On the Road with Dubya
He chews with his mouth open, calls women "baby" and refers to himself as "an animal."
This is not Eminem we're talking about, nor the latest lout to appear on The Bachelor. It's George W. Bush, just months before taking the oath of office as President of the United States.
Last week, HBO released the DVD edition of Journeys With George, Alexandra Pelosi's sassy travelogue documenting her stint with George W. Bush's 2000 campaign press corps. The film originally aired in November of 2002, back in a time when the media, still rocked by 9-11, were going easy on the president. Consequently, most critics went out of their way to avoid giving the film any serious analytical weight, viewing it less as a political allegory than as a jaunty home movie starring a rag-tag band of reporters scarfing down junk food in the back of a campaign plane.
That was then and this is now. Perspective is everything; and watching the film again last night, I couldn't help but notice how practically every scene now resonates in an alarmingly political way. Back in 2002, George W. Bush was still steering the country with only two tires on the shoulder of the road, not yet having yanked the wheel hard to the right. So critics, it seems, had no reason to plumb the on-camera antics of Journeys With George for any greater depth or suspicion.
Today, however, we're deep in a cultural divide produced and directed by the Administration, and suddenly Pelosi's benign road picture seems more like a horror movie, whose moment-to-moment jolts eerily presage the political bloodfest to come.
Throughout the first eight minutes of the film, Pelosi (daughter of House minority whip Nancy Pelosi) self-effacingly sets the scene. Referring to herself and her colleagues as "hired help" who are "sequestered in the bubble" of a jalopy of a jet normally used to transport prisoners, she simultaneously paints Governor Bush as a warm and funny charmer who is not above such goofiness as pretending to be a flight attendant or rolling oranges down the aisle.
But 9 minutes and 15 seconds into the film, Pelosi quietly drops her first mortar round. In an interview with fellow reporter Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News -- who, according to Pelosi, "knows Bush's record better than any of us" -- Slater makes this casual, if resigned, observation:
"I have learned not a single thing about his policies or him that's new."
From this point on, Pelosi deftly crafts a portrait of Bush that is often chilling, as she neatly tucks small glimpses of The Man between the cracks in The Candidate's façade. Granted, there's nothing particularly revelatory about exposing the two-faced nature of politicians on the campaign trail. But given what we now know about the 43rd president -- notably, his evolution into the most dangerously regressive chief executive of our time -- Pelosi's chronicle serves not only as a wily political character study, but also poses the unavoidable question: Where was the discerning media coverage when we needed it most?
11 minutes, 20 seconds:
Just before the New Hampshire vote, reporters gather outdoors to watch a summit-jacketed Governor Bush ride a snowmobile. "This is not a photo op," someone announces. "He really wants to test snowmobiles."
Commenting about this scene, New York Times� critic Caryn James cracked, "There's Mr. Bush driving a snowmobile in New Hampshire -- proving what? That he can make a quick getaway if UFOs land in the Rose Garden during a blizzard?" Two years ago, such an observation was appropriately arch, zeroing in on the silliness of such campaign press stunts.
But those were the days before President Bush's notorious flight-suited appearance on an aircraft carrier, or his hard-hatted visit to Ground Zero, or his cameo at last month's NASCAR event, decked out in speed driver regalia. Suddenly, we're forced to see the snowmobile clip as just the first taste of what would become this president's penchant for playing dress-up -- a talent that has helped him turn traditional presidential press coverage into one long costume party. As if to underscore this point, Pelosi once again corners Slater, who offers this offhand remark:
"I believe we've got to watch out for the big lie in this campaign."
Bush strategist Karl Rove makes his first appearance in the film, engaged in a friendly snowball fight with reporters. At first, the scene seems almost refreshing, offering, as it does, a cozy counterpoint to the routine contretemps between handler and the handled on the campaign circuit.
Two years later, however, Rove's role in the Administration -- and his relationship with the press -- is anything but funny. Still the number one suspect in the Valerie Plame-CIA debacle, Rove has become increasingly indispensable to the Bush Administration, especially as the president finds himself against the ropes in this election year. Even in those early days of the campaign, Pelosi was onto this, inserting the following exchanges just before and after the snowball scene:
PELOSI to Karl Rove: "Are you lying?"
ROVE (smirking): "I'm not a journalist; I'm not a liar."
PELOSI (gesturing to John McCain, who'd just won the New Hampshire primary): "So if the election were held today, the nominee for the Republican party is speaking."
ROVE:"In your perverted little mind."
George Bush speaks to an enthusiastic crowd, proudly declaring, "I will return the high standards of honor to the highest office in the land. This is my pledge." The audience goes wild.
Nothing out of the ordinary here unless you consider the venue that's hosting this foot-stamping Bush rally: Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which Pelosi promptly frames with clips of the Confederate flag whipping in the wind, and a mention of the University's ban on interracial dating.
In the film's funniest bit of extemporaneous commentary, R.G. Ratcliffe of The Houston Chronicle deconstructs a baloney and cheese sandwich, which along with Cheetos are Governor Bush's favorite campaign fare.
"A baloney sandwich is essentially white bread," Ratcliffe begins, peeling back the first layer, "which would be any Republican candidate for president. The primary ingredient would be baloney, which would be the meat of the message when you hear, 'Read my lips -- no new taxes.' It's baloney. The next element is cheesy things that go on TV. In this case, it's Swiss cheese, so there are holes in their argument.
"And that, in essence, is your Republican presidential campaign," Ratcliffe concludes. "A white bread candidate, with a baloney message and cheesy advertising."
As witty as the analysis is, four years later, one can't help but feel angry watching the scene. If reporters knew this early on that the presidential candidate's message was as insubstantial as processed lunch meat, why didn't they call him on it? Oh, that's right -- they were too busy pummeling Al Gore.
At a jammed press conference, Pelosi questions Bush about the record number of executions that have taken place in Texas while he was Governor.
"You sleep at night knowing everyone who has been put to death on your watch was completely guilty?" she asks.
"Alexandra, let me put it this way to you," Bush responds with clenched jaw: "I'm sleeping safely, soundly at night. Thank you for the question."
In the next scene, Bush refuses to speak to Pelosi's camera, commenting, "You came after me the other day. You went below the belt."
Another Bush fashion show -- this time an exclusive for Pelosi's camcorder.
"This is what Texans wear," Bush says, inviting the camera to capture a slow head-to-toe exploration of his wardrobe -- from his leather boots (worn high, he says, to prevent snake bites), to his Stetson-cut pants, to his big belt buckle emblazoned with the state of Texas. Narrated by the Governor himself, the segment is intended as an entertaining vignette, but rapidly morphs into a creepy bit of macho exhibitionism. Watching it today, it's nearly impossible not to think about how desperately this Administration relies on masculinity to fortify its public image -- from the president himself, down to his bully-boy troika of front-line cowboys, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft.
"And then from here up," says Bush, concluding his sartorial tour with a gesture to his neck and above, "it's all in your mind."
Pelosi sits Bush down for what is their longest -- and most disturbing -- exchange in the film. What makes the scene so painful to watch is seeing up-close how blithely Bush undercuts Pelosi's efforts to get to the core of his candidacy. Halfway through the scene, my wife, who was watching with me, fell back in her chair and said, "My God -- he's not taking one question seriously."
PELOSI: "So why should I vote for you [in the California primary]?"
BUSH: "You're in a key position. You happen to know me...And if I lose, you're out of work, baby. You're off the plane, baby. It's in your interests."
PELOSI: "But what about the little people?"
BUSH: "You're not little."
PELOSI: "What about the people who really need my vote? The hungry? The unemployed? The homeless? I'm supposed to vote for them."
BUSH: [Feigning mock enthusiasm] "That's very noble. I couldn't have said it better myself -- as I'm sitting here recruiting you to get your vote."
PELOSI: "Are you going to look out for the little guy?"
BUSH: "You are the little guy. I'm a little guy. Have you noticed that? I'm about 5'11" and my brother is 6'3"... How am I doing? Am I getting your vote yet?"
PELOSI: "What are you going to do for me if I vote for you?"
BUSH: "Give you a little kiss on the cheek."
PELOSI: "A kiss?"
[Bush leans in and kisses her on the cheek. After he leaves, we watch Pelosi mark her California ballot for Bill Bradley.]
Bush chooses Dick Cheney as his running mate and, according to Pelosi, a sudden gulf appears between the journalists and their subject.
"We are not getting any access at all to Governor Bush," says NBC's Campbell Brown, peering out a train window during a scenic whistle-stop tour. "He's been sequestered at the front of the train."
Once again, one need only fast-forward a few years to recognize a pattern that now dictates the Bush-media relationship. With Roger Ailes and his Fox News Channel now tucked neatly in the president's pocket (and vice versa), Americans get most of their direct access to the Administration via a select squad of softball-tossing Bush apologists.
It was only when I watched through Pelosi's lens, however, that I realized Bush's cherry-picking of the press began not when reporters started questioning his handling of world affairs as president, but before he even took office. No wonder he's so good at it.
"No politics, just a series of pictures," Wayne Slater tells Pelosi's camera. "All pictures, not news."
As Bush heads toward the general election, Pelosi reveals that campaign aides have begun to supply crowds with mass-produced, already-made signs. Among the hand-painted slogans -- courtesy of Bush operatives -- that adorn the placards: "NRA for Bush," "Pro Life For Bush," "Hunters for Bush." and "Vote for Bush Because Gay People Have Too Many Rights."
Pelosi gets into a fight with rowdy, hard-drinking reporters at the back of the plane. After brokering the peace, Bush sits down with Pelosi, pointedly advising her to chill out. What ensues is this frank and jaw-dropping bit of insight into the Bush character. What's amazing to me is that Bush's handlers, witnessing this from just across the aisle, never attempted to confiscate the film.
BUSH: "Look, these guys were just up there trying to have a good, solid margarita. They wanted to play some music, they wanted to get hoppin'� here at 45,000 over Nebraska. It was innocent fun. And you stepped in and rained on the parade, man."
PELOSI: "What's it like to be in the front of the plane with all these animals back here?"
BUSH: "These are my people. It takes an animal to know an animal. (Slight pause.) I'm not admitting I'm an animal with 60 days to go in the campaign, but I am admitting I like the animals. You're back here with my people. You're back here with the tequila drinkers. What you need to do is go up there and make a little whoopee with the tequila drinkers, get to know 'em better."
PELOSI: "They scare me. I'm afraid of them."
BUSH: "Maybe they're afraid of you."
Another candid exchange.
PELOSI: "How have you changed over the year?"
BUSH: "I started off as a cowboy; I'm now a statesman."
Just before the general election, Pelosi asks colleague Richard Wolff to sum up the year for her.
"So much of it has been a kind of pack journalism," says Wolff, "and I've got this nagging feeling that the pack wasn't always doing the right thing. The Gore press corps was all about how they didn't like him and didn't trust him...And over here we were all writing about trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off of us."
Again, the exchange begs the question: If the media were onto the phony-baloney Bush juggernaut from the start, why weren't they reporting about it? Analysts have often said expectations of Bush's suitability for high office were so low in 2000 that reporters gave him a perpetual pass -- whether on past transgressions or those made during the campaign. Four years later, it's now apparent what a mistake that was.
In a final scene, Pelosi and her colleagues stand in a cluster across the street from the Governor's mansion, just as the post-election siege in Tallahassee has begun. Suddenly, Bush and his team stride into view.
PELOSI (calling from the roped-off pack of reporters): "Governor, how do you think the recount is going?"
BUSH (waving, disappearing into building): "Good to see you..."
Bruce Kluger writes for National Public Radio, and is on the Board of Contributors for USA Today.