Candid Candidate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - The scene: George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner for president, has just been trounced in the New Hampshire primary. The day after, he boards the campaign plane that he must now share with the news media. Closeup on Bush approaching a cabin full of reporters.

"It's a beautiful experience seeing you all this morning," Bush announces, his Texas drawl fairly dripping with irony. A handheld camcorder zooms in on him, and he peers back at the woman handling the camera. He's not interested in reflecting on why he lost. He wants to talk about whether she's got a hangover.

"Did you have too much to drink last night?" he teases.

If George W. did reality TV, this would be it. A new documentary, the product of home-movie-style footage shot by a former NBC producer in her spare time, shows off the behind-the-scenes Bush that his handlers preferred not to display. Instead of the candidate placed in statesmanlike settings, here is the Bush who goofs and wisecracks, who gossips and slugs non-alcoholic beers - the guy some Americans glimpsed but never saw on a big screen, in Technicolor.

Now they will.

The first-time filmmaker behind it all is Alexandra Pelosi, the product of a liberal Baltimore political dynasty who spent a year training her digital camcorder on the scion of a very different sort of political family. The result is Journeys With George, a 76-minute documentary about the manipulation of a campaign, the off-duty manner of a candidate and the life of a press pack.

HBO is finalizing a deal to air the film before the fall elections, after a limited release in theaters in New York and Los Angeles next month.

"I got to know the president well," Pelosi, 31, said in a recent interview, just before her movie's debut at a film festival in Austin, Texas. "That was my job as a journalist. But nothing I learned about him ever ended up on the nightly news. That's why I made this movie."

And what exactly did she learn?

"That he's a baloney-and-Chee-tos-eating matchmaker," she said. "It's the kind of silly insight you get on a candidate from that kind of access [during a campaign] that you don't get to share, because you'd be breaking some unspoken code."

Pelosi describes Bush as a man "really comfortable in his own skin." And, indeed, out of the public eye, the candidate seems far less guarded than how he appeared to many Americans in his often tightly scripted campaign events in 2000.

Bush urges Pelosi to "make a little whoopee with the tequila drinkers" among the pack of journalists carousing in the back of the campaign plane and encourages her in a crush on a reporter he dubs "Newsweek man" ("I can see a little chemistry there," he says. "You know what I mean by chemistry?").

He chomps junky snacks fit for a teen-ager, teases reporters about their bathing habits, imitates Elvis, mocks his own syntactical errors and provides plenty of appreciative laughter for the jokesters among the press corps.

The White House has said little publicly about the film, though aides have complained that Pelosi had led the campaign to believe that her footage was for personal use only, not for public consumption. And they contend that her footage should remain off the record.

But Pelosi counters that Bush and his key advisers knew all along that she was working on a documentary; her film even includes a scene in which the candidate muses about the film's title.

Pelosi said she never intended to produce a Bush "blooper tape." But Bush critics may see in her film reminders of the one-time frat boy who they thought lacked presidential stature during the campaign. During one alcohol-fueled press party on the campaign plane, the film shows Bush saying of the partyers: "These are my people. It takes an animal to know an animal."

But in Journeys With George, Bush is not the only lead. Instead of being part of the film's background, as in traditional journalism, Pelosi shares the spotlight herself.

She assumes a leading role in her documentary, loud-mouthing her way down the campaign trail with raspy-voiced zingers, commandeering Bush's attention with the force of her outsized personality.

Bush and Pelosi - with her love of zany purple outfits and her occasional dance interludes at campaign rallies - make an unlikely pair. But both actually have one life-shaping force in common: Politics runs in their families' blood.

Steeped in politics

Pelosi's grandfather, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., was mayor of Baltimore, as was her uncle Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. Her mother is U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who learned politics in the family home at Albemarle and Fawn and who now serves as House minority whip - the highest-ranking woman in the House.

The youngest of five children, Alexandra Pelosi never strayed far from politics. Democratic presidential candidates paid house calls to her mother and father, Paul, an investment banker, who moved the family to San Francisco just before Alexandra was born. The children attended Democratic conventions, helped their mom's campaigns and, in the summers, visited the Baltimore neighborhoods where the D'Alesandro name was revered.

Pelosi calls the movie an "accidental documentary." At first, she says, she was just playing around with her Sony miniDV camcorder. But soon she got hooked on the material, particularly the territory familiar to any child of politics: the line between the public and the private person.

"Because I come from a political family, I understand being in the public eye and being a human being and how much of yourself you can share and how much you should withhold from the media," she said. "I was drawing that out."

Pelosi's uncle, Tommy D'Alesandro III, says he believes Bush instinctively knew that despite the family's deep Democratic roots, Pelosi was not out to get him.

"You meet Alexandra for the first time, you feel like you're meeting your friend," he said. "They had a bond. How do you explain the chemistry? You feel a person is a friend and not going to harm you. You feel that trust."

The film offers a portrait of Bush from what now seems like a distant era - before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, before the war in Afghanistan, even before the election recount. Here, he is in full campaign mode.

One scene shows Bush lobbying Pelosi - for what she later said was about 30 minutes - as she fills out her absentee ballot for the California primary.

"I'm here asking for your vote," he tells her.

"Why should I vote for you?" she asks.

"You're on the plane," Bush says.

If he wins, he argues, she'll fare better than will reporters covering his rival because she'll have better access to the president.

"Baby," he explains, "it's in your interests."

The next shot shows Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal who never hid her views from Bush, checking the box on her ballot next to Bill Bradley, a Democrat.

Her mother, Nancy Pelosi, called that moment one of the movie's most revealing.

"It's a very telling scene - 'If I don't win, you're nothing,'" the lawmaker said. She suggested that viewers would seize on whatever details confirm their own theories about Bush.

"It's her inkblot test," she said of her daughter's work. "People will look at it, and they will see what they will see."

The final cut

Pelosi and her film editor, Aaron Lubarsky, sifted through 70 hours of video, working on Pelosi's home computer for nine months to come up with the final cut. Studios showed interest, Pelosi said, but they wanted to buy all her footage and re-edit it ("Is there more of Bush with food in his mouth?" she recalls one executive asking.). She chose HBO, which will air the movie unedited.

The film uses some clever storytelling devices. When Pelosi's campaign crush goes sour and she realizes that she must still work alongside the same "Newsweek man" she'd now rather avoid, the movie makes a nifty segue to another bad relationship - a shot of Bush's Republican nemesis, Sen. John McCain, grinning painfully through a photo-op with Bush.

The film also depicts Bush's efforts to control the campaign spin and his reaction when he appears to fail. Though he takes an avuncular interest in Pelosi, Bush briefly refuses to speak to her after a news conference in which she asks him whether he ever lost sleep worrying that someone might have been wrongly put to death in Texas, which led the nation in executions under his governorship.

Bush's jovial veneer cracks at other moments as well. When Pelosi asks if he wonders why he did not enjoy quite as chummy a relationship with reporters as McCain did, Bush says acidly, "Not particularly, when there was a collective wisdom [among reporters] that said I wasn't working hard enough to become the president."

The film is perhaps at its most trenchant when Pelosi points out how much manipulation went into this - and, one can assume, almost any - presidential campaign.

She shows how aides mass-produce the "homemade" Bush signs that spring up as if from grass-roots passion. She captures Bush repeating lines as they are simultaneously fed into his ear by Karen Hughes, his communications director.

Pelosi reveals the campaign's mistrust of reporters ("I'm not a journalist - I'm not a liar," Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, says, only half-jokingly) and the media's thirst for stories that defy predictability. ("The only reason we're out here is in case Bush comes out, slips on the ice and falls down, because we're vicious predators," a reporter for the Houston Chronicle quips at one snowy event.)

Pelosi, who was a producer for NBC's Dateline before the campaign began, has since left the network and is working as a free-lance TV producer in New York.

A one-time political reporter for a TV news agency in Washington, Pelosi started out at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and went on to receive a master's degree in media studies from the University of Southern California.

As for her next step, Pelosi does not quite see a career in Hollywood. In her typical style, she's ready with a wisecrack about what the future holds.

"After someone makes their hit, they make really bad movies," Pelosi said. "I'll be doing Ashleigh Banfield documentaries next."

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