PITTSBURGH - Just when it looked like conservatives might be cornering the market on angry populism, along comes Michael Moore. But that doesn't mean Democrats in Washington should rest easy.
"Capitalism: A Love Story," the filmmaker provacateur's latest documentary, had its American premier Monday at the AFL-CIO convention that is underway in this working-class city (President Obama is addressing the convention Tuesday).
"Capitalism," which will open in theatres nationwide in October, manages to use just about everything lousy that's happened in the past year to build Moore's case against eat-what-you-kill, free-market Reaganomics--from foreclosures on prairie farmhouses to kids unjustly jailed in Pennsylvania to the plane crash in Buffalo. It's all wrapped up, literally, by the spectacle of Moore stretching police tape around the hallowed institutions of Wall Street.
The film is vintage Moore, and perhaps more: the hefty Michigander declared from the stage of a classic downtown theater here that it was a "culmination of all the films I've made." It is being released on the 20-year anniversary of "Roger and Me," the takedown of General Motors that made Moore famous. The union audience in Pittsburgh was primed for the wide-ranging assault on Wall Street and all its emanations.
For history buffs, there's also a fascinating clip of Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering the highly egalitarian conclusion to his final State of the Union address, where he lists the "second bill of rights" that every American deserves. The speech was thought to exist only in audio, until Moore's researchers dug up the film footage in a forgotten box in South Carolina.
So far, so anti-Republican.
But then things get interesting -- in building his indictment against the ill-fated marriage of Wall Street and Washington, Moore zeroes in less on Phil Gramm or other GOP string-pullers than he does on White House economic adviser Larry Summers, Robert Rubin and Sen. Chris Dodd. Especially Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Moore gets an on-camera interview with the mortgage officer who handled the special VIP loans provided to Dodd and other big names, which have dogged Dodd's reelection bid.
Dodd had appeared to be clawing his way back onto safer political ground in recent months, as he filled in for the dying Ted Kennedy as chair of the Senate health committee. But if "Capitalism" packs them in in Wallingford and Danbury, watch out.
The film also maintains a delicate ambivalence about President Obama, casting him as a change agent and depicting joyous images of his victory last November, but also implying that Wall Street had showered money on Obama's campaign in an effort to buy him out. The question of whether it had succeeded in doing so are left more or less unanswered.
Most notably, perhaps, the film spends quite a lot of time building up last fall's financial bailout as the ultimate showdown between Wall Street interests calling in their Washington chits and a vanguard of hardy populists in Congress standing in their way.
Left unsaid is that a larger proportion of House Republicans than Democrats voted against the bailout -- many of the same Republicans, in fact, who have been leading the anti-government, anti-universal health care charge that Moore claims to oppose.
In a telephone interview as he headed to the airport to fly west for his Jay Leno appearance Tuesday night, Moore declared himself untroubled by any anti-Democratic fallout. "One of the important things to recognize in my films is that I always went after whoever needed to be gone after," he said. "But people will be surprised by how many Democrats I went after for being too close to big money."
He was slightly defensive when asked whether the film had glorified the anti-bailout position assumed by so many conservative Republicans, saying that what he had really set out to do was to reclaim the bailout critique for skeptics of capitalism, away from the anti-government types.
"I wanted to stop the revisionist version of how the bailout is remembered," he said. Republicans "are trying to ride some phony populist wave because they know there's anger brewing. Beneath the surface, history is full of people taking advantage of [populist anger] and taking this country to an extra reactionary place."
Yes, the Republicans voted against the bailout, he added, but "they voted against it for all the wrong reasons -- they didn't give a [expletive] if the teacher's pension in California was going to vaporize." (Whether true or not, though, that distinction is not offered in the film.)
As for Dodd, he said, "Lets the chips fall where they may." Last he checked, he said, Dodd was so low in the polls that his prospects looked bad no matter what.
"For the Democrats to save that seat, for the good of the party he should probably not run," Moore said, adding as an afterthought: "Though he's done a bunch of really good things."
Ultimately, Moore said, it's up to the Democrats to push Dodd to the sidelines: "I don't know why they'd risk losing that seat just because they're afraid to tell him not to run."
And as for Summers and Treasury secretary Tim Geithner (also not kindly treated), Moore told the audience in a brief question and answer period that he hoped Obama had brought them on in the same way that some banks hire robbers to help them guard against future theft: "Maybe that's what Obama's doing -- he hired the people who robbed all the money to help him get it back. That's the optimistic version."
Noticing that the audience seemed lukewarm about the president, Moore rushed to add that the election was the best day of the last decade of his life and said, "Instead of us piling on him, he needs our support."
Speaking in a convention hall earlier, Moore said, "I have the feeling [Obama's] faking right to go left. Let's hope I'm right." And he chided his audience for not doing more to visibly support Obama in the trials of town-hall season. "I see him out there on his own," he said. "Who's got his back?"
Asked by an audience member if he was going to offer the president a private screening, Moore noted with a grin that his agent is Ari Emanuel, brother of chief of staff Rahm. But, he said, "I have not been invited to the White House yet."