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A verite look at Bush as candidate

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi’s mom has devotedly traipsed around the country in the last year to attend five screenings of her daughter’s new documentary “Journeys With George.” Sweet, but it also gets her off the hook tonight, when the film has its HBO premiere.

Mom -- also known as House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) -- can be forgiven for having her attention focused elsewhere election night, on her own reelection results and the tight battle for control of Congress.

The 76-minute film tells what by now has become an old story in a humorous new way: the staging of political campaigns for their press value, the tedium of listening to the same stump speech over and over, the pack mentality of the journalism and the uncomfortable coziness that can develop between a campaign and the reporters covering it.

Alexandra Pelosi, assigned to be NBC News’ constant producer on the trail with candidate George W. Bush during his 1 1/2-year run-up to the election, took along her home video camera. At some point the candidate began to play along, providing the audience with a less-formal glimpse of the man, rolling oranges down the aisle, defending partying press members as “my people,” giving Pelosi a kiss on the cheek as an enticement to vote for him in the California primary. Campaign over, Pelosi quit NBC to make her film with editor Aaron Lubarsky.

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The film created a stir when it was the opening night film at the South by Southwest festival in Texas in March of this year. HBO picked it up a month later. Last week, producer Sid Ganis optioned the film, with plans to make a fictionalized feature film version.

At an interview before last week’s New York screening, Nancy Pelosi, one of Washington’s most outspoken critics of Bush, looked slightly horrified when asked if she gave her daughter any advice during the making of the movie, perhaps fearful that she could be accused of meddling in the politics. But for every critic who thinks the president comes across poorly in the film as a frat boy at heart, there has been another who thinks his clowning around for the younger Pelosi’s camera humanizes him.

“I certainly didn’t vote for him,” said Sheila Nevins, HBO’s executive vice president, who acquired the documentary for the network, “but I was charmed by the way he treated her.”

Audiences in San Francisco complained the film was “a valentine” to Bush; Texas audiences thought it made their local hero look too silly. In Oxford, England, recently, Nancy Pelosi even found herself in the ironic position of defending the president. “I never anticipated the partisan nature” of the reaction, the filmmaker said, calling the film her “personal Rorschach test.” Her mother adds that in politics, “people see what they want to see.”

For the congresswoman, the film’s success or failure in attracting audiences tonight will be her own test of where the popular culture stands when it comes to interest in elections. Will they be glued to the movie or to the actual returns? “There’s a theory that the main event in politics is the presidential, and that’s the only one that really attracts the larger audience,” she said.

There is another element afoot because for many critics, it’s not a film about the candidate but about the process. The filmmaker’s Web site says the film “exposes the unholy alliance between the reporters and the candidate and deconstructs how we elect our presidents.” So what does that say about her mother’s own run for office?

“There can be a massive manipulation of the media,” Nancy Pelosi said, copping to past campaigns, when she was head of the California Democratic Party. “We wanted to make sure the press was happy; we wanted to make sure they had all the information that they needed to do their job, that they were well fed and if there was a baseball game or football game going on, that they would have access. We didn’t want them to be unhappy.”

The congresswoman argued, however, that “the dangerous part is not how you schmooze them, it’s how you can grant and withhold; the power of allocation of time, of questions, is major.” The film, she said, “demonstrates clearly how a campaign can shape the story and how the story can impact a presidency and the outcome of an election.” One scene shows the future president turning frosty toward the filmmaker after she asks a pointed question about the death penalty.

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Pelosi mere is vague when asked whether she would ever allow someone like her daughter to have similar up-close access to her own campaign. There’s not the same level of interest in nonpresidential races, she said, and “I would never run for president, so that whole intimacy of a year and a half of that kind of thing, it’s hard to say what you would do.” But she said “the question will be a very different one in two years; it’s not a question of if they will allow it, it’s a question of why wouldn’t they allow it.... That’s what public figures should come to expect.”

“I don’t think there’s the opportunity to close down any more,” she added. “If a candidate does not want to be reported on, he’ll stay at the front of the plane. And the fact is that making himself available to the press, even to be the subject of a documentary, was a good thing for George Bush, in terms of the media coverage that he got.”

In the end, the filmmaker said she got two pieces of advice from her mother: to be prepared for the strong reactions she would get from putting her own ideas in the public realm and to have respect for the institution of the presidency.

“There’s never any moment when I stepped over the line,” Alexandra Pelosi said. “I’m not tearing anybody down. The thing I’m proudest of is that I didn’t burn any bridges.”

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She says she remains friends with her fellow reporters and retains good contacts with the White House. “I did play the politics of it. I kept my relationships with everybody,” she added. “I am my mother’s daughter.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

‘Journeys With George’

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Where: HBO

When: 9:30 tonight, with repeats Saturday, 2:30 p.m.; Nov. 13, 7:15 p.m.; Nov. 17, 9 a.m.


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