Alternet.org, March 4, 2004
On the Road with Dubya
Journeys with George, an intimate look at Bush on the campaign trail,
documents the transition from plain-spoken good old boy to slippery
By Bruce Kluger
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
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
"I believe we've got to watch out for the big lie in this campaign."
15 minutes, 40 seconds:
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."
18 minutes, 45 seconds:
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.
21 minutes, 13 seconds:
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
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.
24 minutes, 35 seconds:
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."
28 minutes, 12 seconds:
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."
35 minutes, 4 seconds:
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.)
42 minutes, 30 seconds:
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
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."
50 minutes, 55 seconds:
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
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."
55 minutes, 30 seconds:
Another candid exchange.
Pelosi: "How have you changed over the year?"
Bush: "I started off as a cowboy; I'm now a statesman."
66 minutes, 20 seconds:
Just before the general election, Pelosi asks colleague Richard Wolffe to sum up
the year for her.
"So much of it has been a kind of pack journalism," says Wolffe, "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
71 minutes, 30 seconds:
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..."
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