NEW YORK — Days away from the premiere of “Journeys with George,” her documentary about life on the campaign trail with President George W. Bush, the last thing Alexandra Pelosi wants to be doing is answering questions about herself.
So on Sunday at her apartment here, in between trying to pack, dubbing copies of the flick, making goodie bags and stuffing press kits for this week’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Tex., Pelosi discusses her first film as only a journalist could.
“I forget that I have to be on my best behavior,” she says. “I need a filter. I know that anything I say and do will be used against me. I know how this game is played. I am a journalist.”
A former “Dateline” producer, she and her handheld video camera spent 18 months on-the-bus with Bush for NBC, but this 31-year-old with razor-sharp wit was the only member of the media to keep her ringside seat from his announcement to inaugural. Once the road show was over, she returned to New York, eventually left NBC, lined up a freelance producer job at Oxygen Media and began editing the documentary in her living room.
From day one on the campaign trail, she was shooting fellow journalists and flight attendants on the candidate’s Enron-financed plane. Then in January of 2000, her soon-to-be-star stuck his head in front of her camera and “engaged” himself. A month later when W. suggested naming the flick “Journeys with George,” Pelosi knew she had a movie.
Home movie, video diary, documentary, call it what you will, the fact is Pelosi has captured the leader of the free world chomping on Cheeze Doodles, rolling a Magic 8 Ball down the aisle of an airplane to predict the election’s outcome (“Outlook not so good”), itemizing his head-to-toe Western outfit, discussing the irony of his fondness for bologna sandwiches and spelling victory with his arms and legs on Super Tuesday.
Raised in a family of seven where politics are the main course at family meals, Pelosi was more familiar with campaign issues than some. Her grandfather was a New Deal Democrat; her mother, Nancy, is the House Minority Whip, and her sister Christine is chief of staff for Rep. John Tierney (D., Mass.). The youngest Pelosi will not air her own political views, but allows that she and the President come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. “My mother used to rip his father’s policies on the House floor. I covered the Hill for six years,” she said. “I have an aversion to all that seriousness. I think he does, too. That’s the irony.”
“This movie isn’t political. It’s personal,” she insists. So much so that her favorite moments include her own rant about immature men. “It’s also a coming-of-age flick where I lost all romantic notions of journalism.” One that may draw up to $1 million from Tinseltown. But Pelosi’s immediate plans are to speak about journalism at various colleges and universities.
When Bush introduces himself to Pelosi, he comments on her stylishness, an apparent reference to her affinity for all things purple.
“Alexandra is one of our favorites particularly because of the way she dresses,” candidate Bush coaches his father during a Kennebunkport family moment that Pelosi captures. From the go, Bush seems to take to Pelosi, frequently referring to her by name, mugging for the camera and occasionally turning the handheld on her. After seeing her and Newsweek reporter Trent Gegax walking along a secluded street, W. says, “It’s none of my business what your private life is like, but let me ask this question. Was that just a social encounter with Newsweek Man?” Strictly professional — they were talking about Bush’s tax plan — Pelosi says. Bush fires back, “And you felt you had to hold his hand in order to amplify the discussion?” continuing, “Is it true you believe a person of your stature can go one solid week without bathing?”
That’s where the promotional goodies come in. Travel-size toiletries that include purple shampoo, deodorant stamped with “Journeys with George” stickers and the five-cent toothbrushes she bought in Chinatown on Christmas Day, are the freebies, along with copies of the Constitution. As for the mandatory press kits, Pelosi rolls her eyes, “How tacky is that? All these people are my friends.”
Not about to be sideswiped by the gossip inside the Beltway about what ended up on the cutting-room floor, Pelosi said she snipped some potentially damaging scenes to protect her subjects. “There are a lot of nervous people in Washington right now. But people don’t have any idea what it’s like on the campaign trail. You’re living on an airplane for a year. People wouldn’t understand because they weren’t there.”
White House insiders are among the anxious. But Pelosi is quick to point out that several aides, like Ari Fleischer, were then working elsewhere. “If the White House said they didn’t know [it was being made into a commercial film], it’s only because they hadn’t checked with the President,” she said. “They were parsing their words. It was for my personal use. It was for my movie.”
Now the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are backing off, knowing they stand to dump publicity Pelosi’s way by inadvertently tagging her work “the film the White House doesn’t want you to see.”
“This was a lighthearted Bush,” Pelosi said. “He doesn’t have the luxury of being that person any more now.” At one point, Pelosi asks Bush if he’s looking forward to spending some more quality time with the pack of reporters. “Can you play gin?” he offers. “I’ll drink it,” she shoots back, and Bush demands, “Show that to her family.”
But it’s not all fun and games and Pelosi isn’t afraid to ask the occasional tough question publicly, like how the President sleeps at night knowing his home state holds the record number of executions. “I’m sleeping safely, I’m sleeping soundly at night,” he corrects himself. W. chastises her the following day for “coming after him” and going “below-the-belt.”
The movie’s aim, she said, is to give viewers “a better understanding of how democracy works and how the political machine operates. One thing this movie does is deconstruct how we elect our president. There’s an unholy alliance between the candidates and the people who cover them. That’s what this exposes.”
More than anything, “Journeys with George” is open to interpretation.
“I come from a political family. I think you should let people make their own judgements. I do think you shouldn’t vote for someone who you wouldn’t feel comfortable having in your living room. Some people think this humanizes him and makes him look like a fun person to go on a road trip with. Others say it confirms their worst suspicions.”
Aside from staying on message, it’s clear Pelosi has learned a thing or two from the former candidate. She can work the press, blend seriousness with humor, and knows to poll her block’s building superintendents and the local ice cream store owner about what they want in a movie. Not by chance, the film bows Thursday in the President’s home state.
She hasn’t spoken with him since he asked if she voted for him on the eve of his inaugural. She’s still not saying.