Alexandra Pelosi’s “Journeys With George”: Covering George W. Bush From the Inside
by Caroline Wells
Alexandra Pelosi insists she is not a filmmaker and would rather be considered a television maker. However, her self-described “video diary” on Bush’s 2000 election campaign, called “Journeys With George,” was a groundbreaking documentary specimen when it first aired on HBO last November. It deconstructed the election campaign process and gave a very entertaining front-and-center look at the “Dubya” behind the rote speechmaking and fumbling Bushisms. Pelosi, the daughter of Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, shot it using her handheld video camera while she was an NBC news producer with the Bush traveling press corps. A year and a half-worth of important, priceless Bush moments are expertly edited together — Bush eating crackers with his mouth open, Bush dispensing love advice to the woman-behind-the-camera, Bush intimating that he was once a party animal. Surprisingly charming and quick-witted, many would also describe the George in “Journeys With George” as undeniably “scary.” The film also successfully conveys the ins and outs of political campaign journalism and the tenuous relationship between the press and politicians.
On Friday, “Journeys With George” premiered at the Quad Cinema. Alexandra Pelosi is currently covering the 2004 presidential election campaign for HBO. indieWIRE looked back at the making of the film with Pelosi.
indieWIRE: Why did you make “Journeys with George”?
Pelosi: “Journeys with George” was completely accidental. It was a happy accident. I had a full-time job working for NBC News seven days a week. I had a handheld home video camera, and on my downtime I was just trying to deconstruct the whole thing. Who we elect impacts everyone on the planet. I wanted to document the process of how we got there, sleeping in dirty hotels, and shaking hands at rubber-chicken dinners. After the election, I sat in my living room and made this documentary and it ended up that NBC and HBO totally embraced and supported me.
iW: Did you have a conscious technique that you used to elicit such candid moments from Bush?
Pelosi: People always ask me about strategy or motivation. I had no technique; I had a job. I was there with full responsibility to my corporate sponsor. George Bush was a Hollywood character. He was this scripted president; you couldn’t even write a character as good as George Bush. The Democrats just aren’t that character. They actually know something about the issues. They actually can talk policy. The reason George Bush was showing off his wardrobe to me in the film was because he didn’t know anything about the policy questions that the other reporters wanted to ask him. He was using me to avoid the other reporters. When I was on the plane with Dick Gephardt and he sat down with me and started talking shop the other night, I was like, “Oh God, this is going to be a really long year.”
iW: While you were editing the film with Aaron Lubarsky, September 11th happened. How did that affect the editing of the film?
Pelosi: It really didn’t have much of an impact because “Journeys With George” was pretty much edited by then. Aaron and I started editing it when Bush became president, at the beginning of 2001. I think that Aaron thought in the end that “Journeys With George” felt trivial. Aaron was the editor and he was also the co-director. He tried to influence me to give it substance, which is what film critics say it doesn’t have. But that’s not my thing. We had lots of conflicts about that. The people who read The Nation and the people who read indieWIRE, they don’t need me. The kind of audience I wanted to reach are people who actually watch the network news and believe every word of it. To those people, I say, “Here’s something you should know.” You see, I never wanted to be a filmmaker. Television is my background and that’s where I plan to stay. The last year I’ve been doing interviews as a documentary filmmaker, but I’m not! I make television!
iW: In one of the scenes, you ask Bush why you should vote for him and why “the little people and the unemployed” should vote for him and he doesn’t give you an answer. Some people have said that in that scene, you let him off the hook and didn’t push him hard enough for an answer.
Pelosi: I wasn’t there as Alexandra Pelosi, the independent filmmaker. I was there as an NBC News producer. Anyone can say, “Well, if I was there, I would have said this or that,” but that’s all bullshit because nobody could even get there, number one, and if they got there, they could NOT say those things because he’d walk away and then you’d have no more access and I think that’s counterproductive. Now if I was there as somebody else, it would be a different conversation. I had a role and I had to play my role. In the name of my own little home movie, I’m going to offend him and lose my job and get kicked off the plane? I don’t think so. I’m not willing to jeopardize it all. And that is the dirty little secret of American political reporting and I say that in the movie. The truth is that all of our careers were tied to George Bush during the election campaign.
I think that “Journeys With George” reveals something about George Bush — about how shallow and empty he is — and if people can’t appreciate that, then they’re not my audience. The movie is more about the media than it is about George Bush. People need to understand how the media operates and how they’re in bed with the candidates. If people are going to be critical, at some point, you just have to say, you’re not a part of the solution. That is part of my whole thinking that the system can change.
iW: You were very much in the documentary. Did you intend to come out from behind the camera so much?
Pelosi: There was no way I could have made this documentary without coming out from behind the camera because it was my story and if I had taken myself out of it, NBC would have shut me down and HBO never would have bought it. I had to say, “Here’s my view from my seat.” I’m not speaking for anyone but me. The minute you try and be the authority — “Oh, I’m the voice of the press corps” — the press corps turns on you and they discredit you and then you become one of those people who burned their bridges. My proudest accomplishment with “Journeys With George” to date is that I got the movie out and I made no enemies in the process.
iW: You have said in other interviews that you definitely separate yourself from the Michael Moore-type of political documentary because you know you are undeniably part of the system, being Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, and you can never really be outside the system.
Pelosi: I started out as an outsider. I dropped out of high school. I was this burnout, I had my own radio show in California when I was a kid and I used to climb out of the window to go do my radio show. I was really “anti.” I didn’t believe in anything that I saw on TV or that I read in school. But I’ve learned since I went on the road with George Bush that you can do more damage on the inside than you can on the outside. And people just don’t want to hear that. There’s room for new ideas inside the system. But the people who are inside the system just don’t have them.
I can never be taken for an outsider because people say, “Well, look at who her mother is, look at her access.” But people love to build my mom up into something in my life. I’m just like every other 32-year-old. I stopped listening to my mom 15 years ago. People think I know people and I really don’t. I got my job at NBC by literally stalking the woman who was in charge of hiring people. And I took the job for $28,000 and spent every weekend and every holiday working. My parents don’t know anybody in television.
iW: Do you think you would ever want to go in to politics?
Pelosi: No. Television is much more powerful. I believe that good journalism is a public service and actually trying to give something that isn’t just the propaganda that the campaigns give out has value.
iW: What is your approach now with your next project covering the 2004 election campaign for HBO?
Pelosi: I think it’s going to be a lot more intentional. “Journeys With George” was totally accidental and I think people were really sort of playing along. Now, I have people giving me all this access because they want to use me, they think that I would help them. People have all these weird calculations. Now we are talking about stuff like the war and the economy — heavy, heavy stuff. I’m traveling, sitting through substance-intensive coverage. I’m convinced that the more important my next project is, the less people will want to watch it.
Pelosi: People say that they want the truth and they want substance but in the end, they don’t. People go to see “Journeys with George” because they want to see George Bush being a jackass. They don’t want “how you make a president.” Right now I have full access to everyone who is a potential Nominee, but I don’t think people are going to be that interested because in the end, it’s substance and substance is sleepy. Substance equals death in television. And that’s what I’m making — television.
iW: What do you hope for the future of political documentary?
Pelosi: I feel like it still hasn’t been mined. Television has never gotten it. The networks have never understood how to cover politics. They cover the horse race and they make it as inaccessible to people as humanly possible so some people are junkies and they tune in and then the rest of them don’t even watch. So I think that the networks have just missed opportunities. But the networks are the only ones who can afford to be there. Independent filmmakers can’t. But for the grace of HBO who can afford to go. I think that this is amazing because as each election goes by, we’re one step closer to actually seeing something real that isn’t propaganda. All that we’ve ever seen on television during a presidential campaign is propaganda. And now, because of the Internet, handheld cameras and other outlets, the networks are losing their power. It’s really going to change the political climate. I think more people will be involved. What’s going to be interesting is to see if they do it constructively.