'George' Is Unseen but Widely Heard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's only an hour before she has to leave for the airport, and Alexandra Pelosi is in a hurry, stuffing purple clothes into a suitcase in her New York apartment and talking at warp speed on two phones.

She is headed to Austin, Texas, for the debut of her first film, a 75-minute down-home documentary chronicling the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush--the Bush who roamed the back of the press plane eating Cheese Doodles, the former prep school cheerleader who spelled out victory in body letters after an early primary, the unpredictable orator who urged schoolchildren to "preserve" when he meant persevere, the unvarnished candidate some of his handlers would like the nation to forget.

It took a war to erase the image of Bush as a mangler of words and irredeemable frat boy and turn him into a leader, presidential and sometimes even eloquent.

But much to the dismay of White House aides, the specter of Bush past appears to have been resurrected by this 31-year-old San Francisco-born filmmaker with a $1,000 Sony camcorder she calls "a piece of crap."

"Journeys With George" premieres tonight in Bush's Texas backyard, the opening feature at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. The documentary has the political world abuzz before the critics have even laid eyes on it.

As a producer for NBC News, Pelosi spent a year on the road with Bush and her camcorder, catching the future president unedited, unplugged and unaided by spin doctors. And because she is a lifelong liberal and the youngest daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the Democratic whip and most powerful woman in the House, the inevitable Washington question is raised: Is this one filmmaker's humanizing portrait of a president-to-be or a partisan plot to ding him in his finest hour?

"I honestly think it's a Rorschach test," says Pelosi, a quirky Gen-X journalist and admitted lifelong liberal who grew up stuffing her mother's political mailers and making sandwiches for Democratic functions. "If you love him you'll say, 'Look what a human being!' If you don't like him, it may confirm your worst suspicions."

She was known on the campaign plane for a mercurial personality and loud purple clothes; her colleagues recall her bracing her arms on the aisle seats and swinging her legs, calling to mind a monkey. The production company she formed when she quit NBC to make her movie is fittingly named Purple Monkey Productions.

Her disarming personality both infuriated and charmed Bush, who once scolded her as if she were a child for being chronically late (he is painfully punctual) and gave her the silent treatment when she asked him how he slept at night with so many executions under his belt. Yet he seemed unable to resist engaging with her ubiquitous lens. And so she captures him swilling nonalcoholic beer with relish, something other photographers were barred from shooting. He sticks his fingers in the ears of New York Times reporter Frank Bruni, whose not-very-flattering "Ambling Into History, the Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush" has just hit the stands. He makes faces and impersonates Elvis.

Crashing a press margarita party at 35,000 feet, he confides: "It takes an animal to know an animal," adding strategically: "I'm not admitting I'm an animal with 60 days to go in the campaign."

It is unclear how the world will ever come to see "Journeys With George." Pelosi has no publicist and no distributor, is answering her own phone calls and made up press kits for tonight herself. The movie has been finished for almost a year, but only a handful of people have seen it. (Pelosi extended an open invitation to show it at her apartment, but hardly anybody attended, except her mother.)

Yet mere word has spawned national interest in a spectrum of reactions that reflects the subjective nature of art:

"Cutup in Chief," declared Time magazine.

"Funny, kooky--and ultimately very human," concluded the New York Post.

"White House Unamused at Return of Curious George," noted the Financial Times.

Indeed, some aides have spent weeks anonymously voicing their displeasure, saying Pelosi broke her promise that the otherwise off-the-record footage would be for her "personal use." "This is my personal use," she snaps. "It's my movie.... What did they think this was for, the Pelosi family archives? I was a TV producer there with a camera rolling in Bush's face. It's hard to believe he didn't know I was making a movie."

Furthermore, she notes, the then-governor not only acknowledged on tape that the film would be one "lousy documentary" but came up with the title himself. "Journeys With George," he suggested, adding cryptically, "You know, you can spell it with a G."

It's not all the attention that surprises Pelosi now: "He is after all the president of the United States." What astounds her is that she got away with making the film.

"I'm surprised no one came pounding on my door. You would think him being the leader of the free world and NBC being [owned by] GE, somebody would have asked what the hell I was up to. But no one did," she said gleefully one morning this week, fresh from a "Today" spot on which she appeared in a lavender suit and pearls "so I'd look like a grown-up."

White House protestations have recently cooled. "Now the White House is supporting me," she told the Chicago Sun Times. "They don't want me to have the publicity of 'The movie the White House didn't want you to see.'"

But at least one Republican strategist thinks the film will only help personalize a wartime president. "It makes him look like a human being," said Mark McKinnon, a Bush image advisor. He says Bush is "great when the filters are off."

What the president thinks of "Journeys With George" is a mystery. He hasn't seen it (he didn't go to her house either), and Pelosi has no plans to send him a copy. There will be a Washington screening, though, and she says he's invited.

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