Jason Zengerle | Might magazine | 1997 | 19 minutes (4,685 words)
Thanks to our Longreads Members’ support, we tracked down a vintage story from Dave Eggers’s Might Magazine. It’s from Jason Zengerle, a correspondent for GQ and contributing editor for New York magazine who’s been featured on Longreads often in the past.
“This was the first story I wrote that could qualify as a long read—and it certainly wasn’t by choice. I’d just graduated from college and was doing an internship at The American Prospect, but I spent most of my time daydreaming about being an intern at The New Republic, which hadn’t seen fit to hire me. Hoping to change their mind, I’d routinely pitch TNR freelance stories, and one day I got the idea to write a takedown of Michael Moore: I sent in at a tightly-argued, perfect-for-TNR 1,000 words; TNR sent back its customary 20-word rejection. That would have been the end of it, but I showed the piece to my friend Todd Pruzan, who offered to show it to his friend Dave Eggers, who was then editing a little magazine called Might.
“It turned out that Eggers didn’t share my dim opinion of Moore, but he did see the potential for a fun stunt. He said Might would be willing to take my 1,000 words arguing that Moore was a hack, if I’d be willing to embed them in a much longer shaggy-dog story of trying to track down and meet with Moore himself. By now, of course, the idea of pulling a Roger & Me on Michael Moore is pretty played-out, but at the time, I don’t think anyone had thought of it yet. And so on MLK Day weekend of 1997, I took a Peter Pan bus from Boston to New York, rented a gorilla suit for my unemployed actor friend Morgan Phillips, and set off on our little adventure.
“The rest is history. By the end of that year, Might was out of business. Eggers was writing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and on his way to becoming the voice of a generation. And I was an intern at TNR.”
* * *
Is This Man the Last, Best Hope for Popular Liberalism in America? And, More Importantly, Does He Have a Sense of Humor?
Michael Moore, reputedly the great satirist of the 1990s, has been only sporadically funny this decade. His crowning achievement, the humorous pseudo-documentary Roger & Me, which heaped a steaming pile of populist scorn on General Motors and its chief executive officer Roger Smith for destroying Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, was released in 1989, so it doesn’t count. The material Moore has churned out since then—presumably the material on which he stakes his claim to exalted status—is remarkable only for its unevenness.
His 1992 short Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint is a tired replay of his attacks on corporate America. His 1995 attempt at feature filmmaking, Canadian Bacon, is akin to a slapstick-less Spaceballs that not only manages to squander the considerable talents of Rip Torn and Steven Wright, but utterly fails at the easiest of tasks: satirizing the Gulf War. Even “TV Nation,” his award-winning newsmagazine which aired off and on for two years on NBC and Fox before being put “on hiatus,” is a bit of a letdown, mixing some funny pranks—a trip to Newt Gingrich’s federal-spending-rich congressional district to drum up support for Newt’s call to cut public spending—with the offensive—protesting the private beaches of lily-white Greenwich, Connecticut by importing an unwitting group of Latinos and African-Americans from Brooklyn for a day of fun (and racially tinged abuse) in the sun. Worse, Moore has packaged his most recent comedic misstep in the form of a book, Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American, in which he fantasizes about bedding Hilary Clinton and tries to make funny about the Holocaust.
Although he has never lived up to the promise he displayed with Roger & Me, Michael Moore is continually fawned over by the media, which typically hail him as an “irrepressible new humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain” or grants him “a working-class voice and an irreverent intelligence.” Bill Maher invites him on “Politically Incorrect”; “Comedy Central” airs reruns of “TV Nation” in prime time; and Anita Gates, writing in the New York Times Book Review, dubs Downsize This! “delightful, outrageous, sometimes irrefutable…”
The book, more than any other single example of his work, demonstrates how willy-nilly and ill-informed his politics are, and yet its popularity proves how solidly his ideas strike a chord with a mass audience. This is, perhaps, a dangerous combination. Michael Moore is probably the best-known openly liberal media figure in America, and as such he has the ear of millions of the country’s “progressives.” But a close reading of his work begs the question: Does he have any idea what he’s talking about?
Downsize This! spent three weeks on the Times’ bestseller list and has sold well over 200,000 copies. Random House sponsored a 47-city book tour for Moore last fall, when he played to standing-room-only crowds, filling college auditoriums and factory-town civic halls. The tour even provided Moore with his next project. He filmed the whole thing for a documentary (“the first concert film of a book tour,” he’s calling it), coming this summer to a theater near you.
I caught Moore’s act last October, when he brought his road show to a Harvard Square movie house a week before the election. Even though Lawrence Levine, the celebrated defender of multiculturalism and author of The Opening of the American Mind, was debating Dinesh D’Souza—of Illiberal Education and The End of Racism fame—down the street at Harvard’s School of Education, the liberal vanguard of Cambridge had chose to turn out en masse for Moore’s appearance. And so I crowded into the Brattle Theatre along with them, sitting through what seemed like an interminable one-hour talk while waiting patiently for the promised question-and-answer session. When the time came, I raised my hand high and hoped for the best, anxious to pose the query that begged to be asked: “How do you explain your success as a political humorist when you know nothing about politics and you’re only occasionally funny?” Unfortunately, Moore did not take more than a handful of questions, and looked in my direction just once. A woman one row in front of me was called on, only to gush, “Would you please run for president?”
As I was unable to ask Moore my pointed questions at his Cambridge appearance—an episode an enterprising film editor could easily splice to parallel the scene in Roger & Me when Moore is rebuffed by Roger Smith at the GM shareholders’ meeting—I decided that I would have to embark on a Mooreonic quest of my own. Public appearances and prearranged interviews be damned, I was going to track Moore down and surprise him on his own time, because, as I’ve learned so well from his oeuvre, there’s no such thing as a stupid question if you make a story out of trying to ask it.
Although Moore constantly boasts about his Flint bona fides so that he can present himself as an “emissary for working Americans,” the author’s biography in Downsize This! explains that he lives and works in New York City. The bio provides a New York post-office box number and an e-mail address (MMFlint@aol.com; even in cyberspace he’s true to his roots), but I eschewed these impersonal means of communication. Why go through the proper channels when you can just play dumb and show up unannounced on a person’s doorstep for an interview? Of course, to do this successfully, you need to be able to find the correct doorstep.
Upon arrival in New York, I met up with my friend Morgan, who agreed to put on a gorilla costume and accompany me as Morgan the Gorilla. (We tried, but couldn’t come up with a cool name like the one Moore invented for his anthropomorphic compadre on “TV Nation”: Crackers the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken.) I assumed that a quick glance at the business part of the phone book would furnish me with the requisite info. But there was no listing for Moore’s production company, Dog-Eat-Dog Films. A call to 411 provided fruitless as well. I had wanted to maintain some semblance of decency and ambush the man at his place of work, but his failure to list his office’s phone number and address with the proper authorities left me with little choice; I would have to find Moore at home.
I had read somewhere that Moore lived on the Upper East Side, so I was happy to find a couple of listings in the phone book for Michael Moores in that area. We had our marks, so Morgan and I readied for the encounter. He put on his gorilla mask, and I opened my audiobook version of Downsize This! and put it into a Walkman I had hooked up to a megaphone. Armed for battle, we hopped on the 6 train at East 23rd and headed uptown.
Needless to say, the denizens of the swank Upper East Side did not particularly appreciate my friend’s costume or my megaphone-amplified cries of “Michael, where are you?” interspersed with choice tidbits of Downsize This! read aloud by its author. Where bike messengers downtown had stopped to ask us if we were from “Letterman,” strolling couples uptown ducked into their doorman buildings to avoid passing us on the street.
The doorman at our first stop, a modest postwar building on East 69th Street, confirmed that a Michael Moore did indeed reside inside his building. But when I produced a copy of Downsize This! to show him the author’s doughy face on the cover, he swore that he opened doors for an entirely different Michael Moore. I played him a snippet of the Downsize This! tape through my megap
hone—the part where Moore lustfully describes Hillary Clinton as “one hot shitkickin’ feminist babe” and chides Republicans who “immediately go limp at the thought of a strong woman”—to see if Moore’s voice might possibly ring any bells, but the doorman was quick to shake his head so that I would turn the tape off, lest its contents offend any of his building’s tenants.
Another doorman, this one working at a luxurious apartment building on Park Avenue, stood in the entrance and would not even let us into the lobby when we came calling to ask if he opened doors for the Michael Moore. “No,” he snapped when I asked if he recognized Moore’s face. I began to play my tape for a quick voice analysis, but he cut me off. “What are you doing?” he asked peevishly. “Let me close the door. Do you think this is funny?” And with that, we were left out in the cold.
My humorless but class-signifying exchange with the Park Avenue doorman—in which the doorman, the haughty authority to my underdog championing Michael Moore—started to make things more clear to me. Moore isn’t popular because he’s funny, but because he’s socially relevant. While Al Franken won the eternal gratitude of liberals everywhere for Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot, his somewhat intellectual bent—he’s fairly fond of reminding people he went to Harvard—makes him ill-suited to do real battle with a populist firebrand such as Limbaugh. To combat Limbaugh and his ilk, liberals assume that they need their own big, fat idiot, and in Moore they think they’ve found him. Like Limbaugh, Moore loves crude rhetoric and stupid pranks. He’s equal to Limbaugh in his arrogance and is more than happy to stoop to Limbaugh’s level and fight dirty. One of the few funny chapters in Downsize This! describes Moore’s entreaties to the Secret Service to arrest conservatives such as Jesse Helms, G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, and Limbaugh for violating the federal law prohibiting threats against the president. But this is a rare stroke of genius. Moore, sadly, is not Limbaugh’s equal. He’s simply not as cunning or as skilled a propagandist. While both men have made the bestseller list and have adoring fans, only Limbaugh is capable of helping to instigate a voter revolt like the one in 1994 that ended 40 years of Democratic majorities in the House. While Moore was invited to make speeches for Jerry Brown’s delusional 1992 presidential candidacy, Limbaugh was made an honorary member of the 104th Congress’ Republican freshman class. Limbaugh is evil and brilliant; Moore is simply bumbling.
The more apt comparison with Moore is not Limbaugh but another, less obviously political funnyman: Yakov Smirnoff. Much the way Smirnoff’s “what-a-country” shtick drew laughs in the ’80s, when America was engaged in the Cold War and the Soviet Union was still around to be feared, Moore’s lame jokes win him a following because Americans are nervous about corporate downsizing, income disparity, and wage inequality. By constantly decrying life in his former country and celebrating his new home, Smirnoff made Americans feel good about themselves and strengthened their resolve to fight the Cold War. Similarly, Moore’s attacks on corporations and his encouraging words for the working class come at a time when many Americans are confronting a new sense of economic insecurity. The only difference is that while Smirnoff was subjecting Americans to his baleful sense of humor, the American government was hard at work backstage trying to defeat the Evil Empire. In Moore’s fight for progressive causes, he’s essentially out there on his own.
On the night I saw him in Cambridge, when he shuffled onto the staged decked out in his standard uniform—plaid shirt, jeans, navy windbreaker, and baseball cap—he didn’t waste much time cracking wise. Rather, this media darling in schlump’s clothing capitalized on his status as the liberal chic’s posterchild for workers’ rights and lectured the crowd about the “vanishing American dream”:
“I’ve been real encouraged by the crowds that have turned out, the places I’ve been,” Moore said, his voice swelling with nasally uplift. “We’re really not alone out there. It’s not just you in Cambridge feeling this sense of despair. It’s a majority of Americans. That’s the big lie of the media, that there are only 100 of us, that we’re marginalized. We are the majority!
“But most working Americans don’t like liberals,” he continued. “I’m here speaking as their emissary from Flint, Michigan. Working Americans think that liberals are wimps, that they don’t have the courage of their convictions. Right-wingers are proud of what they believe in, but liberals run away from the label. We have to stand up for what we believe in!”
And Moore certainly has never been bashful about proclaiming his liberal beliefs. His candor is in many ways refreshing, but just as Moore isn’t consistently funny enough to be a good comic, he’s not smart enough to be a sophisticated and effective political thinker. He basically spouts the same warmed-over, left-wing nostrums (labor is good; big business is evil) that have been falling on deaf ears since before the Regan Revolution. In his book’s first chapter, he cautions the reader, “I have no college degree, so take what I say with that in mind.” That’s hardly a difficult task when you read his trenchant observation about a homeless man—”Why was it him standing there like that? Why not me?”—or his keen insight (circa 1996) into the character of Bill Clinton—”He reminded me of that wonk who ran for senior-class president and was so ambitious about winning that he’d say or do anything to get elected.” Moore’s take on the failure of the Clintons’ health-care initiative isn’t much better: Rather than consider that the Clintons might have doomed their plan from the start by appeasing industry at the expense of cultivating grass-roots support for universal coverage, Moore blames the whole affair on “a bunch of men whining” that the plan’s creator—Hillary—”was the proud owner of two ovaries.” Moore seems to think that if only some proud owner of two testicles—Ira Magaziner perhaps—had been given Hillary’s prominent role, every American would have access to decent health care.
And for someone who ostensibly wants government to run more smoothly and thus be better able to help the downtrodden—he is fond of praising “Big Government,” and slags Clinton for pledging to end it—Moore is ridiculously partisan. One chapter of Downsize This! is called “Democrat? Republican? Can You Tell the Difference?” In it, Moore presents a series of quotes from various politicians, and challenges the reader to guess their source—Republican or Democrat. There is a quote wishing well to Ronald Reagan, which we are supposed to be shocked to learn came from…Bill Clinton! There is a quote praising the Democrats for ending segregation, which we are awed to find came from…Newt Gingrich! And while staking out a position left of the vaunted “vital center,” is a good thing, the message Moore is sending is something like this: If elected officials fail to live up (or down) to our most grotesque caricatures of them—if, say, Clinton wishes well to Ronald Reagan shortly after Reagan is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, or if a Republican legislator favors planting trees—Moore throws up his hands and gives up on Washington. Voter apathy, he insinuates, is a natural response to all politicians refusing to fit into ne
ar columns of Good Guys and Bad Guys. At the end of the chapter, Moore offers this sage advice: “Congratulations! You’ve completed the quiz. If you scored less than 50 percent and decide not to vote on Election Day, we’ll understand.”
Moore’s ideas are as notable for their mild hypocrisy as they are for their naiveté. He is surprisingly complimentary toward Bill Clinton for, of all things, his draft dodging. While it does no good to refight the Vietnam War by vilifying Clinton for what Moore charitably calls his version of “Alice’s Restaurant,” it is odd that Moore doesn’t harbor any resentment toward a man who used his privilege and connections to escape service. After all, while Clinton was enjoying his time at Oxford, weren’t Moore’s autoworker buddies from Flint, most of whom didn’t have the option of a Rhodes scholarship, fighting in his stead?
But such occasional blind spots on class don’t prevent Moore from frequently rubbing his fans’ noses in their elitism. At his reading in Cambridge, Moore urged his audience to get off its liberal high horse, end its “left-wing circle jerk,” and get out in the “real world.” “Corporate America has done the organizing for us,” he insisted. “They’ve made working people so mad that they’re ready to go. It’s just that we need to lead them.” Ignoring, for a second, the implication that the Harvard set would be the “we” leading the blue-collar “they,” the question he begged of his listeners was “Yes, Michael, of course. But how?” As Moore paused for full effect, his audience eagerly awaited the inspirational words that might signal the dawn of a new progressive era. “We need to let the working class know that we don’t think we’re better than them,” Moore commanded. “I want you watching ‘Friends’ every single week. I want you listening to country music.” Here, Moore was actually funny. The sad thing was, he was trying to be serious.
After striking out in our efforts to find Moore on the Upper East Side, Morgan the Gorilla and I decided to head to the only other address we had for him, his PO box. We hailed a cab and vamoosed across town to the Radio City Station Post Office, where we staked out his PO box for a good half-hour. I asked some of the postal workers if they recognized Moore from the cover of Downsize This! , but none of them had ever seen him picking up his mail there before. We decided it was time to leave when a post-office policeman, carrying a sidearm, asked us if we were aware that tampering with the mail was a federal offense. Outside, two Japanese tourists gave Morgan the Gorilla twenty-five cents to have their picture taken with him.
If we couldn’t locate Moore through the normal channels, I thought, we might find him by contacting some of his associates. In his four pages of acknowledgments in Downsize This!, Moore thanks his agent, Andrew Wylie, for all his support and assistance, so we made a call to directory assistance and procured Wylie’s office address. A brisk walk to a building on the corner of Eight and West 57th, a quick dash past its security guard into a waiting elevator, and we were on the 21st floor where Wylie—known in publishing circles as “The Jackal” for his ability to procure stunning advances for his authors—works his singular magic. I told the receptionist that we had come to Wylie’s office in hopes of finding Michael Moore, and she asked us to wait while she checked into something. A few minutes later, a nice, young man came into the reception area and informed us that Wylie’s agency had ceased working with Moore two weeks earlier, and that perhaps we could find what we were looking for at the offices of Random House, Moore’s publisher.
Another cab ride across town, and we were in the publishing giant’s marbled atrium, where a beefy security guard greeted our arrival with a less-than-welcoming “Oh, this is perfect.” I informed the guard of our quest and of our wish to visit Moore’s editor at Random House, so that I could perhaps find Moore’s address and ask the editor a few questions about Moore’s book. “Are you media?” he growled. I sheepishly admitted that I was and he replied, “All media requests go through Publicity.” He called upstairs to Publicity and put me on the line with a woman who told me that Random House editors did not do media interviews and that since Moore had finished his book tour, Random House had stopped coordinating his schedule. “Do you know how I might get in touch with him, then?” I inquired. “Oh, no problem,” she replied, and gave me the phone number for Dog-Eat-Dog Films.
We left Random House and headed to a pay phone. My call was answered with a cheerful “Dog-Eat-Dog Films,” and my heart fluttered. “Hello,” I said in my best businessman’s tone. “I’d like to courier a script over to Michael, and I was wondering if I could get your address?” “And what’s your name?” the voice replied. I gave my name, and he asked if I could hold. A minute later, he came back on the line and gave me Moore’s PO box. “But I was really hoping I could have it delivered to him,” I pleaded. “I’d like him to get it as soon as possible, and I don’t really trust the mail with it.” “I’m sorry,” the man said somewhat mysteriously. “We just don’t accept deliveries. Send it to the PO box, and everything will be fine.” And with that he hung up. At least Moore knew that to find Roger Smith, all he had to do was show up at GM world headquarters.
I had been thwarted again. I couldn’t very well call up Dog-Eat-Dog and tell them I needed their address so I could ambush their boss. How was I ever going to ask Michael Moore my question if I couldn’t even find out where he worked or lived? I was so close, but I needed to know Moore’s precise location. I whipped out my megaphone and started begging for information from random passers-by.
“Have you seen this man?” I asked all who could hear, brandishing my now-tattered copy of Downsize This! “I’m looking for Michael Moore. Can anybody tell me where he works?”
People passed by, generally trying to ignore me. A homeless person asked a meter maid to write me a ticket. A teenager approached Morgan the Gorilla and mockingly did an ape dance. A woman, seeing the book and apparently assuming we were with “TV Nation,” asked if it was Michael Moore in the gorilla suit. Two Hasidic Jews strolled past as my megaphone was blasting Moore’s theory that the German tourists murdered in Florida (“Jerries”) were actually victims of local Jewish retirees (“Moskowitzes”) who also happened to be vengeful Holocaust survivors. Things were looking bleak. But then I realized that I was not totally helpless in my quest. I had a friend who knew someone who worked at another magazine that had interviewed Moore; maybe she would know the location of the shadowy Dog-Eat-Dog Films. Kicking myself for not having thought of this earlier—but also aware that Michael Moore would never settle on such an easy and obvious solution to his problems—I gave her a call.
“Oh, sure, you mean Michael Moore’s office?” she asked. “That’s in a building on the corner of 7th and West 57th.” Before she could ask me why I wanted to know, I hung up the phone. Morgan the Gorilla and I hailed a cab and headed back across town for our rendezvous with destiny.
We jumped out of the cab at the corner of 7th and West 5
7th and pushed through the corner building’s revolving door and into its small lobby, where we asked the earinged doorman for the floor number of Dog-Eat-Dog Films. “You got an appointment?” he asked. “No, we’re just here to see Michael Moore,” I replied. “Which floor is he on?”
The guard just shook his head: “No one gets past me without an appointment.” I asked if he could call upstairs to Moore’s office and tell them that they had visitors, but he remained steadfast. “You can call him from the street, and if he agrees to see you, you tell him to come down here and escort you up himself. I don’t want any trouble from this.”
With that, we were back on the street and back on a pay phone to Dog-Eat-Dog. This time a woman answered their phone. I explained to her my situation: the gorilla, the day-long search, the desire to ask Mr. Moore a few questions, the fact that I was on the street outside their office at that very moment. None seemed to impress her.
“Well, what do you want to interview him about?” she asked.
“I want him to explain to me why he thinks he’s so popular?”
“And you want to ask him right now?”
“Well, yeah,” I said innocently. “Isn’t that how he does it?”
“Yeah, but I mean it’s not the same thing,” she protested. “We’re just a little office. We’re all really, really busy here.”
I was tempted to ask if she thought the corporations Moore ambushed had a surfeit of people available to field his queries, but I demurred and played dumb. “I just want to come up and ask a few questions. From watching Mr. Moore, I thought that’s how these things were done.”
She asked me to hold, and two dollars worth of quarters later, she got back on the line. “I’m really, really sorry, but Michael can’t see you now. He’s not doing any interviews.”
“But I’ve come all the way from Massachusetts just to talk to him,” I pleaded. “Can’t I just come up and ask him a few questions. It’ll only take a minute or two.”
“No, no, I’m really sorry, but he’s not doing any interviews now. He just finished his book tour, and he’s kind of made an across-the-board promise to not do any more interviews. If we let you up, we have to let everyone up.”
I scanned the block to look for other megaphone-wielding individuals accompanied by animal-costumed friends making their cases into pay phones. “Well, could I maybe ask you my questions then, just so I can get something?”
“No, no, you don’t want to talk to me. I’m really not very funny. You really want to talk to Michael. He’s going to be doing a bunch of interviews in March when his paperback comes out. Why don’t we set something up for then?”
And with that she hung up. It was a tender kiss-off, but a kiss-off nonetheless, and what’s worse, it came from a man who fashioned a career out of getting indignant over being stiffed in the very same way.
Still, his hypocrisy aside, it’s hard to fault those who like Michael Moore. It is a scary time for liberals in America. Even though a Democrat is beginning his second term in the White House and Gingrich and his self-styled revolutionaries have beat a chastened retreat from the stridency they displayed after their 1994 triumph, moderate Republicanism seems to be the governing philosophy of the day. Even liberal icons like Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson have been co-opted, but Moore remains an obstinate holdout. While Cuomo and Jackson unabashedly campaigned for Clinton’s re-election on the premise that only he could fix the welfare law he himself had signed into existence, Moore was titling a chapter of his book “If Clinton Had Balls.” In Cambridge, when I saw him, Moore elaborated a bit on this idea. “Bill Clinton signing the welfare bill was an evil, evil act,” he said. “It’s what’s going to prevent me from voting for him next week.”
So Michael Moore will continue telling liberals that they are not alone in their current disenchantment. And liberals will continue to flock to his appearances, rent his videos, watch his TV shows, go to his movies, and buy his books—eager for the inspiring doses of re-affirmation only Moore can offer. Ironically, this cycle will make Moore a rich man—just as much a beneficiary of downsizing the CEOs he reviles.
When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, whether from its own weight or from pressure applied by the United States, Yakov Smirnoff’s career toppled right along with it (a frequently overlooked aspect of the peace dividend). Unfortunately, politicians don’t appear to be as concerned with wage inequality and income disparity as they were with the Evil Empire, so the economic problems that give Moore his act seem here to stay. For what the very reason, it will be a good day for America, not to mention comedy, when Michael Moore plays to an empty room.