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Notebook - April 3, 2007


When Bowling for Columbine director Michael Moore ambled up to the Kodak Theatre stage on Sunday night to accept the Academy Award for best documentary, he invited his fellow nominees to join him. "They are here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction," Moore explained, "and 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 fictition [sic] of duct tape or the fictitious [sic] of orange alerts."

Moore, in fact, knows a great deal about fictition: His award-winning documentary about America's culture of guns and violence was riddled with errors and misrepresentations. Let's begin with the movie's title, inspired, Moore suggests, by the fact that the two high school students who perpetrated the atrocity at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, had gone to a bowling class at six o'clock in the morning on the day of the massacre. Only they didn't. As Daniel Lyons noted in Forbes, police in Colorado say the two students skipped the bowling class the day of their rampage. Lyons also pointed out that Moore's suggestion in the movie that the two students might have been driven to murder because of the "weapons of mass destruction" made in a Lockheed Martin assembly plant located in Littleton--a suggestion accompanied by clips of giant rockets--is rather dubious given that the plant in question actually makes space-launch vehicles for TV satellites. And Lyons discovered that Moore's claim in the film that the North Country Bank & Trust in Traverse City, Michigan, offered a deal in which "if you opened an account, the bank would give you a gun" is false. The scene in the film that shows Moore walking into the bank and then walking out with a gun is apparently staged; to get a gun from the bank, a customer must buy a long-term CD and then go to a gun shop to pick up the weapon after a background check. Nor was Forbes alone in truth-squadding the film. Other errors, omissions, and distortions have been cited by and a number of Canadian publications.

At the Oscars, Moore ended his little speech by whining, "We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you." No: Shame on Moore for playing fast and loose with the facts; and shame on the Academy for rewarding it.


Last week in this space, we noted that the Bush administration had employed its oft-used "inevitability strategy"--i.e., repeatedly assert something is true until it becomes so--in its effort to persuade a Security Council majority to back action against Iraq. But, no matter how many times administration officials predicted in the press that wavering nations would imminently side with the United States, the hoped-for votes never materialized.

In the first days of the war itself, the Bush team seemed to be at it again. To be sure, there was arguably a sound psychological-warfare rationale behind the administration's early, optimistic pronouncements: The more imminent and inevitable the Baathists believed Saddam Hussein's overthrow to be, the more likely they would be to surrender. Still, much of the early second-guessing of the war's progress and panic about a possible quagmire in Mesopotamia was encouraged by the overconfidence projected by the administration leading up to the war and in its early days. This was made comically clear at Tuesday's White House briefing when Ari Fleischer, dutifully prepared for just this criticism, could point to only a single statement from the president before the start of the war as evidence that Bush "rather explicitly" explained the "risk" and "sacrifice" of the war.

If anything, the administration's tone only became more confident in the first days of the conflict. Umm Qasr was said to be under alliance control days before it actually was. Iraq's entire 51st Division was said to have surrendered, except that it hadn't. (Its defiant commander popped up in an interview on Al Jazeera a few days later.) The breathlessly promoted "shock and awe" campaign provided little shock and no discernable awe. The masses of Shia who were to greet Americans with cheers and flowers did not appear. Many of these desired outcomes may yet take place, and the war's ultimate conclusion is hardly in doubt. But, if many in the media rushed to proclaim the first week of fighting as a series of setbacks and failures, rather than as a string of anticipated obstacles in the execution of an inherently difficult war plan, the Bush administration has only itself to blame.


On March 26, the United States became a significantly stupider country. Daniel Patrick Moynihan died. The strangest thing about his extraordinary career was that his political success seems almost the least of it. His life, in the academy and in public service, was an extended and definitive argument against anti-intellectualism in America, an unforgettable demonstration of the democratic beauty of brains. Moynihan was the great ambassador of the social sciences to U.S. politics. It is hard to think of another official in our time who had so rich an imagination of policy or of another intellectual in our time who had so profound a respect for policy. Was there ever a more ardent believer in the power of government to do good, and then to do better? The fertility of his mind was astonishing. He was a lifelong confounder of categories, a Mozart of controversy. He made many enemies because he had many ideas; and, for the same reason, he made more friends than enemies. He (and Nathan Glazer) brought the subject of ethnicity to the forefront of American consciousness. He goaded and transformed the debate about welfare. He insisted that the danger to the black family in America be candidly considered. He raised his noble, lonely hand in the United Nations against the Zionism-is-racism resolution. When the cold war ended, he taught by example how many precincts of U.S. foreign policy and intelligence policy needed to be reexamined. Long after politicians stopped reading books, the senator from New York was still writing them, real books, actually produced by the individual whose name appeared on the title page, based upon his own study and his own reflection, in an absolutely unmistakable voice. He contributed phrases to the language: "maximum feasible misunderstanding," "benign neglect," "defining deviancy down." (He contributed also to our pages and was a friend and a guide to many of our editors.) He rescued Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. In sum, Moynihan's fingerprints are all over America. And he did it all gleefully, impishly, impatiently, with a curiosity the size of the Capitol. He was the happy American, and his presence in our midst made us happy Americans, too. If there is a heaven, Thomas Jefferson finally has somebody to talk to.


"I think people here expect [the war] to begin very soon. I know I do. … I think there would be an enormous psychological letdown and disappointment if it didn't begin. I mean, everyone is providing around-the-clock coverage now. And I think that everyone--that the administration wouldn't want to waste everyone's time."--CBS correspondent Bob Simon, on "Larry King Live," Wednesday, March 19.

This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.