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Biting the hand that flies him

Michael Moore often lashes out at corporate America, but that's no reason to turn down Time Warner's jet for his new book tour.

October 27, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — Michael Moore sat in the back seat of a black sedan moving silently along a dark, two-lane highway toward a private airfield ("a marijuana airstrip," Moore had joked) in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

A Time Warner jet awaited him. Moore, the controversial filmmaker behind the documentaries "Roger & Me" and the Academy Award-winning "Bowling for Columbine," was with a bodyguard, a driver and a reporter; an SUV containing the rest of his party followed. They included Moore's sister, Anne, who is a criminal defense attorney, two assistants and another bodyguard. Two other figures in the SUV -- Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein -- were lifelike but in fact the spawn of Photoshop and cardboard.

Moore is on a lecture-book tour for his latest satirical polemic, "Dude, Where's My Country?" He is barnstorming the country, trashing Republicans and corporate America and what he sees as President Bush's trumped-up, hypocritical war in Iraq.

In getting these messages out, Moore, the Flint, Mich., native and self-styled voice of the average worker, is also availing himself of corporate America's toys -- SUVs and a private jet, provided by his publisher, Warner Books.

"I would never pay for this, let me just tell you that right now," Moore had said, earlier in the day, en route from Occidental College to Van Nuys Airport. Of the bodyguards, from Gavin de Becker & Associates, Moore said: "I'm grateful for the security because I want to get through this [tour] OK, and I know the country I live in."

For everything else he is, Moore is a guy who can move books: "Stupid White Men" which came out last year, has sold more than 4 million copies, and "Dude, Where's My Country?" on Sunday hit No. 1 on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times bestseller lists. So if a major publisher was going to supply him with a plane, to sell a book that bashed corporations while it made the corporation money, why not use it?

"Look, it's highly ironic, and the irony is not lost on me," Moore said. He continued to play around with the idea. Reporters in the past have confronted him about seeming contradictions between his public image and private life.

It's boilerplate by now, Moore's reaction indicates. He lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan but wears Kmart-bought jeans.

"Don't take offense at this," Moore said. "When I've been interviewed in the past, it's rare that anyone from the working class would ask, 'How does the plane, the Town Car affect you?' The working class just thinks it's cool."

Hitting the campuses

Moore, 49, is reviled in some corners as a liberal propagandist, someone who cheats the truth in his movies. On this tour, which started Oct. 9, he is speaking mostly on college campuses, where his films are revered by 20-year-old cineastes and his role as an oversized slacker-subversive plays well.

But the audience for "Dude, Where's My Country?" is broader, as it is for other anti-Bush administration harangues that are bestsellers alongside titles by conservative commentators Bill O'Reilly and Laura Ingraham. They include Al Franken's "Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them)" and "Bushwhacked" by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose.

"It reflects the fact that the progressive, populist end of the spectrum has dusted itself off and realized that it really wants to be heard," Peter Osnos, chief executive and publisher at the independent house PublicAffairs Press, said of the mood being tapped by Moore, Franken, et al. Jillian Manus, a Republican and president of the literary agency Manus & Associates, says the controversial 2000 presidential election stoked the public's hunger for political discourse: "They want confirmation of their own beliefs, or they want criticism."

Having voted for Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000, Moore says he hasn't decided whom he will support for president.

"Don't you think that I'd better serve the public by being on the outside and commenting on what's going on and trying to push the debate and try to bring up the issues and trying to keep them honest?" In New York, Moore was inside enough to meet with retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark at Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner's apartment, and with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean at an event thrown by actor Paul Newman and International Creative Management agent Boaty Boatwright.

The image of Moore accepted into polite society clashes with the on-screen provocateur lumbering into the lobby of a glass office in jeans and baseball cap, asking for a sit-down with a CEO. In his guerrilla-style work -- which in addition to his films include the 1990s TV series "TV Nation" and "The Awful Truth" -- he has taken victims of throat cancer to a tobacco company's headquarters and had them sing Christmas carols through their artificial voice boxes. In "Bowling for Columbine," he took two victims of the Columbine High School shooting to Kmart headquarters to return the bullets still lodged in their bodies.

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