Bush's last seduction

An NBC producer's "home movie" of Bush with reporters during the campaign is more "Love Story" than "War Room."

By Anthony York

Published March 11, 2002 4:50PM (EST)

Inside Austin's Paramount Theatre Friday, it was like December 2000 all over again. But this time, the cameras are turned on the reporters. Flashbulbs pop as NBC's White House correspondent, Campbell Brown, hugs former Bush campaign aide Jill Angelo; Financial Times White House correspondent Richard Wolffe introduces his wife to Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater. And in the center of it all, capturing it on her digital video camera, is former NBC producer Alexandra Pelosi, with her mother, House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, at her side.

During George Bush's presidential campaign, Pelosi shot hours of footage, which has been spliced and edited into "Journeys With George," a behind-the-scenes documentary about the Bush campaign starring none other than the president himself.

The documentary has received huge amounts of media attention because of the promise of seeing Bush as he never allowed himself to be seen by other cameras. Adding to the interest have been off-the-record gripes that Pelosi's footage, shot on her Sony hand-held and separate from her NBC work, was not for wide use. ("She promised then-Governor Bush and looked him in the eye and said it was for personal use," a senior Bush advisor complained to Time magazine.) Pelosi maintains she made no such promises to Bush.

Though talk of the film has been circulating around Washington for months, Pelosi chose to debut the film here, in the city where Bush's short political career began; it's also the city Pelosi called home while she traveled with the campaign as a producer for NBC. "This is like my homecoming," she says.

But Austin is also the place where, Pelosi says, "My idealism about journalism died." The campaign made a cynic out of Pelosi, and she hopes to use the spectacle of the leader of the free world jamming his eyeball into the camera countless times to shed light on the absurdity of the way the media covers presidential campaigns. "I learned that I had the appetite for journalism, but I don't have the stomach for the cannibalism," she says.

The movie's sheer entertainment value threatens to overwhelm its lesson in journalism ethics. Pelosi's Bush is funny and charismatic, as are the other stars of the film -- Pelosi herself, Slater, Houston Chronicle reporter R.G. Ratcliffe and Wolffe -- who pepper their one-liners with thoughtful insights about Bush and the process of the campaign.

Pelosi's "home movie," as she describes it, is a vivid illustration of Bush's seduction of the media. And it shows just how ambiguous and schizophrenic politics and journalism -- and American attitudes toward both -- can be. In one of the movie's most telling moments, Pelosi asks a flight attendant if she would ever want to be a journalist. The flight attendant offers an emphatic no, saying, "Life is too short to be so stressed out." But in the next scene, the same flight attendant is seen looking star-struck as she gets an autograph from Ted Koppel.

"That's the whole movie," Pelosi says. "They were totally disgusted by it, but they were enthralled by it. First they're like, 'You guys are all animals, you're all gross,' and then they're like, 'Oh my god, it's Ted Koppel.' They were disgusted by us, but they're totally star-struck, just like the media was with Bush."

Pelosi herself is full of those kinds of contradictions. She laments the state of modern journalism, but is still a working journalist. She disdains the pack mentality of the journalists onboard, but speaks of the virtues of the process.

"People are laughing, but I hope they wake up and think, 'That's really messed up, the way they follow them around like lemmings,'" she says. But when asked if there's a better way to cover a campaign, she points out the virtues of having the pack hang around. "I was the onboard librarian for NBC. They would call me and ask, when's the last time Bush talked about gun control, and I could tell them," she says. "You needed someone with an institutional memory."

It's unclear at times how aware Pelosi is of some of these contradictions. In the movie, we see Bush comforting her after she is ostracized by the pack when results from an informal straw poll of Bush reporters -- organized by Pelosi, with results that go heavily against Bush -- are leaked to outside media. "When they see me talking to you, they're gonna act like they're your friends again," Bush tells her. "But these people aren't your friends. They can say what they want about me but at least I know who I am, and I know who my friends are."

Watching the movie, it seems as though Bush is not only reminding Pelosi of the lines between her and reporters, but between Pelosi and Bush. But she doesn't see it that way. "George Bush put his arm around me, even though I was so obnoxious to him," she says. "You know why? At the end of the day, he was my friend. And he knew these people were not my friends. The media is an insatiable beast."

Pelosi's comments show better than any amount of Bush mugging for the camera how complete his seduction of Pelosi was. In a movie that she describes as a chronicle of "the performance George Bush gave the media," the quote seems strikingly, and uncharacteristically, naive, and is a perfect illustration of Bush's success.

"Journeys With George" portrays Bush and Pelosi as kindred spirits of sorts. You get the sense from the film that Pelosi is the person Bush would be if he were allowed to come a little unhinged publicly. She is irreverent, sometimes inappropriate, and thrives on human contact and interaction. You either love her or you hate her, but everyone has an opinion.

And like Bush, Pelosi makes a clear distinction between the personal and the political. "I really liked George Bush. His politics make me sick," she says. "My family thinks that there's a disconnect in my head, that I have an artificial separation between politics and personality. I think they're separate. My family doesn't. I can separate the two and say, you know what, he's a fun guy, he's really charming, he was really nice to me, I respect him. At the same time, I would never vote for him, his politics are offensive to me. That's what it boils down to."

Unlike other reporters on the Bush bus, Pelosi is unapologetic about playing the game with Bush. "What I liked about George Bush was that in the end, he totally embraced me and cooperated and indulged me. He played along."

Pelosi says ultimately NBC benefited from her relationship with Bush. "My job was to maintain a relationship with George Bush, and I did it. So in the end, who won in all of this? My network did, because my network had the highest ratings. You can say what you want about me and the way I covered this campaign, but in the end, I got the best view of who this person really was, which I got to show in a movie theater thanks to NBC News. So I think in the end, we did the best job. I think I did a real service, not only to my network, but to America," she says with a laugh.

But you can't help but think Bush got what he wanted, too. NBC got the ratings, Pelosi got her movie and Bush got his election. It was one big happy circle of mutual manipulation.

Now it's Pelosi's turn to cash in. As the movie puts her in the media spotlight, she says all the attention is more of a nuisance than anything else. But as she belittles the attention she's received, in the course of conversation she recites, verbatim, snippets of what various media outlets have said about her. It seems more than a bit incongruous to publicly release a documentary about yourself and the president of the United States and then feign surprise at all the fuss.

Pelosi understands the interest, of course; she says she just doesn't much care for it. But she acknowledges, "I get it. I was the one who put myself in my own movie. I was the one who used my own voice for the narration."

Indeed, "Journeys With George" is a star vehicle, featuring Pelosi as well as Bush, and it shows how she used her measured madness as a weapon on the road. In one scene shot after the New Hampshire primary, she jokes easily with Bush, until she brings up the subject of John McCain. Her camera captures how Bush's body language changes, how his face contorts uncomfortably as he tries to suppress obvious anger.

"You're the best interviewer I've ever met," says Newsweek reporter Trent Gegax to Pelosi's camera. "You have this kind of 'I'm just fucking around, I'm a wacky girl' and then you get people to spill their guts. It's a very interesting technique."

Pelosi's ability to occasionally pull the rug out has great dramatic effect. This was on display after Friday's screening at the Texas governor's mansion, where new Gov. Rick Perry, eager to cash in on a little of the media frenzy, hosted the Pelosi clan at Bush's old house. Perry was trying to do a little media romancing of his own, handing out "bum steer awards" to the two Austin-based reporters in the film, Ratcliffe and Slater. Perry looked like the stand-up comedian who was trying too hard, speaking from cue cards, clad in a black turtleneck and blazer. Pelosi stood upfront with her ever-present camera whirring, and Perry started mugging for it. At one point, he grabbed her camera, and just like the last Texas governor did in the movie, tries to turn it on Pelosi.

As Perry fiddled with the controls, Pelosi blurted out, "You're no George W." The small crowd erupts in laughter, which fades into a chorus of "oooohs." She's mostly joking, but it seems to momentarily sting the governor. She has obviously hit a nerve.

This rhythmic balance between levity and substance is used throughout the film. It is chilling to actually see Bush at Bob Jones University, pandering in the coded language of the religious right, and watch the enthusiastic standing ovation he receives from the crowd. There are other moments -- for instance, when Pelosi reminds us that Bush spent $70 million ($70 million!) to win his party's presidential nomination -- that stick in the viewer's craw.

But as an ethical case study, there is something left wanting in "Journeys." As is the case with "Ambling Into History," the new book by New York Times reporter Frank Bruni, the film raises the ethical questions surrounding relationships between candidates and the press on a campaign plane, but offers no thoughts about how to change the process. Slater says in the film that "campaigns are about pictures, they're not about ideas," and "Journeys With George" illustrates how willing the media is to allow the campaign to manufacture their own images.

In a panel discussion about the movie Sunday, Slater, Wolffe and Ratcliffe lamented the fact that Bush was able to manufacture an image of a candidate with a broad-based racial coalition by plucking black and brown children from the crowd to surround him at every photo op. Yet the networks and photographers go along with the program, sending the images the Bush campaign wanted America to see over the airwaves, and in the newspapers.

"I have no idea how we should change it," Wolffe says. "I'm not a philosopher of politics." Yet, in the movie, Wolffe laments that the pack, at times, did not do its job. "We were writing about trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off us," he says.

"The thing is, in the end, you can't knock the people," Pelosi says. "You can comment on the process, but there's nothing wrong with the people. Richard says the pack wasn't doing the right thing, and I agree with him. But at the same time, who's the pack? It's all the individuals. And those individuals are the greatest, smartest, most interesting individuals I've ever met."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------