now, I can assure you three things will happen: 1) You will break your hand. That’s the beauty of spending just a half hour a day on your muscular-skeletal structure – it turns into kryptonite; 2) I will fall on you. I’m still working on my core and balance issues, so after you slug me I will tip over and crush you; 3) My Seals will spray mace or their own homemade concoction of jalapeño spider spray directly into your eye sockets while you are on the ground. As a pacifist, please accept my apologies in advance – and never, ever use violence against me or anyone else again.
Eventually I found myself back on The Tonight Show for the first time in a while. As I was leaving the stage, the guy who was operating the boom microphone approached me.
“You probably don’t remember me,” he said nervously. “I never thought I would ever see you again or get the chance to talk to you. I can’t believe I get to do this.”
Do what? I thought. I braced myself for the man’s soon-to-be-broken hand.
“I never thought I’d get to apologise to you,” he said, as a few tears started to come into his eyes. “I’m the guy who ruined your Oscar night. I’m the guy who yelled ‘ASSHOLE’ into your ear right after you came off the stage. I … I … [he tried to compose himself]. I thought you were attacking the president – but you were right. He did lie to us. And I’ve had to carry this with me now all these years, and I’m so sorry …”
By now he was starting to fall apart, and all I could think to do was to reach out and give him a huge hug.
“It’s OK, man,” I said, a big smile on my face. “I accept your apology. But you do not need to apologise to me. You believed your president! You’re supposed to believe your president! If we can’t expect that as just the minimum from whoever’s in office, then, shit, we’re doomed.”
“Thank you,” he said, relieved. “Thank you for understanding.”
“Understanding?” I said. “This isn’t about understanding. I’ve told this funny story for years now, about the first two words you hear when you’re an Oscar winner – and how I got to hear a bonus word! Man, don’t take that story away from me! People love it!” He laughed, and I laughed.
“Yeah,” he said, “there aren’t many good stories like that.”
Extracted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life by Michael Moore, to be published by Allen Lane on 19 September at £20. To order a copy for £16 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846. Moore will be performing live dates in the UK and Ireland from 16-25 October. See www.michaelmoorelive.com for details.