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In Person: Alexandra Pelosi

May 9, 2002
White House Press Copr? No Thanks

Pelosi and Bush standing together.
Journeys with George: on the campaign press plane.

Call it life imitating documentary film. Alexandra Pelosi’s video documentary Journeys with George spawned a media pack of its own as soon as it hit the film festival circuit at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival in March.

The debut of the film attracted so much press that Pelosi found herself—in a similar spot as her subject, George W. Bush on the campaign trail—being followed from screening to screening, even to bars, by a drove of journalists eager to secure an interview. Unlike the president, however, reporters never took issue with her alcohol intake.

In 2000, NBC assigned Pelosi to cover the presidential race from inside Access Air, the plane that flew the campaign press corps to hundreds of stump speeches and midnight rallies. Pelosi kept track of the year-long road trip on her digital camera. The result is what Pelosi calls her “home movie” of life on the campaign trail.

Pelosi grew up in politics, like Bush, but she was raised on the other side of the fence. Her mother, Nancy Pelosi, is the House Democratic whip and represents the California district that includes most of San Francisco. Pelosi’s grandfather, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., served five terms in Congress and then three terms as mayor of Baltimore. “Some kids went to summer camp,” says the younger Pelosi. “I went on the campaign trail with Jerry Brown for president.”

Journeys with George gives an up-close look at what Bush was like after-hours on the campaign trail, sidling up to reporters with his casual, if sometimes goofy, sense of humor. As Richard Wolffe, a reporter with The Financial Times, describes Bush’s character onscreen, “I think he’s a pretty bad speaker, but he’s great with shaking hands. I mean, he’s truly gifted with shaking hands.”

Pelosi admits to feeling compromised by having to maintain her relationship and access to Bush while working for NBC. In fact, the film turns around this premise—that journalists lose their freedom, even their identity, inside the “bubble.” In a voice-over, Pelosi remarks about her birthday spent on the road: “By the time the Bush camp had brought me my fourth birthday cake and my network hadn’t even called, I began to wonder who I was working for.”

Bush instantly befriends Pelosi and camera. In one scene, Bush walks up behind Pelosi as she’s saying she doesn’t like “them,” referring to other reporters. But Bush takes her comment to mean the politicians standing around, including himself. “I’m glad we’re going to be on the same plane soon,” he jokes. “Do you like gin?”

“I can drink it,” says Pelosi.

“Show that to her family,” Bush instructs the person holding the camera.

The documentary looks, on the surface, to be an entertaining case study in how Bush created a successful buzz around himself, rather than a sobering look at the campaign process. On the plane, the whirl of the blender in the margarita corner (the press’, not the president’s) sets the rhythm towards the end of the trip. But the film is a subtle, biting commentary on the institution of “pack” journalism, in which a horde of reporters follows a politician’s carefully scripted activities, manufacturing cookie cutter news. Pelosi reveals what it’s like to be inside the campaign press corps, but she lets audience members do their own thinking about what that means, or how it might be changed.

Even in person, Pelosi is reluctant to criticize the institutions (journalism and politics) that she comes from. When I ask her how campaign coverage should change, she says “pack journalism is an outdated concept.” But then she stops and says she’s not “going there.” “If I start trying to put my own personal opinions on the process, it sort of undermines my mission of telling my own story,” she says. “It will alienate people, and I don’t want that. I want people to make their own opinions. [Other] people’s opinions are just as valuable as mine.”

Pelosi may have preferred staying holed up in her living room editing her movie to joining the White House press corps. But, unwittingly, she hasn’t left the pack behind. She’s just on the other side of it (at least for the moment). She isn’t above crediting part of the success of her film to the reciprocal nature of pack journalism, however. “(Bush) helped me do my job, and I helped him do his,” she says dryly. “That’s the dirty little secret of journalism—when you’re the reporter covering the campaign, if he wins, you’re the White House press corps. If he loses, [it’s like,] remember Dubya? Where’s he now?”

Journeys with George will air on HBO in November.

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