Everywhere you look these days there is 8th District U.S. representative John Tanner of Union City involuntarily playing straight man for Michael Moore.
He's in the promos for Fahrenheit 9/11 on all the TV channels, getting his hand pumped in front of the U.S. Capitol as Moore ropes Tanner in for one of the filmmaker's patented ambush interviews. In the film itself (which is doing blockbuster business in virtually every kind of venue), Tanner is Exhibit Number One among various congressional foils as Moore sallies forth, a compliant U.S. Marine in tow, to do some mock recruiting for the war in Iraq.
The idea Ñ or, more accurately, the dramatic frame Ñ is: These congressional hypocrites have voted for the war but aren't willing, as Moore straight-facedly implores them, to send their own kith and kin to fight in that Middle Eastern cauldron.
Never mind that Tanner explains to Moore that his children are grown adults with families.
Never mind that he doesn't challenge anything the filmmaker says, even attempting to express sympathy for Moore's antiestablishment views. He's still presented as a fall guy, a stand-in for President Bush's war policies. Why?
Tanner, though a Democrat from a rural West Tennessee district that historically has included portions of Memphis and Shelby County, has the blue-suited clean-cut look one might otherwise see in many a suburban Republican member of Congress. And he has a broad Southern accent. That makes him a perfect foil for Moore, a tubby Michigander who's gotten rich from his barn-burning books and films but still affects the look of a rumpled day laborer. A "tribune of the people," you see.
One of the other congressmen set up by Moore has complained that he told Moore he had a nephew who was headed for military service in Afghanistan and that he'd be glad to help with the "recruiting" effort but that these parts of the conversation were trimmed from the film. (A transcript available last week on Moore's own Web site seems to bear out the congressman, Representative Mark Kennedy, R-Minn.)
Tanner was placed in an even more misleading context. True, he voted for the October 2002 Use of Force resolution that would ultimately, for better or for worse, give President Bush the go-ahead to commence hostilities against Saddam Hussein. For the record, so did Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry; Senator John Edwards and Representative Dick Gephardt, Kerry's two most likely choices for a running mate; and 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford, among others.
But here's a scene you won't find in Moore's movie. Let us fade to election night in November 2002. The scene is the downtown Hilton in Nashville, where various Tennessee Democrats, including Tanner, have been following the televised returns showing a surprise Republican sweep in congressional elections. Quoting from my report in the following week's Flyer, we see a troubled Tanner, "who nursed a libation in his hotel room ... and professed outrage at Bush and the GOP as the bad news from national contests streamed across the bottom of his TV screen."
"`Those people ought to be arrested and tried for fraudulence!' Tanner said. `They took our minds off what was important, the economy, and sold us a bill of goods about Iraq. The idea, trying to convince us that a two-bit tinhorn dictator with 20 million starving people was a threat like Adolf Hitler! They don't have any weapons to bother us with! The whole thing was an election fraud. Nothing but!'"
How's that for buyer's remorse? And how's that for a far-sighted presentation of the same point of view that film-splicer Moore labors so hard and cleverly to assemble in Fahrenheit 9/11?
Though a Navy veteran, Tanner is no war hawk. Au contraire. And though I was impressed by the forthrightness of his election-night remarks, I almost came to feel guilty in reproducing them, since a right-wing Nashville blogger exploited them for a whole week thereafter to accuse Tanner, a certified "Blue Dog" conservative, of being a lefty know-nothing.
But that was no more unfair or ludicrous than the way Tanner just got treated by that celluloid blogger of the left, Michael Moore. Not that Tanner will be impacted much among his home folks. His official Republican opponent this year, one James L. Hart, is an avowed racist who has begun to be repudiated by official spokespersons for the party.
Hart got the GOP nomination by default, since it's hard to dig up credible opposition to Tanner in the 8th District, whose voters know him to be a levelheaded, fair-minded centrist. Michael Moore has no idea who he is.