THE REPUBLICANS are learning how to cringe. They have owned the propaganda airwaves for so long now, and suddenly Michael Moore smacks the hell out of them in Fahrenheit 9/11. Enraged moviegoers spent $22 million watching the film over the weekend. They enter theaters as an audience and emerge as an electorate. But the Democrats ought to duck for cover, too.
Over the weekend, the Charles Theatre's very walls seemed to bulge. The place was sold out, one performance after another, two theaters at a time. The sidewalks outside resembled peace marches from the Vietnam era. Some handed out anti-war literature, and others registered new voters. A vendor hawked T-shirts with photos of Bush I and Bush II. The caption read: Dumb and Dumber. The atmosphere was utterly festive, except when spectators stopped to consider their anger.
Is the movie fair? Of course not. It's a model of editorial innuendo. It's been described as an op-ed piece, but it's not even that. It's an editorial cartoon. But there's enough there that's so explicitly undeniable about the Bush White House that it makes you want to scream and much that implicitly damns the Democrats because you wonder where they were hiding while the country was being shoved into this war in Iraq.
There were five of us who went to the Charles on Friday night. Much of the crowd looked like a Johns Hopkins political science class. When we emerged afterward, the air was testy for a few moments.
"Herman Goebbels," a friend said.
"You mean Joseph Goebbels?" I asked.
Goebbels was the Nazi propagandist. My friend, a Democrat, was being glib but expressing his discomfort with Michael Moore's relentlessness. Moore sees conspiracies everywhere, and he doesn't always connect the dots. But the country has grown accustomed to this, which is why so many Democrats are finding the movie so thrilling: It's their time to howl at the moon.
The Democrats have spent years listening to invective on hate radio. They've spent years watching Fox News laughably describe itself as fair and balanced. They heard the Clintons blamed for murdering Vince Foster. They've heard shrill Ann Coulter call for execution of anybody who happens to disagree with her. They've seen Robert Novak out an undercover CIA operative because her husband told the truth about White House lying.
And they've let themselves be bullied, day after day, by Rush Limbaugh. He's the one who called the torturing at Abu Ghraib prison no worse than fraternity pranks. Has anybody noticed? Those pranks are now seen by terrorists as justification for beheadings.
And Fahrenheit 9/11 is now seen as justified by every Republican piece of propaganda and ridiculousness that preceded it. The movie shows George W. Bush speaking English as though it's a second language. At the Charles, audiences erupt in laughter as Bush fumbles to express himself. It shows him, as the long minutes tick away after the second World Trade Center tower's explosion, sitting there utterly immobilized. The laughter turns to a kind of astonished embarrassment.
What follows is worse -- for both parties. In the ashes of Sept. 11, 2001, this president took the world's tears for America and turned them into hatred. The administration insisted there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This was supposed to justify everything. They assured us Saddam Hussein was tied to the 9/11 terrorists. Another alleged justification; another lie. Instead of focusing on the terrorists in Afghanistan, they charged into Iraq -- and thus inspired a new generation of terrorists, who make us more anxious than ever.
But where were the Democrats while all this was happening? In Baltimore last night, they had a $1,000-a-ticket fund-raiser for John Kerry. Kerry voted to go to war. Maybe he can make the case that, like the rest of us, he was misinformed by false intelligence claims. But where does his war policy differ from Bush's? Kerry says he would have gotten wider international support before going into Iraq. But we're there now, and the body count rises, and Kerry still hasn't made clear how he would settle this any differently than Bush.
The night after we saw Fahrenheit 9/11, we went to see friends in Howard County. Their son is a medic with the Army in Iraq. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, he joined a Reserve unit. It was called to active duty and shipped out last winter. He is stationed about 60 miles outside Baghdad.
He is home on two weeks' leave. He is 20 years old. The day after he got home, he and his father went out and played softball together. There was a banner in the living room Saturday declaring, "God bless America." The son stood there, and the joy on everyone's faces was palpable. The kid was all right. For a little while, all the politics of this war, George W. Bush and Michael Moore and all the others, went out of the room. It didn't matter who's wrong and who's right.
Only, when it's all over, who's left.