Filmmaker Michael Moore

The Oscar-winning filmmaker and author of Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life discusses President Obama’s plan to cut the national debt and shares what he would say to the president if he had five minutes alone with him.

An Oscar-winning filmmaker, author and activist, Michael Moore is one of America's most fearless political commentators. He became famous for his film Roger & Me, about the devastating effects of GM's downsizing on his Flint, MI hometown, and went on to make some of the most financially successful documentaries in film history. After his Fahrenheit 9/11 won top prize at Cannes, he turned his attention to the health industry in SiCKO and took on Wall Street in Capitalism: A Love Story. His latest project is an unusual memoir, Here Comes Trouble.


Michael Moore: Thank you for having me, Tavis. Appreciate it.

Tavis: I hope you will, I assume you will, indulge me in asking just a few questions about stuff in the news before we get to the book, which I promise to do and I’m anxious to do. Let me start, number one, with your thoughts about the president’s plan today to cut the national debt. We’ve heard a lot of conversation about this, but today he puts the plan on the table. What do you think?

Moore: Well, I think the best part of the plan is the fact that he’s come out aggressively for making our tax system fair so that the rich have to pay their share. I think that’s just one of the best things I’ve heard from him in some time, so I was very happy to hear that. I think he said it pretty clear that people did not have to worry about Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid being affected in any way by this. So I think that’s a good move.

I don’t know if you saw him this morning when he was speaking, but he certainly seems to be getting the sunset. Three years of him being a person who has turned the other cheek, who has held out the olive branch, who has believed in the adage that you should love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you, he’s done very good to those who’ve persecuted him [laugh] and he hasn’t got much to show for it.

So if I were him, you know, he’s now going to enter what will be his fourth year soon of his presidency and, when you’re behind like this at the end of the third quarter, boy, you really want to have an incredible fourth quarter. So I remain an optimist as always and I hope that that’s what he’s planning to do.

Tavis: People make decisions to change course for one of two reasons, it seems to me, either because they see the light or because they feel the heat. So it’s campaign season. Has the president really seen the light about the venom and the vitriol and the vulgarity of the enemy that he’s up against? Has he seen the light or is he feeling the heat because it’s election time?

Moore: We missed each other today on the phone back and forth, the president and I, so I don’t really know how he’s feeling about this [laugh]. But I’ll take a stab at it and say that I think he might have started to see the light.

Certainly, the front page of The New York Times on Saturday where they laid it out with the basic statistics that his attempts over the last couple of years to move to the center, to appeal to conservatives, to sound Republican, has garnered him the following: not a single new Republican vote amongst the electorate, independents not moving at all toward him, and his base feeling completely depressed and debilitated by his lack of standing up for what – here’s the thing.

If I did have five minutes with him, I would just like to say to him, “What part of your 10 million vote victory, 10 million more votes than the other guy, what part of that didn’t you get? The people were with you. The people wanted this change and they wanted it now. We stood at the edge of the abyss. We were looking into a very big deep black hole and we voted for you to pull us back. You’ve done a number of things and you’ve tried.”

It’s amazing. I got to say on some level, because of that vitriol that he’s had to suffer, he’s handled it quite well. I don’t know if I would have handled it as well. I liken it to this, Tavis. He has so many times held out that olive branch and had it whacked out of his hands. The Republicans, they’ve admitted.

They went literally to dinner on inauguration night, the top leadership, and they just decided they were gonna stop him from doing anything. They were gonna grind the wheels of government to a halt and they were going to essentially ignore him for four years. They were gonna stop whatever they could stop, even when he put language in that was their language, even when he proposed bills that were essentially their old bills. They just decided they were gonna stop him and it’s like he didn’t exist. It’s like he was a ghost. They were just gonna wait him out for four years and then get rid of him.

It reminded me of that book I read in high school by Ralph Ellison called “The Invisible Man” where he spoke so eloquently of what it was like to grow up as a Black man in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s in the United States, where people would just talk past you. They’d be in the same room and like you didn’t even exist. You could be on the elevator. You were this invisible man. You lived on the other side of town, out of sight, out of mind. Well, they have treated him like the invisible president. They’ve tried to get away with this.

I don’t make the racial comment there lightly either because I think that there has been this racial element and it’s been very sad to see some of these Tea Party in these demonstrations and whatever and the language that they use and the signs that they have. This really isn’t the America that we live in, but the majority of people don’t feel that way, and I would hope that President Obama in his now what hopefully will not be his last year as president will really stand up to this.

Tavis: A couple more Obama questions and I want to get right to the text. The Tea Party notwithstanding, and you’ve been very clear about how you feel about them and their tactics, how much of this has to do with the president having assembled the wrong team? Before you answer that, I want to just tweak this a little bit so people don’t think I’m naive.

Speaking of naive, I’ve always rejected the naivety that’s found in that assessment because you can’t tell me that Barack Obama is brilliant. He can’t be all that and then be suckered by a team of people around him. Those two things to me can’t coexist. Having said all of that, how much of this, to your mind, has to do with having assembled the wrong team?

Moore: He’s not dumb. He is brilliant. He knew exactly what he was doing starting with the economic advisors, putting Larry Summers and Tim Geithner into office there. If you want to accept that assumption that he’s a pretty smart guy, then you then have to ask a more difficult question: is this in fact how he really thinks?

Does he really not think the banks are really such a bad entity in this country, that Wall Street really isn’t to blame? And the reason he’s been so soft on them is because he believes in them? If that’s the case, then we have a much deeper problem that we have to deal with here.

Tavis: One final question which your comment now leads me nicely to and then to the text, “Here Comes Trouble.” These poverty numbers of late have just been – it’s a national disgrace, quite frankly. What say you about the fact that these numbers have grown? He inherited a mess, to be sure, but these numbers have grown under his presidency and now we have – well, let me stop. Your thoughts about these poverty numbers, Michael?

Moore: Well, it is disgraceful and shameful. You know, if we didn’t have Social Security, our seniors would live mostly in poverty. You’d have another 18 million people in poverty. It’s at 46 million right now. It would be well over 60 million without government assistance. We like to think of ourselves as number one in the world. We’re not number one hardly in anything anymore that counts. We’re number one in a lot of the bad stuff. I don’t know what to say.

I just refuse to live in this country like this and I’m not going anywhere, so I’m gonna devote whatever I can to – I spoke at a college in south Boston here a few days ago, a community college. Before I spoke, the college administrator stood up and essentially begged the people there to put money into a little white envelope to help pay not for students’ tuition or their books, but it’s called an emergency fund at the school.

It’s for gas money, babysitting money, things like this because these students are not even able to go to school because they’re trying to hold down full-time jobs which are close to minimum wage jobs. A lot of them are single parents and he’s having to beg people for this money. I just came up on the stage and I just said, “I reject this. This isn’t what I grew up in and I’m not gonna live in it.”

Tavis: A quick programming note here. Since Michael and I are talking about poverty, as you may have heard or read, I was on a poverty tour earlier this summer with my friend, Dr. Cornel West, all across the country, nine states, 18 cities, talking about poverty for all races, colors and creeds in this country. We are going the week of October 10 through the 14th, a full week, five nights, I think the first time on national television in this country that an entire show for a full week has focused in on poverty in America, “The New Face of Poverty.”

Again, for an entire week, October 10 through 14, on this show every night talking about poverty and bringing you footage of those travels this summer as we went across the country talking to people about poverty in America.

That said, Michael, let me ask what it was about growing up in Flint. Jonathan, put up the cover of this book. I love the cover of the book, Michael, ’cause you ain’t changed a whole lot. There you are on your little tricycle. You still got your baseball cap on. You’re still looking mischievous. So you ain’t changed a whole lot in these years. But what was it specifically – you talk about your childhood, of course, in the text. What about growing up in Flint allowed you, moved you, in the direction of being the humanist that you are?

Moore: Well, I grew up in a working class environment. My dad worked in the General Motors factory. My mom was a secretary in a township office. You know, they taught me, I think, some pretty good values about that we would be judged by how we treat the least among us, etc., etc.

But Flint itself was a great place to grow up. It was a middle-class town and our dads did not have to have a college education in order to earn a good wage. It put food on the table and a roof over our heads. My generation was able to go to college. We had vacations every summer. They were paid for. We had health insurance, everything. It was quite a good existence.

The rich back then, the General Motors executives and the top brass, they lived a really good life. Even though they were paying a lot of money in taxes, they were taxed the full Monty, the full load, they paid it all and I seem to remember them living in really big mansions and having a great life.

For some reason, I guess, that wasn’t good enough for them and for their class. They wanted more and more and more, and “enough” was the dirtiest word in their language. So they couldn’t get enough and they still can’t get enough. So growing up in that environment, plus the sit-down strike that started the UAW was there and all of that, I think, probably played into – I was very fortunate to grow up in the Flint area.

Tavis: People know, of course, from watching your work and following your work that you have, to my mind, legitimately criticized our body politic in just about everything that you have done, yet one learns that you were yourself in fact a very young public elected official.

Moore: Yes. I was one of the first 18-year-olds in the United States elected to public office right after 18-year-olds got the right to vote back in the early ’70s. I ran for the Board of Education.

I didn’t like some things at my high school and I decided I was gonna fix it by becoming one of the bosses of the principal and the assistant principal and all that. I got elected and I did a number of things and caused a bit of a ruckus at times. Other times, it worked out well. I served for four years and I learned at a very early age that sometimes with just a little bit you could create some really good change.

It got me thinking at an early age that, geez, if everybody knew that secret that actually it’s better if we didn’t have just a few people doing a whole lot, but rather if we had millions doing just a little bit, that little bit would really help to change things for the better.

Tavis: And yet something about that experience or something since that experience has convinced you that you could create greater leverage, could have a more significant voice, by operating on the outside of the system as opposed to the inside. So how does one go from believing in the system on the inside as an elected official to believing that the real power, the real work that you must do, is from the outside?

Moore: Well, again, I learned that actually before I was elected to the School Board. When I was a junior in high school, I gave this speech at this speech contest down in the capital of Michigan in East Lansing.

It was a speech exposing how private organizations in the United States could still discriminate on the basis of race. This was in the early ’70s. You could still have like Caucasians only. In this case, the Elks Club was whites only. A lot of these men’s groups or whatever were like whites only groups still because the law allowed them to do that privately.

I just thought that was wrong, so I gave a speech about it. The next thing I knew, it was on the Associated Press and it was on the evening news on national networks that this 16 or 17-year-old was speaking out against racism in private clubs. The whole thing just sort of snowballed and, by the next year, there were lawsuits, there were bills being introduced in Congress and these private groups all had to change their ways and they could no longer be whites-only organizations.

I mean, I wasn’t the only one doing this, but a big push started when I just gave this little speech in East Lansing, Michigan. Again, a dangerous lesson to teach a teenager that, just by writing down three pages of paper of what I wanted to say, had this impact. Again, I’m going, wow. So I learned this and, listen, I’ve had to take my knocks for it too.

I mean, when I got on the School Board, they had a recall election actually two years into my term to get rid of me because I had the audacity to – I proposed that we name this elementary school Martin Luther King Elementary School and this wasn’t one of these cases where, you know, they named the school in the worst part of town that’s the poorest Martin Luther King Elementary. This was in like an all-white, very nice neighborhood.

Just like I thought it should be spread around. You know, Martin Luther King, such a great man, he should be everywhere. Oh, geez, it just upset – they had a recall. I won the recall election, but, man, just something small like that will just upend some people.

Tavis: There’s another man who comes up in your text who is sadly in some ways and thankfully in other ways forever linked to that great American Dr. King and his name comes up in the telling of a story. You’re such a great storyteller and I love this piece in the book.

His name comes up in your telling of the story of having gone to the Capital and gotten lost and you were found by a rather unlikely United States senator by the name of?

Moore: Robert Kennedy [laugh]. I was 11 years old. My mother had taken us down to our nation’s Capital because, like most kids who got to go to the lake or go camping or whatever, we were always taken like to Washington, D.C. to read the documents at the National Archives or to the Smithsonian.

We were in the rotunda; I lost her and my sisters. I’m 11 years old; I’m wandering all over the Capital. I can’t find them, I start to cry. I see an elevator that’s open, I walk into this elevator, the doors shut. There’s one man in there. He’s reading the newspaper and he hears this little boy crying and he puts the paper down and it’s Bobby Kennedy.

He says, “What’s wrong, little man?” I’m like, oh, I can’t find my mommy. So he then took me off the elevator at the next floor and went to help me look for my mom and then we got the Capital police and he waited there with me and spoke to me. It was very comforting and it was something he – I’m sure he was very busy that week because that week my mother and my sisters and I got to sit in both the House and the Senate galleries.

In one House, they were debating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, in the other House, they were debating this crazy idea of providing free health insurance for old people. It was called Medicare and, for poor people, Medicaid. So as an 11-year-old, I got to watch those debates. Kennedy, of course, was in the middle of both of those things and yet he was taking the time to help this lost child. It had quite an impact on me as I was growing up.

Tavis: Yeah, with a gang of kids he had, he obviously knew something about young boys and young girls. He had a big family himself, obviously.

Moore: Yes.

Tavis: The book, thankfully, shared some light for us, your fans, on your childhood, but it also, of course, comes into adulthood and the chapter that I was anxious to get to was the part about what actually happened after your famous, or infamous, depending on one’s perspective, Oscar speech. You go into some of that in this book.

Moore: Yes. The book is two dozen short stories from my life. These are nonfiction short stories and they read like short stories. All the stories except the one you mentioned are before I was a filmmaker, but I begin the book with the epilogue of what, well, I guess would be the next volume of these stories, which is in the present and in the years between the Oscar speech I gave on the fifth day of the war where I referred to Mr. Bush as a fictional president elected with fictitious election results, giving us fictitious reasons to go to war.

As a result of me saying that on worldwide television, I was instantly under numerous threats and then attempted assaults and then real assaults and then finally culminating with someone who ended up in prison for his violence.

But this violence that was being perpetrated against me was really being stoked a lot by hate radio, by people who were then or now or have been FOX news hosts, people like Glenn Beck, people like Bill O’Reilly making a joke about I don’t believe in the death penalty unless it’s for Michael Moore and Glenn Beck fantasizing about killing me. You put that out over the airwaves and there are gonna be those individuals who, you know, are not well and so I had to bear the brunt for a number of years.

I’ve never really talked about it publicly, so I decided in this book to sort of lay it out because they just continue to do it. They do it to other people. It happens every day, it seems. This kind of violent, hate-filled talk, and if you don’t stand up against it, someone else will be hurt. So I do talk about it in this book.

Tavis: Dr. King used many great phrases, but one of my favorites describing the kind of work that you do and the kind of work I try to do and others around this country and the world, he called this work a vocation of agony, a vocation of agony, which leads me to ask whether one likes or loathes Michael Moore, loves or hates Michael Moore, one ought not to be subject to that kind of hatred and that kind of death threat.

How have you stayed then, Michael, committed to your cause? How do you stay in touch with the humanity of other people when one is subjected to that kind of response to your work?

Moore: Well, that’s a good question. You know, the last time I was on your show, I think I alluded to the fact that I didn’t know whether I really should continue to do this because I didn’t know whether it was worth it to put myself or my family through this sort of attack. I don’t mean just the attack of the debate. I’m literally talking about physical attack.

I think where I’m at right now is that we all have to do our part. I’ll make sure that I will never use that kind of language when I talk about the people that I disagree with. I’ve never uttered the words “I hate George W. Bush,” for instance.

I would never say that partly because I don’t feel it. I don’t hate the man. I don’t want to be down in that gutter. I don’t want the debate to be down there either. I want us to have the discussion. If you’re a Republican, don’t be afraid of that. If you feel strongly about it, let’s have that debate. It’s a democracy. It’s a free society.

The Republicans don’t seem to want to have the debate. They want to stop the debate. They want to change math from majority being instead of 51%, now 60%. So they filibuster everything that Obama does. The demonization of the president, all these things, like he wasn’t born here. It just feeds – I think the best way to stop it is don’t participate in it, don’t respond to it and don’t be that way yourselves.

I say this to people who are on our side of the political fence. If you look across the fence and you see somebody that you don’t agree with, whatever you do, don’t dehumanize them. They are a human being. They too are God’s children and we are all part of the same human family.

Tavis: They are very entertaining short stories, 12 of them, in the new book from Michael Moore. Of course, you’d expect to be entertained and empowered and inspired, I think, about Michael Moore, given his work. The book is called “Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life.” Michael Moore, it’s always good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time, sir.

Moore: Thank you, Tavis, and thanks for what you and Cornel did on that tour. I’m really anxious to see that on your show.

Tavis: Thank you, sir.

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Last modified: September 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm