Getting High on George

He’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat. He’s a little bit country, she’s a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. He’s the son of the 41st President, she’s the daughter of the House Democratic whip. But the reason George W. Bush and New York filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi fell for each other-and became, in the Nov. 5 HBO documentary Journeys with George , the most incongruous cinematic couple since Dennis Hopper met Isabella Rossellini-was that they both knew what it meant to be laughed at.

The courtship began a couple years back, when Mr. Bush was the governor of Texas and Ms. Pelosi was a producer riding the Bush campaign plane for NBC News-“keeping the seat warm until Brokaw shows up.” The girl had wavy brown hair and purple glasses, talked faster than a kindergartner high on Cocoa Puffs, spouted whatever was on her mind, slyly dated a Newsweek reporter and, finally, numbed by the lifeless grind of canned-shit campaign events, began shooting her own video with a handheld camera.

The guy? He found the loudmouthed girl and her camera amusing, and though he never forgot she was The Enemy, he charmed her back, teased her about ” Newsweek man” and served as her confidante when she found herself out of favor with her media colleagues after she herself got entwined in a press leak. In one of Journeys with George ‘s best scenes, Mr. Bush tries to get Ms. Pelosi back in the good graces of her fellow reporters by putting his arm around her after the boys on the airbus shun her. “When they see me talking to you, they are going to act like your friends again,” Mr. Bush says. “But these people aren’t your friends.”

It wasn’t Tracy and Hepburn. But there was something .

“People have asked me, ‘What was it between the two of you?’ ” Ms. Pelosi said the other day in her purple-bathed Greenwich Village apartment. It was an early afternoon, and the 32-year-old was wearing a black sweater, a checkered black-and-white miniskirt and boots. “‘Was it because you came from a political family and you knew the political language? Was it because you were a liberal and he was a conservative?’

Nope. “As far as I was concerned, he liked the fact that I could say things no one else could say to him,” she said. “I was really irreverent, and he liked that. But the other half was: He knew they were all underestimating me just the way they were underestimating him.

“There was this weird identification going on. All the reporters used to laugh at Bush, and he knew it. He let them laugh. Then all the reporters used to laugh at me, and he used to watch them laughing at me, and he would pull me aside and say, ‘Don’t let them win.'”

George W. Bush won. He went to the White House, and Ms. Pelosi went back to New York and, to the chagrin of many around her, quit her job at NBC News to make what she calls her “home movie.” As Ms. Pelosi and co-director Aaron Lubarsky toiled in her living room, her campaign-kennel buddy became her wartime President. For a while, he was doing a lot better than she was. Ms. Pelosi was paranoid that at any minute the White House or NBC was going to kick down the door and demand her videotape, and she and Mr. Lubarsky would wind up showing Journeys with George only to friends. “We used to say we were going to have a super screening-for all the supers on the block,” she said.

But NBC and the White House played nice, and HBO hurricane Sheila Nevins snapped up Journeys with George . And even though Ms. Pelosi still calls it a “home movie,” she is a filmmaker now. There was a premiere for her on Oct. 29 at the Paris Theatre near the Plaza Hotel, and a party at Brasserie 81¼2 on West 57th Street. There is currently a line of TV executives dangling offers for her to cover the 2004 campaign; someone even pitched her a talk show. She has spent nearly a year lecturing in front of journalism classes and traveling the world. The French adored her. The French Barbara Walters, asked her: “So, you are Bush’s girlfriend?”

Girlfriend has had a better recent couple of months than Boyfriend. Ms. Pelosi doesn’t identify with Mr. Bush politically and never did. She’ll often say, “I really like George Bush, but his politics make me sick”-though reporters chop off the “sick” part, leaving only “I really like George Bush” and driving her crazy. She looks at him now-that guy who once fogged up her lens in an endless series of juvenile facial mugs-navigating a tumultuous world, and admits she is worried.

But she’s stuck to him; they are linked forever. Though Ms. Pelosi insists that Journeys with George is not a film about George W. Bush, but rather a film about her experience in the campaign pack, she thinks about him all the time. More often than not, she finds herself defending him, as she did a couple weeks back at Oxford University in England.

“Here’s the definition of irony,” Ms. Pelosi said. “Alexandra Pelosi, the House Democratic whip’s daughter who dropped out of high school, is lecturing at Oxford apologizing for George Bush. All I did was apologize for him. Even though my mom, that very week, was on the floor railing against going to war with Iraq, I had to stand there and say, ‘He’s a lot smarter than people give him credit for being-because watch how clever he is at exploiting the relationship with reporters. There is some real genius at that.’

“The people around him, the Ashcrofts and the Cheneys and the real evil Republicans of the world, they scare me. But Bush-I think he’s just this nice guy who believes his own compassionate conservatism. I didn’t think of him as, like, ‘that evil guy.’ You go to places in my neighborhood-or places in San Francisco, where I’m from-and people are like, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself for saying anything nice about the guy.’ But I just don’t think of him as pure, concentrated evil. I think of him as a person.”

Alexandra Pelosi paused. “Isn’t that scary?”

Then there’s the media.

It was Oct. 25. Ms. Pelosi was sitting on her purple couch when the telephone rang. She picked it up.

“What?” she said into the phone. “Oh my God. I didn’t have the TV on.”

She turned on her TV to MSNBC. Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife and daughter had died in a plane crash in Minnesota. Wellstone had been an ally to her mother, the California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. He was one of the good guys in politics, Alexandra Pelosi said.

As a map of the crash site appeared, an analyst on MSNBC began talking about the ramifications of Mr. Wellstone’s death upon the Senate.

“Oh God, they are talking about the politics of it,” Ms. Pelosi said. “It’s so amazing. ‘Who’s going to run?’ That’s so funny. It takes them five minutes to start asking who’s going to run. So crass .

“This is why I am not a journalist!” Ms. Pelosi said. She was practically shouting. “I hate this! A man died . ‘Who’s going to win the Senate seat? What’s it going to do to the balance of power?'”

When Ms. Pelosi left Dateline to join the Bush campaign pack, a producer from a rival network came up to her early on and said, “Kid, I have been doing this for 20 years. Just do what I do.” She went to the events, wrote down what Mr. Bush said, fed the tape to New York. Every day. “That’s just the way it’s done,” she said. “And no one has tried to do anything else.

“All the romantic notions I had about journalism died on the campaign trail,” Ms. Pelosi said.

So she broke out her own camera and shot her footage. She showed it to correspondents and suggested NBC run it as part of their campaign coverage. NBC was not interested. “I think they thought the material would make Bush look silly if taken out of context,” she said. “Which it would have, probably.

“Network television is not about nuance,” Ms. Pelosi continued. “You don’t have enough time to explain, to give it context. It’s just two minutes of greatest hits from the road.”

Some people at NBC were encouraging; some weren’t. It was frustrating, but now she understood. “They didn’t have a place for it,” she said. That was why she decided she was going to leave and make her own movie.

She pulled it off. Journeys with George has become the breakout archival piece from the 2000 campaign; it’s The Boys and the Girls on the Bus . Ms. Pelosi is no Theodore H. White, and Journeys may have a marshmallow center-the filmmaker herself said, “There’s not a moment of substance in this movie”-but it will hold up over time a lot better than mostly everything else from 2000. And both the White House and NBC felt O.K. about it.

“Alexandra is a talented reporter and worked incredibly hard for NBC News,” an NBC spokesperson said the other day.

If success on her own terms was a vindication for Ms. Pelosi, the time away from the media grind (or at least not within the media grind; she’d been interviewed a billion times) offered perspective. She went on the road and spoke to J-school naïfs, and sometimes she torched her old business-but she discovered that wasn’t really her, either. Media-bashing was easy, she decided. She just wanted students to be more clear-eyed about what they were getting into. Especially if they were getting into television.

“The thing they don’t teach you in journalism school is that corporate television is a business,” she said. “You have these aspirations of being a muckraking journalist-those dreams aren’t going to come true in network television. I have a lot of respect for some people at NBC and their journalism, but every day is a fight-and it’s always going to be a fight.” Journalism students, she said, don’t “realize that corporations own the news outlets, and it’s a business, and they’re selling every story you put on television.”

Nevertheless, she wanted back in. A Presidential campaign pack was a weird reality, but Ms. Pelosi found the documentary-filmmaking scene equally strange and cliquish. Audiences chided her for not going after Mr. Bush enough. They wondered why she wasn’t taking a stronger stand.

“On the campaign trail … I was sort of like, ‘Oh, journalism stinks,'” Ms. Pelosi said. “Then I went into the documentary world with all the open-minded liberal tree-huggers, and I was like, ‘That’s what it’s all about? You have to starve and have nobody see it?’ Documentary is now a code word for ‘boring, righteous and couldn’t get funding.’ That’s what people think. If it was good, it would be a three-part series on ABC. If it was good, it would be a Frontline .”

Documentary filmmakers are doing “some really good things,” she said. “But no one is going to look at me as being an outsider, because I worked within the corporate media. And my mom is the House Democratic whip, so no one is ever going to say, ‘You go, girl-you’re one of us.’ They think I’m one of them .

“The minute Ari Fleischer went on CNN and endorsed my movie, it destroyed any career I would’ve had as a grassroots outsider à la Michael Moore,” she said. “Michael Moore will always be the outsider, because that is his shtick. I couldn’t get away with that. If I stand in front of 30 Rock and throw stones at them-‘You corporate-media giants, you are evil! Why won’t you let me in?’-they’ll be like, ‘C’mon in, Alexandra. Wanna be on Conan ?'”

She had come full circle. She realized that she wanted to work within the system, try to fix it, and not shout from the sidelines. She had tried to become an outsider, only to discover that she was an insider.

“I have to go back to working for The Man,” she said. “I have debated back and forth the merits of network television. What NBC has that I don’t have in my living room is an audience. What HBO has is an audience. You can do the starving-artist documentary thing, but you’re preaching to the choir. The film-festival thing, it’s just not me-I am not a guerrilla filmmaker. I don’t want to be. I want to be a player.

“So I am going to go back.”

Now she was prepping her return. There was interest from the networks and from cable, she said. NBC was in the mix. She didn’t have an agent; she was trying to do the deal herself.

HBO was like a hot boyfriend, it’d made everyone take notice.

“I got the hottest guy in town,” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘What’s going on with her?'”

As for what Presidential campaign Ms. Pelosi would chronicle, that wasn’t set, either. But she figures there won’t be any shortage of takers.

“They’re all going to try and use me,” she said. “They’re going to think, ‘Ah, we’ll get the little rube in here and we’ll make ourselves look good.’

“What they’re forgetting,” she said, “is that they are getting my mouth.”

Then there was her guy. He’ll always be Her First.

She’s seen him once. Representative Pelosi took her daughter to the Congressional barbecue this summer, and when President Bush saw Alexandra, he told her, “We’re all very proud of you here.”

She asked him if he’d seen Journeys with George . “He said, ‘Everyone who’s seen the movie has loved it,'” she said. “That wasn’t an answer to the question.”

It was like old times. She asked him if she could come along in ’04. He laughed.

She sees a different man. Mr. Bush isn’t mugging for the camera these days. It’s made her think differently about Journeys with George , what it says about the President.

“This movie is a period piece,” Ms. Pelosi said. She was sitting in a back booth at Joe Jr.’s on Sixth Avenue and 12th Street; she had a vanilla shake and a plate of fries. “It’s a totally different place and time. It’s a performance of sorts. Watch George Bush: the early years! Watch George Bush seduce the reporters so they will write nice stories to get himself elected. It was pre-state of world affairs.”

She talked about him like an old boyfriend. She was, after all, a devotee of what she called “the Janet Malcolm theory-that all journalism is the art of seduction.

“You come in, you’re all charming and nice to me and you get me to spill my guts, and even though we have all been in love and had our heart broken, we still go back for more, because we’re suckers,” she said. “Right? The relationship I had with Bush was like the great … he was seducing me and I was luring him in, and he was trying to seduce me, and it was this beautiful dance . And what’s so revealing about it is that it shows we had to live off each other. He lived off the media, and the media lived off him. We needed each other.”

Did she think George W. Bush had the capacity for growth?

“I’m not a pundit!” Ms. Pelosi said. “I don’t know! All I know is that I spent a year and a half with him when he was running for President.”

Really, they couldn’t be more unlike each other. It’s an impossible match.

She voted for Bill Bradley .

“I’ll say this about George Bush: Every night that Jay Leno and David Letterman used to make fun of him, he’d be like, ‘Let them laugh. I’m going to be their President.’ Who got the last laugh? He knew something that Al Gore didn’t know,” said Alexandra Pelosi.

“You’ve got to let people laugh at you.”

Getting High on George