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Profile: Michael Moore
Michael Moore was a participant or observer in the following events:
Fahrenheit 9/11 movie poster.
[Source: Lions Gate Films]Fahrenheit 9/11, a film by well-known documentarian and author Michael Moore, is released in the US. Amongst other things, this film reveals connections between the Bush family and prominent Saudis including the bin Laden family. [New York Times, 5/6/2004; New York Times, 5/17/2004; Toronto Star, 6/13/2004] It reviews evidence the White House helped members of Osama bin Laden’s family and other Saudis fly out of the US in the days soon after 9/11. [New York Times, 5/17/2004; Toronto Star, 6/13/2004; New York Times, 6/18/2004; Los Angeles Times, 6/23/2004; Newsweek, 6/30/2004] It introduces to the mainstream damning footage of President Bush continuing with a photo-op for seven minutes (see (9:07 a.m.) September 11, 2001) after being told of the second plane hitting the WTC on 9/11. [New York Times, 6/18/2004; Washington Post, 6/19/2004; Newsweek, 6/20/2004; Los Angeles Times, 6/23/2004] Disney refused to let its Miramax division distribute the movie in the United States, supposedly because the film was thought too partisan. [New York Times, 5/6/2004; Guardian, 6/2/2004; Los Angeles Times, 6/11/2004; Agence France-Presse, 6/23/2004] The film won the top award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival—the first documentary to do so in nearly 50 years. [BBC, 5/24/2004; Guardian, 5/24/2004; Agence France-Presse, 6/23/2004] It is generally very well received, with most US newspapers rating it favorably. [Agence France-Presse, 6/23/2004; Editor & Publisher, 6/27/2004] The film is an instant hit and is seen by tens of millions. [Associated Press, 6/27/2004; BBC, 6/28/2004; Associated Press, 6/28/2004; CBS News, 6/28/2004] There are some criticisms that it distorts certain facts, such as exaggerating the possible significance of Bush and bin Laden family connections, and gripes about a $1.4 billion number representing the money flowing from Saudi companies to the Bush family. However, the New York Times claims that the public record corroborates the film’s main assertions. [New York Times, 5/17/2004; New York Times, 6/18/2004; Newsweek, 6/30/2004] Shortly before the film’s release, the conservative organization Citizens United tried to block the film’s distribution (see June 27, 2004). The effort failed (see August 6, 2004).
David Bossie (see May 1998), the head of the conservative lobbying group Citizens United (CU), accuses liberal filmmaker Michael Moore of improper involvement in the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Moore and the production company Lions Gate have released a new documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, that is highly critical of the Bush administration (see June 25, 2004). Bossie says the film’s commercials, airing on network and cable television, are little more than campaign commercials devised to attack President Bush and assist Kerry. One commercial shows Bush on the golf course, talking about terrorism. In the clip, Bush tells a group of reporters, “We must stop these terrorist killers,” then turns his back, hefts his golf club, and says, “Now watch this drive.” The New York Times writes that “[t]he scene is one of many featured in the film that paint the president as cavalier, cynical, and insincere in the war against terrorism.” Republicans have for the most part ignored the film until recently, when ads for the film began drawing what they consider unwarranted attention. Bossie says: “There’s only a very small percentage of Americans that are going to go and see this movie. A much larger number are going to be bombarded by these political ads run by Michael Moore, potentially all the way through the election.” CU has run ads supportive of Bush (see (May 11, 2004)). Bossie has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking that agency to classify the film’s ads as political, and restrict their broadcast according to campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002 and December 10, 2003). The law says that if found to be political, the ads must not be aired within 30 days of the start of the Republican National Convention on August 30. Legal experts say the FEC is unlikely to rule on the complaint for months, and even if the agency finds the ads to be political, the film could qualify for an exemption from the restrictions for news and commentary. Tom Ortenberg of Lions Gate says, “If we are still running television ads [by July 30], we will make certain that they are in full compliance with any and all regulations.” If they must remove Bush from the ads to remain in compliance, Ortenberg says “we can market this film without him.” Ortenberg denies that the ads have any political agenda. [New York Times, 6/27/2004] After Lions Gate agrees not to show ads for the film after July 30, the FEC will dismiss the complaint (see August 6, 2004).
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) dismisses the complaint “Citizens United v. Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11.” The conservative lobbying group Citizens United (CU—see (May 11, 2004)) had complained to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that liberal documentarian Michael Moore released a movie, Fahrenheit 9/11 (see June 25, 2004), that was so critical of the Bush administration that it should be considered political advertising. If the movie is indeed political advertising, under federal law it cannot be shown within 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election. The FEC dismisses the complaint, finding no evidence that the movie’s advertisements had broken the law. The movie’s distributors, Lions Gate, assure the FEC that they do not intend to advertise the movie during the time periods given under the law. [Federal Election Commission, 8/6/2004; Moneyocracy, 2/2012] In the aftermath of the FEC decision, CU leaders Floyd Brown (see September 21 - October 4, 1988) and David Bossie will decide that they can do what Moore did, and decide to make their own “documentaries.” Bossie realized after Fahrenheit 9/11 aired that it, and the television commercials promoting it, served two purposes—attacking President Bush and generating profits. Having already conducted an examination of the career of former First Lady Hillary Clinton (D-NY), now a sitting senator with presidential aspirations, the organization will decide to make its first “feature film” about her (see January 10-16, 2008). [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
The DVD cover for ‘Celsius 41.11.’ [Source: Citizens United]The Federal Election Commission (FEC) refuses to allow the conservative lobbying and advocacy group Citizens United (CU) to advertise on television its upcoming film Celsius 41.11—The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die, a documentary that the group intends as a refutation of the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (see June 25, 2004), a film by liberal documentarian Michael Moore that savaged the Bush administration’s handling of the 9/11 attacks. The FEC also refuses to allow CU to pay to run the film on television. The FEC bases its decision on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold—see March 27, 2002), and its restrictions on nonprofit groups such as CU using unregulated contributions to pay for “electioneering communications” to be shown within 60 days of a federal general election. CU would broadcast the film in late September, less than 60 days before the November 2 elections. CU argued, unsuccessfully, that it is a member of the news media and therefore can use a legal exemption provided for news, commentary, and editorial content. In a 4-0 vote, the FEC rejects the argument, saying that CU intends to buy air time instead of being paid to provide content, and that its primary function is as an advocacy group and not a film production organization. FEC vice chair Ellen L. Weintraub, one of the commission’s three Democrats, says: “You don’t want a situation where people are airing campaign commercials and they are exempt from commission rules because they are considered a media event. The danger is that the exemption swallows the rules.” CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) says he is “clearly disappointed” with the ruling, and adds, “They [the FEC] want to limit free speech, and that’s what this issue is about for us.” The company marketing Fahrenheit 9/11 was not allowed to run advertisements promoting the film within 60 days of the elections, and a CU complaint against that film was dismissed after its distributors promised not to air such advertisements (see August 6, 2004). CU has helped fund the publication of a book by Bossie attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA), and has released numerous documentaries attacking the Clinton administration and the United Nations. The current film contains some material attacking Kerry, though that material is not the primary focus of the film. Bossie says the group will attempt to show the film in theaters to paying audiences within a few weeks (see September 27-30, 2004). [New York Times, 9/9/2004; New York Times, 9/30/2004]
Entity Tags: Federal Election Commission, Bush administration (43), Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Citizens United, Clinton administration, John Kerry, Michael Moore, David Bossie, United Nations, Ellen L. Weintraub
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Domestic Propaganda, 2004 Elections
The conservative lobbying and advocacy group Citizens United (CU) releases a documentary intended as a refutation of the popular documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 (see June 25, 2004), a film by liberal documentarian Michael Moore that savaged the Bush administration’s handling of the 9/11 attacks. The CU film is entitled Celsius 41.11—The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die. CU spent six weeks making the film, and is releasing it in small venues around the nation after the Federal Election Commission (FEC) denied the organization permission to broadcast it on television (see September 8, 2004). (In August, the FEC dismissed a complaint against Moore over Fahrenheit 9/11 filed by CU—see August 6, 2004.) The slogan for the movie is “The Truth Behind the Lies of Fahrenheit 9/11!” The movie was written and produced by Lionel Chetwynd, who has written and produced a number of Hollywood feature films and documentaries. Chetwynd, a vocal conservative, produced the September 2003 “docudrama” 9/11: Time of Crisis, which portrayed President Bush as a near-action hero during and after the 9/11 attacks, and took significant liberties with the actual events (see September 7, 2003). Of this film, Chetwynd says: “We could have gone wall to wall with red meat on this, but we purposely didn’t. The cheap shots may be entertaining in Moore’s film, but we wanted to make the intellectual case and go beyond lecturing to the converted.” New York Times reporter John Tierney describes the movie as overtly intellectual, sometimes appearing more as a PowerPoint presentation than a film made to appeal to a wider audience. It features a point-by-point defense of Bush’s actions during the 9/11 attacks, and features “politicians, journalists, and scholars discoursing on the legality of the Florida recount in 2000, the Clinton administration’s record on fighting terrorism, and the theory of American exceptionalism.” There are a few “red meat” moments, Tierney notes, including the juxtaposition of the Twin Towers burning as Moore says in a voiceover, “There is no terrorist threat.” It also includes a few slaps against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA), mostly in the form of a country song where the singer Larry Gatlin sings, “John boy, please tell us which way the wind’s blowing,” a reference to the Bush campaign’s attempt to portray Kerry as a “flip-flopper” who goes back and forth in his views on various issues. The Georgetown premiere of the movie attracts some 300 viewers, almost all Republicans, according to Tierney. The audience, according to Tierney, views the film as more “thoughtful and accurate” than Moore’s film, and unlikely to make anywhere near the profits the earlier film garnered. Chetwynd says he resisted the temptation to launch an all-out assault on Kerry “the way that Moore did with Bush.” Filmgoer Jerome Corsi, who has written a bestselling book attacking Kerry’s Vietnam record, praises the film, as does Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of the airplane that was flown into the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001 (see 8:51 a.m.-8:54 a.m. September 11, 2001). Burlingame, a founder of a group of 9/11 victim relatives that supports Bush, says: “Michael Moore actually used footage of the Pentagon in flames as a sight gag. It was really hard to sit there in the theater listening to people laugh at that scene knowing my brother was on that plane. I wish more people would see this film instead.” [New York Times, 9/30/2004] In October, the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott will dismiss the film as “generat[ing] heat but no new light,” calling it “sad in a sad sort of way… dull, lazy, and inconsistent,” and suffused with an “unabashed idolatry of the Great Leader (in this case, George W. Bush)” in the same way that Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl made her documentaries (he wonders, “Has the conservative worldview really been reduced to a slavish worship of authority?”). Kennicott will ask if the film is an attempt to refute Moore’s documentary or an “overlong attack ad on John Kerry,” and concludes that the film is little more than a combination of “dreadful political advertisements and dreadful political talk shows.” [Washington Post, 10/22/2004] TV Guide’s Maitland McDonagh will call the film a “shrill, repetitive screed” obviously released just in time to influence the 2004 presidential election, and bearing “all the hallmarks of having been thrown together in a heated rush.” [TV Guide, 10/2004]
Entity Tags: Jerome Corsi, Debra Burlingame, Clinton administration, Citizens United, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Philip Kennicott, Lionel Chetwynd, Federal Election Commission, Larry Gatlin, Leni Riefenstahl, John Tierney (New York Times), Maitland McDonagh, John Kerry, Michael Moore
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Domestic Propaganda, 2004 Elections
Right-wing commentators react to the sudden media presence of antiwar activist and bereaved mother Cindy Sheehan (see August 6, 2005 and After) with vitriolic criticism. (Author and media critic Frank Rich will later write of his belief that the anti-Sheehan campaign is orchestrated from the White House: “The attack was especially vicious because there was little the White House feared more than a critic who had more battle scars than a president or a vice president who had avoided Vietnam.”) Weekly Standard writer Fred Barnes tells Fox News viewers that Sheehan is a “crackpot.” Right-wing bloggers begin spreading lurid, and sometimes false, stories of her recent divorce and the opposition Sheehan receives from some of her family members. Because some of the Camp Casey protesters showed the recent Iraq documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (see June 25, 2004), many right-wing commentators and pundits accuse Sheehan of being a tool of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin accuses Sheehan and other bereaved family members opposing the war of using their losses to promote their ideological agenda, and calls them “grief pimps.” The American Spectator says Sheehan’s own peace organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, “seeks to impeach George W. Bush and apparently to convince the US government to surrender to Muslim terrorists.” Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh makes the extraordinary claim that Sheehan is making up the entire story of her son’s death (see April 4, 2004), claiming that her loss “is nothing more than forged documents—there’s nothing about it that’s real.” Rich later notes that what he calls “the Swift Boating of Cindy Sheehan” has “failed, utterly.” He will continue: “The hope this time was that we’d change the subject to Cindy Sheehan’s ‘wacko’ rhetoric and the opportunistic left-wing groups that have attached themselves to her like barnacles. That way we would forget about her dead son. But if much of the 24/7 media has taken the bait, much of the public has not.… The public knows that what matters this time is Casey Sheehan’s story, not the mother who symbolizes it.” [Los Angeles Times, 8/11/2005; Washington Post, 8/13/2005; New York Times, 8/21/2005; Rich, 2006, pp. 194-195]
John Murtha during his press conference. [Source: Larry Downing / Reuters]Representative John Murtha (D-PA), one of the most conservative and hawkish Democrats in the House of Representatives and a longtime supporter of the military, stuns opponents and fellow Democrats alike by calling for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Fighting back tears, Murtha, a former US Marine and a decorated Vietnam veteran, says the troops in Iraq suffer from poor equipment and low morale. Moreover, the troops’ presence there now serves as an impediment to Iraqi progress towards stability and self-governance. The war is “a flawed policy wrapped in illusion,” he says, and adds, “Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency.” Islamic insurgents “are united against US forces, and we have become a catalyst for violence.… I resent the fact, on Veterans Day, [Bush] criticized Democrats for criticizing them. This is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public knows it. And lashing out at critics doesn’t help a bit. You’ve got to change the policy.… It’s time to bring [the soldiers] home.” Murtha submits a bill to compel the withdrawal of troops as soon as feasible (see November 17, 2005). Congressional Republicans counter with accusations of cowardice (see November 18-21, 2005) and even siding with terrorists over their country. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) says: “Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run. They would prefer that the United States surrender to the terrorists who would harm innocent Americans.”
Democratic Leaders Cautious - Democratic leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and campaign chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) react cautiously to Murtha’s call for withdrawal. Pelosi has privately said that she will call for a complete withdrawal of troops in 2006, but does not yet join Murtha in his call for withdrawal, merely saying that he deserves to have “his day.” Emanuel is even more cautious, saying, “Jack Murtha went out and spoke for Jack Murtha.” As for Iraq policy, Emanuel says, “At the right time, we will have a position.”
Mishandling of Intelligence - Murtha joins with other Democrats in accusing the administration of deliberately misrepresenting intelligence about Iraq’s WMD and its connections to al-Qaeda. Vice President Cheney has called such accusations “dishonest and reprehensible.” President Bush responds: “I expect there to be criticism. But when Democrats say that I deliberately misled the Congress and the people, that’s irresponsible. They looked at the same intelligence I did, and they voted—many of them voted—to support the decision I made.… So I agree with the vice president.” Asked about the comments, Murtha retorts, “I like guys who got five deferments and [have] never been there and send people to war, and then don’t like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done.” Cheney received five deferments during the Vietnam War which allowed him to sit out the war; Bush was a Texas Air National Guardsman who did not leave the country during that war. Other Democrats say that they were themselves misled about the intelligence on Iraq’s WMD.
Angry Rhetoric from Both Sides - The White House issues a statement in response to Murtha’s call for a pullout, declaring that Murtha is “endorsing the policy positions of [liberal filmmaker] Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party.” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) responds that Bush and Cheney “have begun a new campaign of distortion and manipulation. Because of the polls showing that Americans have lost trust in the president and believe he manipulated intelligence before the war, the president and vice president have abandoned any pretense of leading this country and have gone back on the campaign trail.” They could not find weapons of mass destruction, Kennedy says, and “they can’t find the truth, either.” Kennedy’s Senate colleague Ted Stevens (R-AK) responds by accusing Kennedy and other Democrats of attempting to “undermine the people standing abroad by repeatedly calling [Bush] a liar.” House Republican Geoff Davis says Murtha’s statements are “shameful.” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) says that if the US does not prevail in Iraq, it will invite another 9/11-type attack: “Four years have expired without a second attack on our homeland because we’ve aggressively projected America’s fighting forces in the theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) counters that the White House has “shamelessly decided to play politics” over Iraq. “We need a commander in chief, not a campaigner in chief,” Reid says. “We need leadership from the White House, not more whitewashing of the very serious issues confronting us in Iraq.” [Washington Post, 11/18/2005; New York Times, 11/18/2005; New York Sun, 11/18/2005]
Entity Tags: Ted Stevens, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emanuel, Dennis Hastert, Geoffrey C. (“Geoff”) Davis, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Duncan Hunter, George W. Bush, John P. Murtha, Harry Reid, Michael Moore
Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation
A poster promoting ‘Hillary: The Movie.’ [Source: New York Times]The conservative lobbying group Citizens United (CU—see May 1998 and (May 11, 2004)) releases a film entitled Hillary: The Movie. The film is a lengthy diatribe attacking the character and career of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Large portions of the film are comprised of conservative critics launching attacks against the personalities and character of Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) says he based his film on a documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, released in 2004 by liberal filmmaker Michael Moore (see August 6, 2004), and calls it “a rigorously researched critical biography” comparable to the material presented on political talk shows such as Meet the Press. [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Moneyocracy, 2/2012] Bossie intended for the film to be released in late 2007 and impact the 2008 race in the same way that he believes Fahrenheit 9/11 impacted the 2004 race. A cable company made the film, at a cost of $1.2 million, available for free to viewers on “video on demand.” Bossie also scheduled a small theater run for the film, but his primary focus was always cable television and the accompanying television advertisements. Knowing the film will probably run afoul of campaign law, he hired lawyers, first James Bopp Jr. (a former member of the far-right Young Americans for Freedom—YAF—and the former general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee—see November 1980 and After) [New Yorker, 5/21/2012] and later Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general under the Bush administration. Olson will later say the film is “a critical biographical assessment” that provides “historical information about the candidate and, perhaps, some measure of entertainment as well.” The New York Times calls it “a scathingly hostile look at Mrs. Clinton” replete with “ripe voice-overs, shadowy re-enactments, and spooky mood music.” The film also contains interviews and material from mainstream media reporters, and interviews with figures such as former CIA agent Gary Aldrich, who wrote a “tell-all” book about the Clinton administration, and with Kathleen Willey, who has claimed that Bill Clinton once made an unwelcome sexual advance towards her. Reviewer Megan Carpentier of Radar Online will trounce the movie, saying that it “scrolls through more than a decade of press clippings and a treasure trove of unflattering pictures in its one-sided romp” and will advise potential viewers to watch it “while inebriated in the manner of your choosing, and only if you don’t pay $10 for the privilege.” [New York Times, 3/5/2009] Bossie claims the movie has nothing to do with the impending primary elections. CU intends to show the movie in a small number of theaters but primarily on “video on demand” cable broadcasts, with accompanying television advertisements. In return for a $1.2 million fee, a cable television consortium has agreed to make the movie freely available to its customers as part of what CU calls its “Election ‘08” series. (CU has another negative documentary on Clinton’s Democratic challenger Barack Obama in the works—see October 28-30, 2008—but apparently has no plans to air any documentaries on Republican candidate John McCain or any other Republican presidential candidates.) However, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refuses to allow the film to be aired on cable channels, or advertised for theater release, because the FEC considers the film “electioneering” and thus subject to campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002) restrictions. Moreover, the film and its planned distribution are funded by corporate donations. [United States District Court for the District Of Columbia, 1/15/2008; Richard Hasen, 1/15/2008; New Yorker, 5/21/2012] Bossie claims the film takes no position on Clinton’s candidacy, and says that if he had to vote between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he would vote for Clinton. [New York Times, 3/5/2009]
Court Fight - Bopp, CU’s original lawyer, decides to pursue the same general aggressive course that he took in a recent successful Supreme Court campaign finance case, the Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) decision (see Mid-2004 and After). The Hillary film was envisioned from the outset to serve multiple purposes: to advance conservative ideology, damage Clinton’s presidential chances (despite Bossie’s claims), and generate profits. Bopp knows that the FEC would likely classify the film as a political advertisement and not a work of journalism or entertainment (see August 6, 2004), and therefore would fall under campaign law restrictions. Before the film is officially released, Bopp takes the film to the FEC for a ruling, and when the FEC, as expected, rules the film to be “electioneering communication” that comes under campaign law restrictions, Bopp files a lawsuit with the Washington, DC, federal district court. The court rules in favor of the FEC judgment, denying CU its request for a preliminary injunction against the FEC’s ruling. The court specifically finds that the WRTL decision does not apply in this case. “[I]f the speech cannot be interpreted as anything other than an appeal to vote for or against a candidate, it will not be considered genuine issue speech even if it does not expressly advocate the candidate’s election or defeat,” the court states. The court also questions CU’s statement that the film “does not focus on legislative issues.… The movie references the election and Senator Clinton’s candidacy, and it takes a position on her character, qualifications, and fitness for office.” Film commentator Dick Morris has said of the film that it will “give people the flavor and an understanding of why she should not be president.” The court rules, “The movie is susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” (During arguments, Bopp says that the film is much like what a viewer would see on CBS’s evening news show 60 Minutes, and Judge Royce Lamberth laughs aloud, saying: “You can’t compare this to 60 Minutes. Did you read this transcript?” Other judges find it problematic that one of the film’s central “issues” is its assertion that Clinton is, in Bopp’s words, “a European socialist,” but still claims not to be overtly partisan.) [Mother Jones, 1/13/2008; United States District Court for the District Of Columbia, 1/15/2008; Richard Hasen, 1/15/2008; New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Supreme Court Appeal - CU appeals the court’s decision directly to the Supreme Court. Bossie soon decides to replace Bopp with Olson, a far more prominent figure in conservative legal circles. Toobin will write: “Ted Olson had argued and won Bush v. Gore (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000), and was rewarded by President Bush with an appointment as solicitor general. Olson had argued before the Supreme Court dozens of times, and he had a great deal of credibility with the justices. He knew how to win.” [Richard Hasen, 1/15/2008; New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Previous Attempt - In September 2004, Bossie and CU attempted, without success, to release a similar “documentary” supporting President Bush and attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA) on television, just weeks before the presidential election. The FEC turned down the group’s request. The FEC did allow the film to be shown in theaters (see September 8, 2004 and September 27-30, 2004).
'Ten-Year Plan' - Bopp will later reveal that the lawsuit is part of what he will call a “10-year plan” to push the boundaries of campaign finance law, and that he urged Bossie and other CU officials to use the documentary as a “test case” for overturning the body of law (see January 25, 2010).
Entity Tags: William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Kathleen Willey, Megan Carpentier, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, New York Times, Michael Moore, John McCain, Royce Lamberth, James Bopp, Jr, Dick Morris, Gary Aldrich, Barack Obama, Bush administration (43), Hillary Clinton, Citizens United, David Bossie, Federal Election Commission, Clinton administration
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2008 Elections
The US Supreme Court hears the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refused to let the conservative lobbying organization Citizens United (CU) air a film entitled Hillary: The Movie during the 2008 presidential primary season (see January 10-16, 2008). The FEC ruled that H:TM, as some have shortened the name, was not a film, but a 90-minute campaign ad with no other purpose than to smear and attack Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as being unfit to hold office. A panel of appeals judges agreed with the FEC’s ruling, which found the film was “susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” As a campaign ad, the film’s airing on national network television came under campaign finance laws, particularly since the film was financed by corporate political donations. CU was allowed to air the film in theaters and sell it in DVD and other formats, but CU wanted to pay $1.2 million to have the movie aired on broadcast cable channels and video-on-demand (pay per view) services, and to advertise its broadcast. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) hired former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Bossie denies that he chose Olson because of their shared loathing of the Clintons—they worked together to foment the “Arkansas Project,” a Clinton smear effort that resulted in Congress unsuccessfully impeaching President Clinton—but because Olson gave “us the best chance to win.” Bossie dedicated the Clinton film to Barbara Olson, Olson’s late wife, who died in the 9/11 attacks (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/2009] “I just don’t see how the Federal Election Commission has the authority to use campaign-finance rules to regulate advertising that is not related to campaigns,” Bossie told reporters last year. [Christian Science Monitor, 2/1/2008]
Uphold or Cut Back McCain-Feingold? - Observers, unaware of the behind-the-scenes machinations, believe the case gives the Court the opportunity to either uphold or cut back the body of law stemming from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, or McCain-Feingold) campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002), which limits the ability of corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising before elections. CU is arguing that the BCRA is unconstitutional, having argued before a previous court that the the BCRA law was unconstitutional in the way it was being enforced by the FEC against its film. In its brief to the Court, CU denies the film is any sort of “electioneering,” claiming: “Citizens United’s documentary engages in precisely the political debate the First Amendment was written to protect… The government’s position is so far-reaching that it would logically extend to corporate or union use of a microphone, printing press, or the Internet to express opinions—or articulate facts—pertinent to a presidential candidate’s fitness for office.” The Justice Department, siding with the FEC, calls the film an “unmistakable” political appeal, stating, “Every element of the film, including the narration, the visual images and audio track, and the selection of clips, advances the clear message that Senator Clinton lacked both the integrity and the qualifications to be president of the United States.” The film is closer to a political “infomercial” than a legitimate documentary, the Justice Department argues. The film’s “unmistakable message is that Senator Clinton’s character, beliefs, qualifications, and personal history make her unsuited to the office of the President of the United States,” according to a Justice Department lawyer, Edwin Kneedler, who filed a brief on behalf of the FEC. The Justice Department wants the Court to uphold FEC disclosure requirements triggered by promotional ads, while Olson and CU want the Court to strike down the requirements. Olson says financial backers of films such as H:TM may be reluctant to back a film if their support becomes publicly known. Kneedler, however, writes that such disclosure is in the public interest. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) is joining CU in its court fight, stating in a brief, “By criminalizing the distribution of a long-form documentary film as if it were nothing more than a very long advertisement, the district court has created uncertainty about where the line between traditional news commentary and felonious advocacy lies.” Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which supports the BCRA, disagrees with RCFP’s stance, saying, “The idea that [the law] threatens legitimate journalism and people who are out creating documentaries, I think, is a stretch.” [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/2009] The RCFP has said that the movie “does not differ, in any relevant respect, from the critiques of presidential candidates produced throughout the entirety of American history.” And a lawyer with the RCFP, Gregg P. Leslie, asked, “Who is the FEC to decide what is news and what kind of format news is properly presented in?” [New York Times, 3/5/2009]
Filled with False Information - The movie was relentlessly panned by critics, who found much of its “information” either misrepresentative of Clinton or outright false. CU made several other films along with the Clinton documentary, which included attacks on filmmaker Michael Moore, the American Civil Liberties Union, illegal immigrants, and Clinton’s fellow presidential contender Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008). [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/2009]
Arguments Presented - Olson and his opponent, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, present arguments in the case to the assembled Court. Traditionally, lawyers with the Solicitor General (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin later writes: “The solicitor general’s lawyers press their arguments in a way that hews strictly to existing precedent. They don’t hide unfavorable facts from the justices. They are straight shooters.” Stewart, who clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and is a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative justice with a penchant for asking tough questions that often hide their true intentions behind carefully neutral wording, is interested in seeing how far he can push Stewart’s argument. Does the BCRA apply only to television commercials, he asks, or might it regulate other means of communication during a federal campaign? “Do you think the Constitution required Congress to draw the line where it did, limiting this to broadcast and cable and so forth?” Could the law limit a corporation from “providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all those as well?” Stewart says that the BCRA indeed imposes such restrictions, stating, “Those could have been applied to additional media as well.” Could the government regulate the content of a book? Alito asks. “That’s pretty incredible. You think that if a book was published, a campaign biography that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, that could be banned?” Stewart, who tardily realizes where Alito was going, attempts to recover. “I’m not saying it could be banned,” he responds. “I’m saying that Congress could prohibit the use of corporate treasury funds and could require a corporation to publish it using its—” Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a “swing” justice in some areas but a reliable conservative vote in campaign-spending cases, interrupts Stewart. “Well, suppose it were an advocacy organization that had a book,” Kennedy says. “Your position is that, under the Constitution, the advertising for this book or the sale for the book itself could be prohibited within the 60- and 30-day periods?” Stewart gives what Toobin later calls “a reluctant, qualified yes.” At this point, Roberts speaks up. According to Toobin, Roberts intends to paint Stewart into something of a corner. “If it has one name, one use of the candidate’s name, it would be covered, correct?” Roberts asks. Stewart responds, “That’s correct.” Roberts then asks, “If it’s a 500-page book, and at the end it says, ‘And so vote for X,’ the government could ban that?” Stewart responds, “Well, if it says ‘vote for X,’ it would be express advocacy and it would be covered by the preexisting Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980) provisions.” Toobin later writes that with their “artful questioning, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts ha[ve] turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship.” Unwittingly, Stewart has argued that the government has the right to censor books because of a single line. Toobin later writes that Stewart is incorrect, that the government could not ban or censor books because of McCain-Feingold. The law applies to television advertisements, and stems from, as Toobin will write, “the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.” Legal scholars and pundits will later argue about Stewart’s answers to the three justices’ questions, but, as Toobin will later write, “the damage to the government’s case had been profound.” [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Behind the Scenes - Unbeknownst to the lawyers and the media, the Court initially renders a 5-4 verdict in favor of CU, and strikes down decades of campaign finance law, before withdrawing its verdict and agreeing to hear rearguments in the fall (see June 29, 2009). Toobin will write that the entire case is orchestrated behind the scenes, by Roberts and his fellow majority conservatives. Toobin will write of “a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case” that “reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court.” Toobin will write that although the five conservatives are involved in broadening the scope of the case, and Kennedy actually writes the majority decision, “the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.” The initial vote on the case is 5-4, with the five conservative justices—Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—taking the majority.
Expansive Concurrence Becomes the Majority Opinion - At the outset, the case is decided on the basis of Olson’s narrow arguments, regarding the issue of a documentary being made available on demand by a nonprofit organization (CU). Roberts takes the majority opinion onto himself. The four liberals in the minority are confident Roberts’s opinion would be as narrow as Olson’s arguments. Roberts’s draft opinion is indeed that narrow. Kennedy writes a concurrence opining that the Court should go further and overturn McCain-Feingold, the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), and end the ban on corporate donations to campaigns (see 1907). When the draft opinions circulates, the other three conservatives begin rallying towards Kennedy’s more expansive concurrence. Roberts then withdraws his draft and lets Kennedy write the majority opinion in line with his concurrence. Toobin later writes: “The new majority opinion transformed Citizens United into a vehicle for rewriting decades of constitutional law in a case where the lawyer had not even raised those issues. Roberts’s approach to Citizens United conflicted with the position he had taken earlier in the term.” During arguments in a different case, Roberts had “berated at length” a lawyer “for his temerity in raising an issue that had not been addressed in the petition. Now Roberts was doing nearly the same thing to upset decades of settled expectations.”
Dissent - The senior Justice in the minority, John Paul Stevens, initially assigns the main dissent to Justice David Souter. Souter, who is in the process of retiring from the Court, writes a stinging dissent that documents some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the case, including an accusation that Roberts violated the Court’s procedures to get the outcome he wanted. Toobin will call Souter’s planned dissent “an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court” that Roberts feels “could damage the Court’s credibility.” Roberts offers a compromise: Souter will withdraw his dissent if the Court schedules a reargument of the case in the fall of 2009 (see June 29, 2009). The second argument would feature different “Questions Presented,” and the stakes of the case would be far clearer. The four minority justices find themselves in something of a conundrum. They feel that to offer the Kennedy opinion as it stands would be to “sandbag” them and the entire case, while a reargument would at least present the issues that the opinion was written to reflect. And there is already a 5-4 majority in favor of Kennedy’s expansive opinion. The liberals, with little hope of actually winning the case, agree to the reargument. The June 29, 2009 announcement will inform the parties that the Court is considering overturning two key decisions regarding campaign finance restrictions, including a decision rendered by the Roberts court (see March 27, 1990 and December 10, 2003) and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Court observers will understand that the Court is not in the habit of publicly asking whether a previous Court decision should be overruled unless a majority is already prepared to do just that. Toobin will call Roberts and his four colleagues “impatient” to make the decision, in part because an early decision would allow the ruling to impact the 2010 midterm elections. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Created to Give Courts Shot at McCain-Feingold - Critics, as yet unaware of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, will later say that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign will say: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” Bossie himself will later confirm that contention, saying: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” [Washington Post, 1/22/2010] CU’s original lawyer on the case, James Bopp, will later verify that the case was brought specifically to give the Court a chance to cut back or overturn campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010). The Court will indeed overturn McCain-Feingold in the CU decision (see January 21, 2010).
Entity Tags: Clarence Thomas, US Department of Justice, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Scott Nelson, US Supreme Court, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Citizens United, Barbara Olson, American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Kennedy, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton, Gregg P. Leslie, Nick Nyhart, Edwin Kneedler, David Souter, Federal Election Commission, James Bopp, Jr, John Paul Stevens, David Bossie, John G. Roberts, Jr, Jeffrey Toobin, Malcolm Stewart
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Wendell Potter (r) being interviewed by Bill Moyers (l). [Source: PR Watch (.org)]Former health care executive Wendell Potter, who left the insurance giant Cigna after fifteen years, appears on “Bill Moyers’ Journal.” He was formerly the head of corporate communications before he resigned his position, a post he calls “the ultimate PR job.” He says he was not forced to leave the company, and was extremely well compensated for his duties. He left after realizing that the health care industry is using underhanded and hurtful tactics to undermine the drive towards health care reform. He never went to his bosses with his observations because, he says, “for most of the time I was there, I felt that what we were doing was the right thing. And that I was playing on a team that was honorable. I just didn’t really get it all that much until toward the end of my tenure at Cigna.”
Health Care Expo Changed His Perceptions - In June 2007, Potter recalls, his perceptions were drastically changed by his visit to a health care exposition in Wise, Virginia (see June 2007).
Changing Plans - The industry shifted from selling primarily managed care plans, he says, to what they call “consumer-driven plans.” Despite the name, they are health care plans with high deductibles and limited coverage.
'Highlight Horror Stories' - Moyers shows Potter a copy of an “action plan” devised by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the industry’s trade association. In large gold letters, the plan tells lobbyists and industry representatives to “Highlight horror stories of government-run systems.” Potter says that AHIP and other industry representatives try to paint government-run health care as socialism, and as inevitable failures. “The industry has always tried to make Americans think that government-run systems are the worst thing that could possibly happen to them,” he says, “that if you even consider that, you’re heading down on the slippery slope towards socialism. So they have used scare tactics for years and years and years, to keep that from happening. If there were a broader program like our Medicare program, it could potentially reduce the profits of these big companies. So that is their biggest concern.” Moyers also notes that the AHIP plan targets the film Sicko, a 2007 documentary by leftist filmmaker Michael Moore that portrayed America’s health care industry in a dismal light. AHIP’s action plan is to “Position Sicko as a threat to Democrats’ larger agenda.” Potter says that was an effort to discredit the film by using lobbyists and AHIP staffers “to go onto Capitol Hill and say, ‘Look, you don’t want to believe this movie. You don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to endorse it. And if you do, we can make things tough for you.’” If they did, AHIP would retaliate by running negative ads against the lawmakers in their home districts or other electoral punishments. AHIP focused strongly on the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. Another tactic, as delineated in the memo: “Message to Democratic insiders. Embracing Moore is one-way ticket back to minority party status.” Moyers says that AHIP attempted to “radicalize” Moore and portray him as an extremist who could not be believed. Many politicians used AHIP talking points in discussing Moore and his film. “So your plan worked,” Moyers observes. Potter agrees: “It worked beautifully.” The lesson that was lost from Moore’s film, Potter says, was that Americans “shouldn’t fear government involvement in our health care system. That there is an appropriate role for government, and it’s been proven in the countries that were in that movie.”
Conservative Counter-Strategy - Moyers then displays a memo from Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who in the spring of 2009 wrote a strategy memo for health care reform opponents. The memo reads in part: “First, you have to pretend to support it. Then use phrases like, ‘government takeover,’ ‘delayed care is denied care,’ ‘consequences of rationing,’ ‘bureaucrats, not doctors prescribing medicine.’” He then shows film clips of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and others using Luntz’s talking points in discussions on the floors of Congress. Potter says that many conservatives—Democrats as well as Republicans—“are ideologically aligned with the industry. They want to believe that the free market system can and should work in this country, like it does in other industries. So they don’t understand from an insider’s perspective like I have, what that actually means, and the consequences of that to Americans. They parrot those comments, without really realizing what the real situation is.” He notes that Representative Zach Wamp (R-TN), who grew up very near Potter’s childhood home in Chattanooga, told reporters that half of America’s uninsured don’t want health care, they would rather “go naked and just take the chance of getting sick. They end up in the emergency room costing you and me a whole lot more money.” Potter notes that the word “naked” is an industry term for people who choose not to buy health insurance. He calls Wamp’s comment “ridiculous” and “an example of a member of Congress buying what the insurance industry is peddling.” Moyers cites conservative Democrat Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, as another politician central to the health care reform process who is heavily influenced by corporate lobbyists—two of whom used to work on his own Senate staff. Potter says: “[I]t does offend me, that the vested special interests, who are so profitable and so powerful, are able to influence public policy in the way that they have, and the way that they’ve done over the years. And the insurance industry has been one of the most successful, in beating back any kinds of legislation that would hinder or affect the profitability of the companies.”
Fierce Opposition to Public Option - The “public option,” the idea that the government would extend a non-profit, government-run health care alternative for citizens, is fiercely opposed by the health care industry. Potter says the reason why is “[t]he industry doesn’t want to have any competitor. In fact, over the course of the last few years, has been shrinking the number of competitors through a lot of acquisitions and mergers. So first of all, they don’t want any more competition period. They certainly don’t want it from a government plan that might be operating more efficiently than they are, that they operate.” Government programs such as Medicare and the Veterans Administration’s medical providers are far more efficient than private, for-profit health care providers, and the industry fears that having to compete with such a program will slash their profits. Medical companies will do whatever it takes to keep their profit margins—and shareholder returns—above a certain threshold. They will deny more claims, kick more people off their rolls, purge employer accounts, whatever it takes. Potter, evidently bemused, says, “You know, I’ve been around a long time. And I have to say, I just don’t get this. I just don’t understand how the corporations can oppose a plan that gives the unhealthy people a chance to be covered. And they don’t want to do it themselves.… I’m a capitalist as well. I think it’s a wonderful thing that companies can make a profit. But when you do it in such a way that you are creating a situation in which these companies are adding to the number of people who are uninsured and creating a problem of the underinsured then that’s when we have a problem with it, or at least I do.” A public option would help “keep [health care corporations] honest,” he says, and they would inevitably lose profits.
Predictions - Right now the industry is primarily involved in what Potter calls a “charm offensive,” where it is attempting to give the perception that it, too, is for health care reform. But once Congress begins putting out specific legislative language, the industry and its flacks will begin attacking specific provisions. Moyers says the upshot is for the industry to either “kill reform” or prevent lawmakers from agreeing on a bill, just like what happened in 1993-94 under the Clinton administration. No matter what they say—favoring the elimination of pre-existing condition restrictions, for example—the industry will adamantly oppose reform of any kind. “They don’t want a public plan,” Potter says. “They want all the uninsured to have to be enrolled in a private insurance plan. They want—they see those 50 million people as potentially 50 million new customers. So they’re in favor of that. They see this as a way to essentially lock them into the system, and ensure their profitability in the future. The strategy is as it was in 1993 and ‘94, to conduct this charm offensive on the surface. But behind the scenes, to use front groups and third-party advocates and ideological allies. And those on Capitol Hill who are aligned with them, philosophically, to do the dirty work. To demean and scare people about a government-run plan, try to make people not even remember that Medicare, their Medicare program, is a government-run plan that has operated a lot more efficiently.… [T]hey want to scare you into thinking that through the anecdotes they tell you, that any government-run system, particularly those in Canada, and UK, and France that the people are very unhappy. And that these people will have to wait in long lines to get care, or wait a long time to get care. I’d like to take them down to Wise County. I’d like the president to come down to Wise County, and see some real lines of Americans, standing in line to get their care. [PBS, 7/10/2009]
Entity Tags: John Boehner, Frank Luntz, Cigna, Bill Moyers, America’s Health Insurance Plans, Zach Wamp, Wendell Potter, US Veterans Administration, Senate Finance Committee, Michael Moore, Medicare, Max Baucus, Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, Clinton administration
Timeline Tags: US Health Care
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