Excerpted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life by Michael Moore
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 realize, "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.
live on the Glenn Beck program,
May 17, 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. He had heard something he wanted to run by me. And so, 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."
I tried to recall if I'd ever heard a journalist ask anyone that question before on live television. Dan Rather did not ask Saddam Hussein that question. I'm pretty sure Stone Phillips didn't ask serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, either. Perhaps, maybe, Larry King asked Liza once — but I don't think so.
For some reason, though, it was perfectly OK to pose that possibility to me, a guy whose main offense was to make documentaries. 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.
I didn't know how to respond. I tried to make light of it. But as I stood there I couldn't get over what he had just said live on a network that goes out to 120 countries and Utah. This "journalist" had possibly planted a sick idea into some deranged mind, some angry dittohead sitting at home microwaving his doughnut-and-bacon cheeseburger while his kitchen TV (one of five in the house) is accidentally on CNN: "Well, more chilly weather today across the Ohio Valley, a cat in Philadelphia rolls its own sushi, and coming up, there are people who want Michael Moore dead!"
Hemmer wasn't finished with his dose of derision. He wanted to know who gave me these credentials to be here.
"The DNC [Democratic National Committee] did not invite you here, is that right?" Hemmer asked, as if he were some cop checking ID, something I'm sure he would ask no one else attending the convention that week.
"No," I said, "the Congressional Black Caucus invited me here." My anger was building, so I added, for effect, "Those black congressmen, you know." The interview ended.
Over the next few minutes, off air, I just stood there and glared at him as other reporters asked me questions. Hemmer went over to be interviewed by some blogger. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I walked back up to him and said, with Dirty Harry calm, "That is absolutely the most despicable thing ever said to me on live television."
He told me not to interrupt him and to wait until he was done talking to the blogger. Sure, punk, I can wait.
And then, when I wasn't looking, he slipped away. But there would be nowhere for him to hide! He took refuge inside the Arkansas delegation — the refuge of all scoundrels! — but I found him, and I got right up in his face.
"You made my death seem acceptable," I said. "You just told someone it was OK to kill me."
He tried to back away, but I blocked him in. "I want you to think about your actions if anything ever happens to me. Don't think my family won't come after you, because they will." He mumbled something about his right to ask me anything he wanted, and I decided it wasn't worth breaking my lifelong record of never striking another human, certainly not some weasel from cable news (Save it for Meet the Press, Mike!). Hemmer broke loose and got away. Within the year he would leave CNN and move to Fox News, where he should have been in the first place.
To be fair to Mr. 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 over 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 did. And I remember the moment it all began.
It was the night of March 23, 2003. Four nights earlier, George W. Bush had invaded Iraq, a sovereign country that not only had not attacked us, but was, in fact, the past recipient of military aid from the United States. This was an illegal, immoral, stupid invasion—but that was not how Americans saw it. Over 70 percent of the public backed the war, including liberals like Al Franken and the twenty-nine Democratic senators who voted for the war authorization act (among them Senators Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, and John Kerry). Other liberal war cheerleaders included New York Times columnist and editor Bill Keller and the editor of the liberal magazine the New Yorker, David Remnick. Even liberals like Nicholas Kristof of the Times hopped on the bandwagon pushing the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Kristof praised Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell for "adroitly" proving that Iraq had WMDs. He wrote this after Powell presented phony evidence to the United Nations. The Times ran many bogus front-page stories about how Saddam Hussein had these weapons of mass destruction. They later apologized for their drumbeating this war into existence. But the damage had been done. The New York Times had given Bush the cover he needed and the ability to claim, heck, if a liberal paper like the Times says so, it must be true!
And now, here it was, the fourth night of a very popular war, and my film, Bowling for Columbine, was up for the 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 Oscar 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 nonfiction. We like nonfiction, 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, Gil Cates, 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 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:
Other burly, pissed-off stagehands started toward me. I clutched my Oscar like a weapon, holding it like a sheriff trying to keep back an angry mob, or a lone man trapped and surrounded in the woods, his only hope being the torch he is swinging madly at the approaching vampires.
The ever-alert security backstage saw the rumble that was about to break out, so they quickly took me by the arm and moved me to a safer place. I was shaken, rattled, and, due to the overwhelming negative reaction to my speech, instead of enjoying the moment of a lifetime, I suddenly sunk into a pit of despair. I was convinced I had blown it and let everyone down: my fans, my dad out in the audience, those sitting at home, the Oscar organization, my crew, my wife, Kathleen—anyone who meant anything to me. It felt like at that moment I had ruined their night, that I had tried to make a simple point but had blundered. What I didn't understand then—what I couldn't have known, even with a thousand crystal balls — was that it had to start somewhere, someone had to say it, and while I didn't plan on it being me (I just wanted to meet Diane Lane and Halle Berry!), this night would later be seen as the first small salvo of what would become, over time, a cacophony of anger over the actions of George W. Bush. The boos, in five years' time, would go the other way, and the nation would set aside its past and elect a man who looked absolutely like no one who was booing me that night.
I understood none of this, though, on March 23, 2003. All I knew was that I had said something that was not supposed to be said. Not at the Oscars, not anywhere. You know what I speak of, fellow Americans. You remember what it was like during that week, that month, that year, when no one dared speak a word of dissent against the war effort—and if you did, you were a traitor and a troop hater! All of this elevated Orwell's warnings to a new height of dark perfection, because the real truth was that the only people who hated the troops were those who would put them into this unnecessary war in the first place.
But none of this mattered to me as I was hidden away backstage at the Oscars. All I felt at that moment was alone, that I was nothing more than a profound and total disappointment.
An hour later, when we walked into the Governors Ball, the place grew immediately silent, and people stepped away for fear their picture would be taken with me. Variety would later write that "Michael Moore might have had the briefest gap between career high and career low in show business history." The Oscar-winning producer Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus) was quoted as saying, "He made a fool of himself."
So there I stood, at the entrance of the Governors Ball, alone with my wife, shunned by the Hollywood establishment. It was then that I saw the head of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing, walking determinedly up the center aisle toward me. Ah, yes — so this was how it would all end. I was about to be dressed down by the most powerful person in town. For over two decades, Ms. Lansing ran Fox, and then Paramount. I prepared myself for the public humiliation of being asked to leave by the dean of studio heads. I stood there, my shoulders hunched, my head bowed, ready for my execution.
And that was when Sherry Lansing walked right up to me, and gave me a big, generous kiss on my cheek.
"Thank you," she said. "It hurts now. Someday you'll be proved right. I'm so proud of you." And then she hugged me, in full view of Hollywood's elite. Statement made. Robert Friedman, Lansing's number two at Paramount (and a man who years ago had helped convince Warner Bros. to buy my first film, Roger & Me) hugged my wife and then grabbed my hand and shook it hard.
And that was pretty much it for the rest of the night. Sherry Lansing's public display of unexpected solidarity kept the haters at bay, but few others wanted to risk association. After all, everyone knew the war would be over in a few weeks — and no one wanted to be remembered for being on the wrong side! We sat quietly at our table and ate our roast beef. We decided to skip the parties and went back to the hotel where our friends and family were waiting. And as it turned out, they were anything but disappointed. We sat in the living room of our suite and everyone took turns holding the Oscar and making their Oscar speeches. It was sweet and touching, and I wished they had been up there on that stage instead of me.
My wife went to bed, but 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, criticize 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 filmmaker. I bought everything that was being said about me. 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.
Over the next twenty-four hours I got to listen to more boos: Walking through the hotel lobby, where Robert Duvall complained to management that my presence was causing a commotion ("He did not like the smell of Michael Moore in the morning," one of my crew would later crack to me), and going through the airport (where, in addition to the jeers, Homeland Security officials purposefully keyed my Oscar, scratching long lines into its gold plate). On the plane ride to Detroit, hate took up at least a dozen rows.
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.
* * * * *
Two years before the Oscars and before the war, in a calmer, more innocent time — March 2001 — I received an envelope one day in the mail. It was addressed to "Michael Moore."
And the return address? "From: Michael Moore."
After pausing a moment to consider the Escher-esque nature of what was in my hand, I opened the letter. It read:
Dear Mr. Moore, I'm hoping when you saw that this
letter was from you—not really!—that you might open it. My name is also Michael Moore. I have never heard of you until last night. I am on Death Row in Texas and am scheduled for execution later this month. They showed us your movie last night, Canadian Bacon, and I saw your name and I saw that we had the same name! I never saw my name in a movie before! You probably never saw your name in a headline, "MICHAEL MOORE TO BE EXECUTED." I am hoping you can help me. I do not want to die. I did something terrible which
I regret but killing me will not solve anything or undo what I did. I did not receive a best defense. My court-appointed lawyer fell asleep during the trial. I am appealing one last time to the Texas Prison Board. Can you use your influence to help me? I believe I should pay for my crime. But not by killing me. Below are the names of my new attorneys and the people who are helping me. Please do what you can. And I like your movie! Funny!
I sat and stared at this letter for the longest time. That night I had a bad dream. I was at the execution of Michael Moore—and, needless to say, I didn't want to be there. I tried to get out of the room but they had locked the door. Michael Moore started laughing. "Hey! You're next, good buddy!" I froze in place, and as they administered the lethal injection, he would not take his dying eyes off me as his life expired.
The following day I called the anti–death penalty advocates who were helping him. I offered to do whatever I could. They told me that things seemed pretty hopeless — after all, this was Texas, and no one gets a stay or a pardon from the governor here—but they were filing one last appeal nonetheless. They said I could write a letter to the governor or the Court of Criminal Appeals.
I did more than that. I began a letter-writing drive on my website and appealed to the half-million people on my e-mail list to help me. I spoke out publicly against Michael Moore's execution. I told people the story of a young man, a Navy veteran of nine years, who was severely abused as a child and never mentally recovered from the abuse. Now at the age of thirty, he kept a notebook of the high school girls in town he liked to stalk. One night he thought he would sneak into one of the girls' homes and steal what he could. She wasn't home. Her mother was. He was drunk and he freaked out and killed her. Pulled over an hour later for a traffic violation, he volunteered to the police (who were unaware a murder had been committed) that he had just done something bad. And that was that. He got a lousy lawyer (who, to his credit, filed a statement on behalf of his appeal, admitting he didn't do a good job for Michael) and a quick trial. Michael Moore was found guilty and given the maximum sentence: death.
Thousands responded to my appeal to stop the execution of Michael Moore. The Texas governor and prison board were deluged with letters and calls from people protesting his killing.
And then something unusual happened: on the day before he was to be put to death, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution for Michael Moore. Michael Moore to live! In Texas! Unbelievable. No, really, unbelievable.
I can't describe the relief I felt. Michael Moore wrote me another letter, thanking me. But now the hard work of the real appeal would begin.
And then 9/11 happened. You know the cliché "9/11 changed everything"? This was one of those things. Compassion for killers went way out the window. It was killing time in America, and if an innocent man could be killed while eating a danish during a business meeting 106 floors above Manhattan, then a murderer in Texas certainly could not expect to be kept alive. Kill or be killed was all that mattered to us; we were now a people ready to go to war, anywhere, one war after another, if need be. You would soon be able to sum us up the way D. H. Lawrence once did: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer."
Plans for the execution of Michael Moore were placed on the fast track. All appeals were rejected. Michael put me on the list to attend his execution — if I so chose to come. I could not. I could not go to Texas and watch Michael Moore die. I wanted to be there for him, but I simply couldn't do it.
At 6:34 p.m. on January 17, 2002, Michael Moore became the first execution of the year in the state of Texas.
And yes, the headline read: MICHAEL MOORE EXECUTED.
* * * * *
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. At that time we had no fence, no infrared cameras, no dogs with titanium teeth, no electrocution devices. So 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, no-fucking-around outfit that did not hire ex-cops ("Why are they ex-cops? Exactly."), nor any "tough guys" or bouncer-types. They preferred to use only Navy SEALs and other ex–Special Forces, like Army Rangers. Guys who had a cool head and who could take you out with a piece of dental floss in a matter of nanoseconds. They had to go through an additional nine-week boot camp with the agency to work for them. They already knew how to kill quietly and quickly with perfection; now they would also learn how to save a life.
I started by having the agency send me one of their ex-SEALs. By the end of the year, due to the alarming increase of threats and attempts on me, I had nine of them surrounding me, round-the-clock. They were mostly black and Hispanic (you had to volunteer to be on my detail, thus the lopsided but much-appreciated demographic). I got to know them well and, suffice it to say, when you live with nine hardcore SEALs who also happen to like you and what you do, you learn a lot about how to "floss."
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—and 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. My crew found Bush White House footage that the networks wouldn't run. I lifted it from their news departments because I thought the people had a right to see the truth.* 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, that we were lucky to even be making Fahrenheit considering all that had rained down on me. So let's just make the movie we want to make and not worry about our "careers." Careers are overrated anyway! And so we spent the next eleven months putting together our cinematic indictment of an administration and a country gone mad.
The release of the film in 2004, just a little over 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 after the Walt Disney Company had done everything it could to stop the film's release (our distributor, Miramax Films, was owned by Disney). We went to the New York Times with the story of how they were silencing the movie, and the Times, still smarting from the revelation that their pre–Iraq invasion stories were false, put the whole sordid affair on the front page. That saved us and the film, and we got to Cannes—where the movie received the longest standing ovation in the festival's history. 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 fifty 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 reelection 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. The film had tiptoed across the partisan line. But the White House pollster reported something even more dangerous: 10 percent 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 Bush campaign was strongly advised to get out ahead of the movie and make sure their base never even thought about checking it out. "You must stop them from entering the theater. Republicans and independents must not see this movie." Because if they did, a certain, small percentage of them would not be able to overcome their "emotional" reaction to the death and destruction the movie attributed to George W. Bush. Although they knew most Republicans would dismiss the movie sight unseen, nothing could be left to chance. The pollster himself sat in the back at the screenings and saw firsthand what he called "the fatal blows" the film delivered, especially when it went to a scene with the mother of a deceased American soldier. It was too devastating for a small but significant part of the audience. "If we lose the November election," he told me shortly after the film's release, "this movie will be one of the top three reasons why."
I had crossed the Rubicon into mainstream America with Fahrenheit 9/11. But now that I had crossed it, I didn't realize there would be no return to the semiquiet life of quasianonymity. (I had had a strong, but respectfully small, cult following that had made my life pleasant and functional up to that point.) I had now entered dangerous territory, and while it meant that I would never have to worry about a roof over my head again, it also meant that my family and I would pay a high price for this "success."
This was now no longer just some little documentary we had made—and I was no longer seen as some "gadfly" that could be ignored like a nettlesome pest. This was now cover of Time magazine territory. This was now me being seated in the presidential box next to President Jimmy Carter at the Democratic National Convention. There would be a record four appearances in six months on The Tonight Show. The movie would open at #1 all across North America (the first time ever for a documentary). And, to make matters worse for the White House, it opened at #1 in all fifty states, even in the Deep South. Even Wyoming. Yes, even Idaho. It opened at #1 in military towns like Fort Bragg. Soldiers and their families were going to see it and, by many accounts, it became the top bootleg among 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 a thousand 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. Not just a target of the Right or of the press. This movie was now affecting a sitting president of the United States and his chances for a second term.
So, the film—and especially its director—had to be portrayed as so repulsively anti-American that to buy a ticket to this movie would be akin to an act of treason.
The attacks on me were like mad works of fiction, crazy, made-up 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 the election 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 (think of them as anti-Valentines) to full-out attempted physical assaults — and worse. The ex–Navy SEALs moved in with us. When I walked down a public sidewalk they would literally 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 Langley 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'd 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 four hundred and twenty-nine more."
Four hundred and twenty-nine more? Four hundred and twenty-nine files of people who wanted to harm me, even kill me? Each file contained minute details of these people's lives and what they might be capable of. I really didn't want to hear any more. My sister was surprised at the number.
"I thought it would be around fifty," she said, as if "fifty" was a doable number we could handle.
I could no longer go out in public without an incident happening. It started with small stuff, like people in a restaurant asking to be moved to a different table when I was seated next to them, or a cab driver who would stop his cab in mid-traffic to scream at me. There were often people who would just start yelling at me, no matter where the location: on a highway, in a theater, in an elevator. I was often asked by bystanders, "Does this happen to you a lot?" as they would be shocked at the intensity and randomness of it. One hater decided to let me have it at Mass on Christmas Day. "Really?" I said to her. "On Christmas? You can't even give it a rest on this day?"
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 Portland, a guy got on the outdoor stage and started coming at me with a blunt object that he apparently was going to use over my head. My assistant blocked him momentarily, and that gave the SEALs the jump they needed to grab him and take 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 theaters showing Fahrenheit, 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 #2 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 sixteenth-century writing device.
• In Denver, I appeared at a screening of my movie. Security found a man carrying a gun and had him removed. There were often guns found on people—always legal, of course, thanks to the new laws that let people carry handguns into public events.
• More than once, some white guy just wanted to punch me. One time it was a group of skinheads. Another time it was a realtor. Each time, the SEALs stepped in and put their bodies between mine and the assailant's. Most times we did not involve the police as we didn't want it to become public, thinking that would only encourage copycats.
And then there was Lee James Headley. Sitting alone at his home in Ohio, Lee had big plans. The world, according to his diary, was a place 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, but a list nonetheless of the people who had to go. The names on it were former attorney general Janet Reno, Senator Tom Harkin, Senator Tom Daschle, Rosie O'Donnell, and Sarah Brady. But at the top of the list was his number one target: "Michael Moore." Beside my name he wrote, "MARKED" (as in "marked for death," he would later explain).
Throughout the spring of 2004, Lee 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!" He also had drawings of various federal buildings in Ohio.
But one night in 2004, he accidentally fired off a round inside his home from one of his AK-47s. A neighbor 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. And off to jail he went.
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. I just couldn't take it anymore. 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?
It seemed that my crime was bringing questions and ideas to a mass audience (the kind of thing you do from time to time in a democracy). It wasn't that my ideas were dangerous; it was the fact that millions suddenly were eager to be exposed to them. And not just in the theater, and not just at lefty gatherings. I was invited to talk about these ideas on . . . The View! On The Martha Stewart Show. On Oprah — four times! Then there's Vanna White, turning the letters of my name on Wheel of Fortune. I was allowed to spread the ideas of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, of I. F. Stone and the Berrigan brothers, everywhere. This drove the Right totally batshit crazy. I didn't mean for that to happen. It just did.
And so the constant drumbeat against me grew louder, with conservative talk radio and TV describing me as something that was subhuman, a "thing" that hated the troops and the flag and everything about America. These vile epithets were being spoon fed to a poorly-educated public that thrived on a diet of hate and ignorance and had no idea what the word epithet meant. Here's Bill O'Reilly making a crack to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, live on his Fox News TV show, in February of 2004:
"Well, I want to kill Michael Moore. Is that all right? All right. And I don't believe in capital punishment — that's just a joke on Moore." Ha ha.
As the months wore on, even after Bush's reelection, the campaign to stop me only intensified. When Glenn Beck said over the airwaves that he was thinking of killing me, he was neither fined by the FCC 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. No FCC commissioner condemned it. It was simply OK to speak of me in this manner over the public airwaves.
And then a man trespassed on our property and left something outside our bedroom window when I wasn't home. It terrorized 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 be on many TV shows (like 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 not only get to our house, but how to illegally get onto the property. He failed to mention, though, what the ex-SEALs would do to you when they caught you.***
And now a man from Ohio had drawn up plans and gathered the necessary materials to do to our house what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City.
"He'll be going away to prison for a long time, Mike," the security chief reassured me. "The reason that he and others always fail is because of the systems you have in place."
"And because he had a nosy neighbor who called the cops," I added.
"Yes, that too."
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.
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 television show. I stopped going on college tours. I just took myself off the map. I wrote the occasional blog on my website, but that was pretty much it. The previous year I had spoken on over fifty 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, like renovating and reopening a closed-down historic movie palace, starting a film festival, and trying to sleep at night.
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? Fuck it! 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 off the stage.
And then Kurt Vonnegut invited me over to his house one night for dinner. It would be one of four dinners I would have with him and his wife in the final year of his life. The conversations were intense, funny, provocative—and they resuscitated me, literally breathed life right back into me, and brought me back to a place in the world.
He told me he had been observing for some time "the crucifixion" (as he called it) that I was experiencing—and he had a few things he wanted to tell me.
"The extremes to which the Bush people have gone to get you, they directly correlate to just how effective you've been," he told me over his third after-supper cigarette one night. "You have done more to put the brakes on them than you realize. It may be too late for all of us, but I have to say you have given me a bit of hope for this sad country."
One night I went to his house and he was sitting out on the stoop by himself waiting for me. He told me that he had stopped contemplating the "meaning of life" because his son, Mark, had finally figured it out for him: "We're here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is." And that's what he was doing for me.
Vonnegut had, in his final years, turned to writing nonfiction.
"This has been my greatest challenge," he told me, "because the current reality now seems so unreal, it's hard to make nonfiction seem believable. But you, my friend, are able to do that."
We went for a walk to meet his wife and some friends for dinner. I asked him if any of this — the writing, the movies, the politics — was worth it.
"No, not really," he replied in typical Vonnegut style. "So you might as well quit complaining and get back to work. You have nothing to worry about. No harm will come to you." And then, realizing I might not be buying it, he added with the voice of God: "SO SAYETH I!" I stood there on East Forty-eighth Street looking at this mad son of Mark Twain and broke down into laughter. That was all I really needed to hear. If not the voice of God, then at least a gentle plea from Billy Pilgrim. And so it goes.
That night he gave me one of his drawings with the inscription, "Dear Iraq: Do like us. After 100 years let your slaves go. After 150 let your women vote. Love, Uncle Sam." He signed it, "For Michael Moore, my hero — KV."
I came back alive. 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. It won't be on purpose, and while you are attempting to breathe, please know I'll be doing my best to get off 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. I hear this is excruciatingly painful. As a pacifist, please accept my apologies in advance — and never, ever use violence against me or anyone else again. (SERMON ALERT)
Only cowards use violence. They are afraid that their ideas will not win out in the public arena. They are weak and they are worried that the people will see their weakness. They are threatened by women, gays, and minorities — minorities, for chrissakes! You know why they're called "minorities"? Because they don't have the power — YOU do! That's why you're called the "majority"! And yet you're afraid. Afraid of fetuses not coming to term, or of men kissing men (or worse!). Afraid someone will take your gun away — a gun that you have in the first place because you're...afraid! Please, please, for the sake of all of us — RELAX! We like you! Heck, you're an American!
* * * * *
One night in Aventura, Florida, I took my new buff self, along with a friend, to the mall alongside the William Lehman Causeway to see a movie. A young guy in his thirties passed by me, and as he did, he had this to say: "Shithead."
He continued on his walk. I stopped and turned back toward him.
"Hey! You! Come back here!" The guy kept walking.
"Hey, don't run away from me!" I shouted louder. "Don't be a chicken. Come back here and face me!"
"Chicken" is a dish not well served to the gender with testosterone for their fluid. He abruptly halted, turned and headed back toward me. As he got five feet from me, I said the following in a gentle voice:
"Hey, man — why would you say such a thing to me?"
He sneered and steeled himself for a fight. "Because I know who you are, and you're a shithead."
"Now, there you go again, using that word. You haven't the foggiest idea who I am or what I'm really about. You haven't even seen one of my movies."
"I don't need to!" he replied, confirming what I already suspected. "I already know the anti-American stuff you put out there."
"OK, dude, that's not fair. You can't judge me based on what someone else has told you about me. You look way smarter than that. You look like a guy who makes up his own mind. Please watch one of my movies. I swear to God, you may not agree with all the politics, but I can guarantee you that (1) you will instantly know that I deeply love this country; (2) you will see that I have a heart; and (3) I promise you'll laugh quite a few times during the film. And if you still wanna call me a shithead after that, then fine. But I don't think you will."
He calmed down, and we talked for at least another five minutes. I listened to his complaints about the world, and I told him that we probably have more that we agree on than disagree on. He relaxed even more, and eventually I got a smile out of him. Finally, I said I had to go or we were going to miss our movie.
"Hey man," he said, holding out his hand to shake mine. "I'm sorry I called you that name. You're right, I don't really know anything about you. But the fact that you just stopped and talked to me after I called you that—well, that's got me thinking—I really didn't know you. Please accept my apology."
I did, and we shook hands. There would be no more disrespecting me or threatening me—and it was that attitude that made me safe, or as safe as one can be in this world. From now on, if you messed with me, there would be consequences: I may make you watch one of my movies.
* * * * *
A few weeks later I was back on The Tonight Show for the first time in a while. When it was over and 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 apologize to you," he said, as a few tears started to come into his eyes. "And now, here you are, and I get to say this: 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, that I did that to you on your big night, 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 apologize to me. You did nothing wrong. What did you do? 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."
* * * * *
* I am still banned from one of these networks for liberating their footage of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz licking his comb, and George W. Bush making faces and clowning around just seconds before he went live on national TV to announce the bombing and invasion of Iraq.
** It went on to become the largest-grossing documentary in the history of cinema, and the largest-grossing Palme d'Or winner ever (a list of winners that included films like Apocalypse Now and Pulp Fiction).
*** Right-wing groups and talk-show hosts weren't the only ones behind the attacks. Corporate interests began to spend large sums of money to stop me. When I announced that my next film would be about health care in this country, a consortium of health insurance companies and drug manufacturers formed a group to try and stop the film, mainly by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a disinformation campaign intended to discredit me and the film. And if that plan didn't work, then they would do what they had to do to "push Michael Moore off the cliff." Wendell Potter, the vice president of CIGNA Insurance, blew the whistle on this to the journalist Bill Moyers and in his own book, Deadly Spin.
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