Candid Candidate

Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi followed George W. Bush on his road to the White House, capturing his unguarded, unpackaged personality

April 02, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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