Watching Republicans grieve

Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi journeyed into the heart of the GOP for her new HBO documentary. She discusses what she found there: Denial, depression and a whole lot of anger.

Published February 16, 2009 11:45AM (EST)

When Alexandra Pelosi made the Emmy-winning documentary "Journeys With George" in 2000, about her 18 months on the campaign trail with soon-to-be-President George W. Bush, her mother, Nancy, was not yet speaker of the House, and the name "Pelosi" was not yet an epithet on the lips of Republicans.

Eight years later, Pelosi went back out on the GOP campaign trail and into the lion's den, in the waning days of John McCain's failed bid for the White House. In her latest film, "Right America: Feeling Wronged," which debuts on HBO Monday night, Pelosi attends McCain and Sarah Palin rallies in 28 states and puts her microphone in the faces of some very passionate conservatives. As defeat looms, she watches the Republican base go through a very public grieving process, with most of the stages that psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described -- denial, depression and a whole lot of anger -- but not very much acceptance. Salon spoke to Pelosi by phone.

Early in the film Sean Hannity points to you in front of a McCain crowd and says, "That's Nancy Pelosi's daughter." And you respond, "You're going to get me lynched." Did you ever feel endangered or like there was any personal animus toward you during the making of this film?

Well, of course there was. But I'm trying to focus on the friends that I made in the red states instead of focusing on all the unchristian experiences that I had while traveling across America. It's easy to go out and make enemies. I think all the cable news programs go with the intention of stirring the pot. I was really genuinely trying to get to know some of the Republican base.

Thousands and thousands, hundreds of thousands of people showed up to see the McCain-Palin ticket. Maybe a dozen people humiliated me -- you know, embarrassed me and made me feel really unwanted. I don't want to paint the whole lot of the Republican base as mean-spirited and cruel and unfriendly. To me it's more interesting to focus on the real Christian conservatives who didn't agree with anything I had to say but invited me over for dinner so that we could talk about it.

Did you go out there with the expectation that the polls were probably right and the candidate whose supporters you were interviewing was probably going to lose?

Well, more than 58 million people voted for John McCain, and I know that everyone on the coasts is on an Obama honeymoon right now, and they seem to forget that more than 58 million people did not want Barack Obama to be their president. And when I was traveling over the summer and I would go to rallies and 20,000 people would be there, it's hard to say I knew Obama was going to win. They had some real enthusiasm at these events for the GOP ticket. So, I did not go out presupposing that Barack Obama was going to be president. I wasn't trying to make a point about, "Ooh, he's going to be president and here are the losers, let's go check out what they have to say."

They had huge crowds, and I felt they were really underrepresented in the media. I didn’t feel like I saw these people on TV. And when I went out to talk to people, the first thing they would say to me was, "I can't believe you're talking to me." They were so flattered that I wanted to hear what they had to say because they'd say, "The media doesn't listen to us. You turn on the TV and all you see is Obama nation and you don't see us." They had some points. My liberal friends, I have to remind them that they have some really good points. No. 1, the media did not fairly represent them in this election. Obama was on the cover of every magazine all summer long. I understand Obama sold magazines. It's a business. But when you've got a presidential election and you have half of the country feeling really underrepresented, I think that's a real problem. And I think that's a bigger problem than Obama versus McCain.

There was this guy in Fort Wayne, Ind., Fred Boise, who says, "The media paints us to be fanatics. They treat us like hicks and we just go to Wal-Mart and we're rednecks. And they don't come to get to know us, and they go on stereotypes." I think all of that is true. Of course there were a lot of clichés that I had to overcome when I got there. "Hi, I'm from New York and my last name is Pelosi," and obviously that was like funny to them in a weird way. Like, "What are you doing here?"

You met so many people. Were there interviewees who have given you feedback after the election? What are they saying?

They're really unhappy that Obama won. And they're really having a hard time dealing with this whole economic stimulus package. They're totally opposed to that kind of government. I talked to people who had bad holidays, who had a hard time getting through the inauguration, are disappointed in their country, are sad about the direction this country is going. And it's not getting better, it's getting worse. They're looking at this, "We're all socialists now," and they're not laughing. The Newsweek cover, “We're all Socialists Now”, I got like literally a dozen calls the day that Newsweek came out. I don't know what Newsweek's intentions were, but that is terrifying to a lot of people.

I remember Elaine Tornero in Reynoldsburg, Ohio: She called me and said, "I drive through downtown Columbus, Ohio, and I see these iconic, artistic images of Barack Obama with the word 'Hope' under it, and I feel like I'm living in Castro's Cuba." I live in Union Square in Manhattan, and I walk out my front door and there are just lines of buttons, lines of T-shirt salesmen selling these artistic images of Barack Obama. I've been to Cuba. That's exactly what it looks like. There are some things that they see that make them uncomfortable. And I think we have to respect that and understand that. Not say, "Oh, they're just extremists. Oh, they're just freaks. Oh, they're just racists." They're not. They just don't agree with us on, like, moral and cultural and political issues. They don't agree with us on anything, really.

At one point, you're talking to someone who describes Obama as the antichrist, and you say to him, "Do you want to maybe rethink that? Because I'm going to be accused, when this is on TV, of just looking for the craziest guy in the room." And he ponders it and says, "No." He's OK with saying it. How often did you have that kind of conversation with somebody?

Every day. It was much more common than you'd think. In the heat of an election, people say some crazy things. And in the case of the gentleman you're talking about, I have talked to him since then and this is just the way he sees it. I heard that every single day. It was much more common than you'd think. And I think that a lot of them were mimicking things they heard on right-wing radio.

What I mean is, how often do you have a conversation where you said to somebody, "OK, do you know how this is going to sound? Do you want to dial that back?"

Right. I'm not naive. I know that I'm going to be criticized for picking people who say some extreme things. If you take the guy that says Obama is the antichrist and use him as a sample of the movie, you have to take one of the 20 other people who say very reasonable things. You have to take the woman who says we're angry because -- "The economy. I went home and cried last night because I just lost my 401K." There are lots of normal people in this movie. I sat in the edit room for a very long time. I was very fair in terms of the ratio of how many people I interviewed that said Obama is the antichrist -- put that in once. "He reminds me of Hitler" -- put that in once. I heard that every day at every rally. That doesn't mean that everybody who showed up at that rally felt that way, but just people on the camera. Remember, who's going to talk to a camera? These are going to be certain kinds of people.

I mean, my brother-in-law, my next-door neighbor, my mom's college roommate: These are Republicans who voted for McCain, who didn't think that Obama is the antichrist, but of course they don't want to be on camera, because they don't want to be speaking for the Republican Party. I think it's really irresponsible to focus on the few crazies that appear in the movie as opposed to the tons of really sane, normal people that appear in the movie.

You tried hard to give a representative sample of these folks, but you do get an impression of this kind of wave of raw id from the movie. Fear, anger, despair and tears on more than one occasion. You ask a woman, "What do McCain voters have in common?" and she answers, "We all hate the same things." So, is this just a function of the tribalism of politics?

I think campaign rallies bring out a certain kind of person. You have to be able to take a day off work. You have to be able to go out, stand out there for a very long time in line, wait in line with thousands of other people.

Well how about comparing this to a couple of the other movies that you've done, in terms of what the atmosphere was like among the party base. Like in 2000, are the Republicans of 2008 like the Republicans in 2000, when you were doing "Journeys with George"?

That’s a great question. I think that the blogs have poisoned the political atmosphere in such a way that I never saw this kind of anger and hatred in 2000. In 2008, I was impressed by how angry it got. But you know elections have gotten nasty. I do think that blogs have really given people a place to, I don't know, maybe it's therapeutic for them. But it’s really gotten them fired up in a way. They talk to each other online and then they get worked up and then they go meet each other at rallies. And I just feel like the Internet has really changed the climate at the political rallies. Because I remember the Bush rallies as being fun. But you know, a lot's happened. 9/11 and all that poisoning the well. The whole partisan Bush years and the war poisoned the well. A lot of other things contributed. You can't just blame the blogs.

I was hoping my film was going to be an artifact of a moment in time. There is a lot of talk about change. Even John McCain was talking about change. But change is always going to be harder for some than for others. And there's always going to be those who are not ready. And you see people in my film saying, "I'm not ready. Hey, I'm a redneck, I'm proud of it, I'm more backwards than the rest of you, and I'm just not ready. Not ready for a black president, not ready for change, I'm just not ready." In four years, in eight years, you may look back at this, and it may be something totally new. Like a Jewish president or a gay president or who knows? And this will all seem like nothing. I'm not giving an infomercial for Barack Obama's change. I'm just saying that this will be interesting in the future to see people who just weren't ready for this. They may be wrong, but they may be right.

I know you tried to talk about your respect for people's passion among the Republican base, but there are also assertions of fact made in the movie that are demonstrably false. And there's always that journalistic question of, Do you just let somebody talk, or do you try to interject a correction? So when you hear somebody say, "Barack Obama is a Muslim" for the first time, what do you say? What do you say the 10th time? What do you say the 100th time?

It's a very good question. The handicap that I had was my last name was a stump speech, red-meat applause line. So if I ever stepped in to set the record straight they would have thought I was just there to get votes for Barack Obama. So I let them say what they wanted to say, and then I would ask, "Where did you hear that?" Because that, to me, is what's interesting about this. And of course they would point to Bill O'Reilly. They would point to this one moment on George Stephanopolous where Obama made a mistake and he said, "my Muslim faith," and of course the Internet just spread it like wildfire.

For me, it wasn't so much the Muslim thing, it was the socialist thing. Respectfully, I wanted to say to them, I live on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I am on the winning side of capitalism. I work for HBO, corporate America. The Man has been good to me. You, on the other hand, are driving a truck that says, "Obama is a socialist idiot," and you're in a much lower tax bracket than most of the people in Manhattan that are voting for Obama. So the times I would actually get into it would be like, "OK, explain to me why you think he's an idiot. He's trying to give you a tax cut. You understand you're voting against your own self-interest?"

The one moment where you sounded even the tiniest bit irked was when you were talking to a guy in a truck and you say, "Obama wants to take from the 1 percent and give to a guy like you."

Those are the kinds of conversations I found hard to stomach. That gentleman was screaming, "Wake up America!" and on the side of his truck it said, "Obama is a socialist idiot," and I just didn't understand how he could be so misinformed. He was an electrician. He made less than $150,000 a year. And he was toeing the party line of a party that was not helping him. There were a lot of people who didn't know what socialism was, and this is tricky, because you don't want to make them all look like, "Oh, he didn't know what socialism was." This isn't a Jay Leno episode. You're not trying to point out that 90 percent of the people at the rallies don't know what socialism is.

I can defend why I am for raising my own taxes. Can you defend why you're against getting a tax cut? And you know, some people could, and many people couldn't because they didn't really realize, they hadn't read all the tax plan stuff and they just didn't believe. And then when you'd explain it to them, they would say, "I don't believe Barack Obama. He's just a liar. He's telling people what they want to hear." So that's the other wrinkle: They don't believe him. Even if you say, "Obama isn't a Muslim," they'd say, "I don't believe him."

You've spent a lot of time over the years now sort of parachuting into this other culture and trying to have a conversation with people. You were with the W. crowds in 2000 and then you followed Democratic candidates in 2004, and I just wondered to what degree these felt like mutually exclusive realities to you?

They do feel like more and more like insulated little bubbles. And even from campaign to campaign: The Hillary campaign was a bubble, and the Obama campaign was a bubble. They were slinging their arrows back and forth into each other’s bubbles. I do think that the Internet has really soiled a lot of the conversation. It's a combination of that and the cable news shows. If you're a liberal, you can watch MSNBC. If you're a conservative, you can watch FOX News. What about the rest of us that just feel sort of like, "Hey, just tell me what happened today without your crazy liberal or crazy conservative slant"? Most people, real people, are somewhere in-between. Most people don't actually even go to campaign rallies for either side. Where are the purple people in the middle of it all, just trying to make sense of who's telling the truth and who's spinning propaganda?

What about the blue people? Did you get to spend any time with them in 2008?

I live in Manhattan, so I think I'm on a blue island. I mean it's not like people don't vote for McCain in Manhattan, but a majority of my friends, I have to say respectfully, are just drinking the Kool-Aid. And they were in the cult from early on. They'd say, "You went to Pennsylvania. Ooh. Freaky." Well, actually there are some really nice people there, and they're serving their term of duty in Iraq. I think by being born in San Francisco and living my adult life in Manhattan, I've had enough indoctrination into the blue party. I didn't think I needed any more exposure to that.

You talk about how the rallies and how the committed, the base, go to them. Is a Democratic rally like a Republican rally, just with the names changed?

You know, I was in Washington Square Park with my kids on the day that Obama went there to speak, and so I got to see an Obama rally because I happened to be in the playground that day. The crowds look very different, I have to say. The Obama crowd was very young. It was very multicultural. I think it's fair to say that the McCain demographic is 99 percent white. And old. But that was changing with Palin. Palin brought out a lot of young, new faces. A lot of women. A lot of breast-feeding moms.

Ideologically, is it the same? That's a good question. Probably. The crowds were so big for Obama that it's hard to say. What are 20 million people thinking? I mean it's everybody. It's hard to say the same thing about McCain-Palin rallies unless it was just McCain. I think that if you look at the McCain pre-Palin you see the face of the old GOP. And if you got the post-Palin, you get a more inclusive, younger, more female crowd.

At Salon, we've written a lot about demographics and how, for example, the way that various population blocs voted in this election wasn't really that different from past elections, but their share of the electorate had changed. When you're talking to the old white guys at the McCain rallies, the conservatives, do they have a sense that their time has passed? Or do they look forward to 2010 or 2012 and think, "We're going to come back"?

I remember 2004, when they said that the Democrats were in the permanent minority. And now look. So, I think that the minute we write them off, the more we diminish their power, the stronger they're going to be in four years. I think sometimes losing empowers you more than it defeats you. And I found a lot of people who are so unhappy with Obama as president that they are going to do everything they can to help Republican candidates defeat what they see as the liberal takeover of America.

Are you going to go back out with them?

I don't think so. I think I'm too old for this. I signed up to do this in the pre-Palin days. There are many movies that could have been made in the McCain campaign, and one was the Shakespearean tragedy of this man who sold his soul and then lost. He had the Bush people, the same people that destroyed him in 2000, running his campaign in 2008, and that was really intriguing to me, the whole direction of the party when he was the maverick who was going to work with both sides and he was a really reasonable bipartisan guy. I think what we've learned in the last week is that that whole bipartisan thing sounds good, but it's really hard to execute. And so I think that if I had known how crazy the campaign was going to get, IF I had known how heated and angry and extreme it was going to get in the waning days of the campaign, I'm not sure I would have wanted to be there for that.

I found it quite comical that my last name was a swear word in the red states, you know? And that it became sort of a symbol of everything that's bad with America. The candidates that you didn’t see on TV, the warm-up speakers that were criticizing the Democrats in Washington, would give these incredibly offensive speeches that all ended with the punch line of something really derogatory with the name Pelosi next to it. It really got the crowds worked up. And I had to call my father during the campaign and say to him, "Dad, did you know how hated you are in America? Did you know that your last name has become a symbol of just like every four-letter word?" And he didn't know, because he didn't watch Fox News.

But you don't necessarily want to do it again in 2010?

No. I have two kids now, and it's a lot harder to travel with two kids, and that was sort of the great irony of this campaign ... I would leave my kids at my parents' house in California because it was summer and they were available for babysitting, and then I'd go out to rallies to listen to all these awful things they were saying about my nanny. I'd be like, "Hey, she's taking very good care of my kids now. You talk about your family values. I don't know where your kids are right now."

By Mark Schone

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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