Photos by Bill Wilson
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel
Michael Moore was hanging out with Mayor Gavin Newsom Wednesday, stumping for universal health care and promoting his new film, “Sicko,” which skewers the American health care system in much the same way his “Farenheit 911” lambasted the Bush administration for its exploitation of September 11 and subsequent mad dash to war.
Moore joined Hizzonner for a panel discussion on health care earlier in the day, where both touted San Francisco’s trailblazing efforts to provide coverage to all residents, which began under Mayor Willie Brown and have been expanded by Newsom. And then Newsom made a compelling case for national leadership on the issue in his introduction of Moore at a Metreon pre-screening of “Sicko” on Wednesday night (See Pat Murphy’s photos and coverage of the events).
We’ll take longer look at “Sicko” itself when it opens nationwide on June 29, but one of the more interesting aspects of Moore’s appearance in San Francisco was his take on three controversial Democratic politicians: Newsom, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore.
San Franciscans with long-knifed memories may recall the episode during the 2003 mayoral campaign when Moore, stumping for Newsom’s then-rival – dreamy darling of the far-left, Matt Gonzalez – got Newsom’s cell phone number from Gonzo and called him from the stage at a campaign rally. Leaving a message, Moore chastised Newsom for behaving more like a Republican than a Democrat, saying his signature “Care Not Cash” homeless proposal was short on the “care.”
Cheap shot or classic Michael Moore theatrics? Depends on your perspective. Either way, both men have moved well beyond it four years later, as they heaped praise one another for the better part of an entire day. With his same-sex marriage offensive and environmental street credibility, Newsom has joined Moore in the national pantheon of progressive provocateurs, and Moore has rightly recognized the Mayor’s, and the City’s, leadership on health care.
Moore’s Hillary moment was more nuanced. “Sicko” painstakingly recounts the First Lady’s heroic efforts to bring universal health care to America in the first year of Bill Clinton’s administration. She was practically tarred and feathered for her efforts, and 16 years later we still have an unmanageable, and often tragic, managed health care system that leaves nearly 50 million Americans without coverage.
But “Sicko” quickly follows First Lady Clinton’s noble and far-sighted efforts with a round-up of politicians who currently receive big-buck political contributions from the health industry – employing Moore’s usual humorous, if a little ham-fisted, sound and visual effects – and he makes sure to pin Senator Clinton to the top of the list, second only to a congressman who has since left the House to shill for the pharmaceutical industry.
It was a highlight for the Obama people in the room, who snickered – that insufferable habit of the self-righteous, self-anointed “progressive” San Franciscan. (As if Hillary Clinton hasn’t done more to advance progressive causes than all the people in that theater combined!) But when Moore was taking questions after the film, one respectful, reasonable guy asked Moore if it wasn’t a cheap shot, and one that would likely be exploited by big-business, anti-reform, Republican evildoers, especially if Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee.
It was a fair question, and one that Moore took seriously. He gave a lengthy, heartfelt and occasionally bizarre answer. He declared his admiration for Hillary Clinton, credited her for the courage and the intelligence to take on issues like health care reform – but more than that, he said he found her “sexy.” He said he harbored a deep, forbidden love for Hillary. And he meant it.
As for pointing out that as a New York senator Clinton has received large sums of money from insurance companies and other health care interests, he said that it’d be dishonest and hypocritical if he spared those he likes or admires the bite of his snarky-sharp teeth just because he likes or admires them. He said he’s gotta call ’em likes he sees ’em, and though some might find his strikes zone a little high and to-the-left, he is definitely a very clear-eyed umpire. He said he hopes the daylight – okay, the strobe light – he throws on a shady aspect of Clinton’s record will help steer her back to the righteous path. (Of course, he takes it as an unchallenged axiom that any political contribution from the health care industry is by definition blood money.)
Overall, Moore made a good case for his mixed treatment of Hillary Clinton, and it reflected well on his overall approach to the people and politics he scrutinizes.
Most compelling of all, however, was the picture he painted of his relationship with former Vice President Al Gore. Gore is not featured in “Sicko,” but his name came up in the Q&A on Wednesday night, and it sent Moore into a lengthy, wistful tale about his meeting with Gore at his Tennessee home a year or so ago.
Turns out “Farenheit 911” – which opens with an excruciating sequence in which, having had the 2000 election snatched from him, Gore must preside over the Senate and beat back, one by one, the protestations of members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who all refer to him as “Mr. President” in anguished and defeated tones – had a powerful impact on the Gore family. Now, as an environmental crusader with an Oscar-winning documentary under his belt like Moore, Gore was evolving into an activist, even visionary American leader.
They also talked about the devastating impact Ralph Nader had on the 2000 election (those cocksure “progressives” weren’t snickering during this portion of the Q&A, I can assure you). Moore was one of the most ardent, high-profile supporters of Nader’s that year, a fact that seemed to flood him with regret on Wednesday night. But he was awestruck by Gore’s equanimity on the subject: “I didn’t lose because you voted for Nader,” Moore paraphrased Gore as saying. “I lost because I obviously didn’t do enough to convince you to vote for me instead.”
Moore came to see Gore as a brilliant, brave, sincere and, yes, humorous politician who would be great for the country, great for the world. “I hope he never listens to another advisor again,” Moore said, stopping just short of endorsing Gore, or anybody, for president in 2008 – although he made it pretty clear he’d drop everything to help Big Al if he does in fact run.
So it was, in his visit to San Francisco, Michael Moore proved himself to be every bit as interesting, funny, determined, playful, outraged, candid, pugnacious and relevant as his wonderful films are. Michael Moore is necessary; his films, his message, his courage – to speak parody to power, to open our eyes and our hearts throughout the belly laughs – are needed in much greater supply here in America. And the fact that he’s honest and complex enough to harbor, and reveal, constantly evolving views of the powerful people with whom he interacts is just one more reason to appreciate and trust him.
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PJ Johnston is president of the San Francisco Arts Commission and a former executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission. He served as Mayor Willie Brown’s press secretary and now runs his own communications consulting firm in San Francisco. A former journalist, he has written about movies for several publications, including the San Jose Mercury News and – long ago, in a galaxy far, far away – for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Email PJ at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Wilson is a veteran freelance photographer whose work is published by San Francisco and East Bay media. Bill embraced photography at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR). Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past two years.