There are artists-often, though not always, in periods of decadence-whose strategy it is to leave us, until the last possible moment, in suspense as to their meaning. Subtle differences of almost monochromatic shades; assertions made, then so qualified as to be virtually withdrawn, then made anew; a plenitude of detail that suggests rather than says, and obscures even as it dazzles-these are among their techniques. Henry James, in the halting voice of his late novels; Whistler, in the cold great paintings that hang at the Frick; the arid, restless harmonies of Wagner’s Parsifal -all provide memorable examples. We will, no doubt, be a long time sifting, weighing, estimating Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 . But I think even now it is fair to say that he will not be voting for George W. Bush.
Mr. Moore, grandly boasting of his accuracy, has hired a rapid-response team, manned by former Clinton operatives, to rebut all the criticisms of Fahrenheit 9/11 lodged by conservative critics. But fact-checking is not really the point. There was nothing factually wrong in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad . She did not show Aryan sprinters beating Jesse Owens. Her camera gloried in the speed and strength of his body, as it gloried in the physiques and accomplishments of all the athletes she photographed. The only meaningful way to critique her tone poem was to pose larger questions: What was the status, and what were the long-term prospects, of German athletes who might be liberal democrats, or Jews? Are beauty and discipline the only values in a society? What do beauty and discipline amount to in a society run by the Führer ?
Michael Moore says we sent too few troops to Afghanistan to catch Osama bin Laden. Would he have been in favor of sending more? He says the Bush administration was too tight with the Saudis before 9/11 (true enough, and true of other administrations), and is so still. What “get-tough” strategy should we now adopt? We have already pulled our troops out of Saudi bases. Should we be bring the Hashemites back to Mecca? I might say “Cool,” but would Michael Moore want America to shoulder the burden? If Iraq was a land of peaceful kite-flyers before our invasion, who filled the mass graves? What drained the southern marshes and dispersed their inhabitants? Why did so many Kurds die of poison gas? If Iraq was run by a brute who sheltered terrorists and refused to let the United Nations thoroughly inspect his weapons programs, how should America have reacted after almost 3,000 of us were carted off to Fresh Kills? Michael Moore won’t pursue the questions he himself raises, because they do not interest him. He raises them only to sow enough doubt so that the United States will leave the world alone, on the assumption that we, not anyone else in the world, are responsible for its problems.
The question Michael Moore raises for John Kerry is: How do you handle supporters who are nut jobs? It is an old question, for nuts have been rattling around the pantry of America for years. In 1964, the world wanted Barry Goldwater to denounce the John Birch Society, which believed, among other things, that Dwight Eisenhower, the last Republican President, had been a Communist. Goldwater replied that the Birchers supported him; he wasn’t supporting the John Birch Society. That was workable, if cute. Then, at the Republican Convention, Goldwater declared that extremism in defense of liberty was no vice. Goldwater therefore was supporting extremism, though extremism didn’t support him in the 44 states he lost to Lyndon Johnson. John Kerry should avert his cigar-store Indian gaze whenever Michael Moore enters the room, while quietly calculating that his polemics induce the weirdo Naderites not to waste their vote this time around.
Mr. Kerry, meanwhile, has been fortifying his other flank with the sandbag of John Edwards. In the cultural shorthand of America, Mr. Edwards pulls Mr. Kerry right because anyone from the South is assumed to be more conservative than his northern counterparts. Mr. Edwards thus might help Mr. Kerry take such swing states as Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia. For John Edwards, though, the word “South” should be put in quotation marks if “South” equals “conservative,” because Mr. Edwards isn’t. His Senate voting record is virtually identical to Mr. Kerry’s: He is a protectionist on trade, which puts him to Mr. Kerry’s left, and a supporter of the death penalty, which tugs him back again. John Edwards is not as conservative as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or the pre-2000 Al Gore. He is not as conservative as Senator Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat, who will in fact be addressing the Republican National Convention as a supporter of George W. Bush.
Conservative oppo warriors are looking forward to fighting Mr. Edwards as a former trial lawyer. My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review senior editor, warns them not to expect much traction, since trial lawyers make their millions not by birth, as George W. Bush did, nor by marriage, as John Kerry did, but by making plausible arguments to juries. Every other word a trial lawyer utters may be a lie, but unlike the lies we tell our wives and children, they sound good. People tell pollsters that they dislike lawyers, but when they go to court they do not take dentists.
Mr. Edwards is more seriously vulnerable on the issue of his qualifications. How does a single term in the Senate, and no other political or leadership experience, qualify him to understudy the role of running the Terror War? Other veeps have done as little. The main claim to fame of Richard Johnson, Vice President for Martin Van Buren, was that he had killed Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames. He used to celebrate himself in verse:
Ripsey, Rampsey, rumsy, tumsy,
I, Dick Johnson, killed Tecumsey.
But George W. Bush suggests that men with slight experience can, unlike Richard Johnson, show unsuspected resources. President Bush came to the White House having been nothing other than the Governor of Texas. During his Presidential race, his aides argued seriously that his dealings with Mexico prepared him to cope with the world. Yet since 9/11, he has brought down two vicious tyrants; the resolution authorizing him to attack Iraq was supported by Senators Kerry and Edwards.
This is not, however, an argument that John Edwards is likely to make, or that John Kerry will make on his behalf.