“What was the overarching point of the campaign?” asks Jim Loftus, a press aide to Senator John Kerry, at the end of Steve Rosenbaum’s new documentary of the Senator’s 2004 Presidential campaign.
The film, Inside the Bubble, was screened exclusively by The Observer, and is set to be shown publicly for the first time at the New York Television Festival Sept. 29.
“I don’t know what the hell it was,” Mr. Loftus continues. “I don’t know now. I lived it for 11 months, admittedly intoxicated and exhausted and strung out from cigarettes and arguing with press and sappers and the whole thing. I don’t know. That’s a problem.”
It remains a problem as Mr. Kerry re-emerges on the national scene—enough so that the documentary has already drawn fire from his press secretary.
After giving what some considered the speech of his life at the Faneuil Hall concession, the Senator observed a period of silence through President Bush’s second inauguration, then gradually re-emerged, with e-mails to his old list of supporters and a steady national profile.
After the federal failures in response to Hurricane Katrina became clear, Mr. Kerry was the Senate’s most scathing voice, labeling his old rival’s government “the Katrina administration.”
This as a couple of early leaked scenes from the film are fueling a small storm among insiders eager for a reckoning of the 2004 campaign. Mr. Kerry’s defeat left Democrats traumatized and depressed, but it didn’t leave them with a clear idea of what comes next.
As The War Room provided a template for future campaigns (not least in how the staff should act in front of cameras), Inside the Bubble comes as Democrats are looking to avoid repeating their mistakes.
The question is whether Senator Kerry—or his party—have managed to get outside of the “bubble” for which the documentary is named.
To be sure, Inside the Bubble won’t be mistaken for The War Room, the genre-making inside view of the 1992 Clinton campaign.
These filmmakers were not granted access to Mr. Kerry’s inner circle in Boston; they spent their time with mid-level campaign staff, and the candidate himself, on the road. Their content, sometimes telling, sometimes mundane, offers no insight at all into Mr. Kerry himself, and introduces no new colorful genius à la James Carville.
What’s more, Mr. Kerry’s aides have all seen The War Room, which plays in the background in one scene as the Kerry van cruises through the Appalachians. They know the camera is there.
And while The War Room ends with tears of victory, Mr. Kerry lost, despite those deceptive early exit polls, which produced the film’s most painful line, as a Kerry supporter passes on the good news on Election Day: “I hear they’re crying in the White House.”
Dead, But Doesn’t Know It
It’s tempting to view the isolation of Senator Kerry’s campaign on display here as a persistent feature of his political career. His speech about the Bush administration’s response to Katrina, for instance, was matched by a more positive, and starkly contrasting, address on the same topic by his former running mate, John Edwards. Discussion of the party’s 2008 nominee centers on Senator Hillary Clinton. And many Democrats find Mr. Kerry’s aspirations painful to watch.
“It’s like Monty Python,” said one Democratic strategist, reflecting a broader view of Mr. Kerry’s prospects. “Dead but doesn’t know it.”
Mr. Kerry’s partisans say he’s very much alive, and point to the crowds he still draws and the $16 million with which he walked away from the 2004 race. Inside the Bubble, though its intentions aren’t particularly political, will widen the debate over Mr. Kerry’s future.
The filmmaker, Mr. Rosenbaum, is probably best known for his critically praised interweaving of amateur footage of the Sept. 11 attacks, Seven Days in September.
He shot this film without any formal agreement for access to the campaign’s inner councils, though one of his executive producers, Mark Patricof, is the scion of a family of major Democratic donors and may have helped get the camera crews enough access to draw complaints from other reporters.
Mr. Rosenbaum said this film’s target is not Mr. Kerry but the Democrats’ campaign machine more generally, one that, as he sees it, has played too much defense.
“Democrats need to ask, ‘Should I continue to vote for candidates who don’t express clearly a set of values and beliefs that I support?’” he said.
But Mr. Rosenbaum’s verdict—that Mr. Kerry was too carefully positioned, his campaign obsessed with process and defense—is by no means unanimous. A vocal anti-war movement still seems to lack a champion. At the front of the 2008 field is Hillary Clinton, whose position is cautiously pro-war, less nuanced than Mr. Kerry’s but hardly crystal-clear. And the opening, the pundits keep repeating, is to Mrs. Clinton’s right.
Inside the Bubble itself opens with a painful Election Day scene: Outside Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Mr. Loftus and another man embrace and Mr. Loftus passes on the early numbers: “They have a word for that and they usually write it in big black print on the front of newspapers and they call it a fucking landslide.”
Mr. Loftus, whose compulsive willingness to talk makes him the movie’s star, is a type immediately recognizable to people who follow political campaigns: the advance man. Wired and relentless, he worked for Presidential candidates going back to Gary Hart. His role on Mr. Kerry’s campaign was press wrangler—he steered the growing mobs of reporters and camera crews to their appointed spots.
That Mr. Loftus is a central character in Inside the Bubble reveals what Kerry aides are already saying is the film’s weakness. It spends a lot of time with campaign staff, but the real gurus rarely appear. Bob Shrum, Mr. Kerry’s longtime advisor, is pictured just twice, casting pained glances at the camera. Pollster Mark Mellman wanders through just once. The Clinton hands who came onto the campaign late are bit players: Joe Lockhart a voice giving instructions over the telephone; Mike McCurry slouched on the bus, staying on message.
If the film documents a preoccupation with process, goes the criticism, perhaps that’s because it spends most of its time with the people whose job it was to set up camera angles.
Senator Joe Biden offers a little harangue on that point about halfway through the film:
“Who gives a shit whether you think or anybody thinks they’re going to stick to a message,” he tells a reporter. “The story is what’s coming out of [Mr. Kerry’s] mouth. Not whether Joe Lockhart got trumped by me or anyone else to change the message.”
Mr. Kerry’s spokesman, David Wade, e-mailed this response to Inside the Bubble (which he said he had not yet seen): “Beyond our immediate families I don’t know who will watch recycled footage of our sleep-deprived existence, but you can sympathize with a film producer struggling to peddle a white elephant. Now if only they had inside access to Michael Brown’s team at FEMA, then you’d have a blockbuster.”
Certainly, the film will have much grist for insiders, particularly those who—like Mr. Rosenbaum—clashed with the campaign’s communications director, Stephanie Cutter.
“There was a couple of times where I said, ‘Stephanie, these guys are having negative personal reactions to your personality. You need to hear that when they’re having that reaction, and you shouldn’t kid yourself about it,’” Mr. Loftus tells the camera.
This discussion provides an opening for the film’s sole political analyst—who happens to be Vanity Fair’s media columnist, Michael Wolff—to stick his own knife into the staffer whose job it was, at one point, to deny him access to Mr. Shrum.
“Stephanie is a horror show,” he says. “You come away from that experience wanting to get a picture of John Kerry which makes him look like a fool.”
Ms. Cutter herself, who declined to comment on the film, comes across as less horrific than simply besieged. “Can I say that Dick Cheney’s lost his marbles?” she asks at one point, only to have the suggestion vetoed by Mr. Lockhart. Later, she seems a bit shaken by the swarming cameras: “They’re getting very, very aggressive.”
But the general picture isn’t of a campaign that didn’t function well on a logistical level, despite Mr. Loftus’s memorable rant about his advance team’s inability to produce a pony.
The problem, in Mr. Rosenbaum’s view, is a lack of substance. In the film, Mr. Kerry’s speeches are memorably unmemorable. His pledges to defend the country lack specifics. One of his attacks on George W. Bush during a debate—a suggestion that he qualifies as a small businessman because he owns a timber company (“Need some wood?” Bush replies)—draws a raised eyebrow from Mrs. Clinton that seems to say, “When do the adults get a turn?” and is worth the price of admission.
The most senior staffer who speaks at any length to Mr. Rosenbaum’s crew is David Morehouse, a veteran campaign aide who was Mr. Kerry’s traveling chief of staff, and a real voice in tactical decisions, if not grand strategy. And the film gives Mr. Morehouse a chance to offer a postmortem defense of the Kerry campaign.
“We’re running against an incumbent. Not often does an incumbent lose,” he tells the camera. “On top of that we ran against an incumbent that was successful at defining his Presidency as a wartime Presidency. The American people don’t vote against someone in the middle of a war.”
Unaddressed by Mr. Kerry’s backers, but evident in the film, is the question of whether the candidate’s personal distance played a role in his defeat.
“I’ve seen 500 hours of footage and I shook his hand, I’ve stood in a room with him and I’ve heard him speak 25, 50 times, and I don’t know him,” said Mr. Rosenbaum. “Maybe he’s not knowable.”
Certainly, another great campaign film for which Inside the Bubble won’t be mistaken is the one about of Col. Oliver North’s strange, impressive, losing run for Senate. It was called The Perfect Candidate.