George W. Bush's bus had broken down in South Carolina a few days before the primary. The Texas governor hitched a ride on the press bus and began bantering with NBC News producer Alexandra Pelosi, who always had her home video camera ready.
Pelosi -- with her purple wardrobe, purple glasses and saucy questions about Bush's mood and diet -- was the black sheep of a buttoned-down press corps. Bush could relate, and he had taken to playing along.
"Let's be serious," Pelosi said after discussing bologna sandwiches. "If you were a tree, what tree would you be?"
"I'm not. I'm a Bush," he replied. As laughter rippled through the bus, Bush said, "You see, I'm a little quicker than you think, Alexandra," then gave himself a thumbs-up.
The words never graced a yard sign or television commercial, but "quicker than you think" might well have been the slogan of Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. A documentary by Pelosi, which was shown at the Library of Congress last night and will air on HBO on election night, Nov. 5, revives the pre-war, pre-presidential days when Bush felt free to bug his eyes out, open wide and show off the Cheetos he was chewing, and parody his own stump speech. After one primary win, he spelled out V-I-C-T-O-R-Y as if it were Y-M-C-A.
Last night's audience -- mostly journalists, White House officials and Democrats from Capitol Hill -- applauded a scene that showed Bush coming to the back of the plane late one night and trying to make peace between Pelosi, who was complaining that there was too much noise, and the cameramen, who were just trying to enjoy what Bush called "a good, solid margarita." Mocking his own malapropisms, he said he wanted to "breach the rift." Another crowd-pleaser was Bush being led through the cabin wearing a black sleep mask and saying, "I can't hear you because I can't see."
At a time when the prelude to war in Iraq has pushed President Bush back to a 70 percent approval rating, the 76-minute "Journeys With George" hearkens to a time when smirks and Bushisms were nightly fare. Karl C. Rove, now Bush's senior adviser, is shown impishly nailing journalists with snowballs, then raising his arms in a little victory jig.
This series of raw flashbacks was possible only because Pelosi was not taken seriously. Pelosi shouted at Laura Bush to ask who she was going to vote for, interviewed a turkey sandwich and quizzed Bush about freezing his rear in New Hampshire, only she didn't say "rear." When competitors or campaign aides asked what she was doing, she would say jokingly, "I'm making a movie," and everyone had a good laugh.
So the campaign and most reporters did not object to her taping Bush when the staff had declared his remarks off the record, as was usually the case when he ventured into the press compartment of the campaign plane. Bush allowed her to film moments like his explication of the Texas wardrobe, including extra-tall boots "not for looks but for snakebites."
At the same time, Pelosi was doing her day job as NBC's constant presence in the Bush entourage, supplemented by correspondents and more senior producers who rotated in and out. Pelosi said she bought the camera on a lark and was just shooting for her own use, or perhaps for a few light segments to send back to NBC. Then one day Bush asked, "Now is this movie going to be called 'George and Alexandra'?"
"I don't know. What do you think it should be called?" she replied.
" 'Journeys With George'? Pretty good one, huh?" he said. "You could even spell it with a 'G,' " he added, drawing one in the air. Pelosi says this is when she knew she had a real film, although the HBO promotional material tries to evoke the charm of an amateur production by calling it "a home movie."
The documentary portrays Bush as comfortable with himself, good-natured after losses and savvy about the news media. Pelosi says that in an attempt to figure out if her footage would wind up on the nightly news, Bush asked whether she or NBC was buying the tapes. She was.
In one scene, Pelosi, who is the daughter of House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and who made no secret of her liberal politics, was talking to Bush about why she should vote for him. She asked about the hungry, the unemployed and the homeless. "Are you going to look out for the little guy?" she baited.
"I'm a little guy," he said. "Have you noticed? I'm about 5-11. My brother is 6 foot 3."
Pelosi said in an interview that she did not dwell on unflattering moments and omitted plenty of Bush's verbal cartwheels. But she acknowledges that the film will bolster some people's misgivings about the president's intellectual heft. Pressed about what the movie shows about Bush, she says, "You're going to get me in trouble."
Nevertheless, White House aides say they are convinced the film humanizes Bush, and one senior official ventured to predict that it would help him get reelected. Karen P. Hughes, part of Bush's "iron triangle" of top campaign aides, said it shows that he "enjoys having fun during downtime, which I think people will appreciate, and that he does not take himself too seriously, even though he takes his job seriously."
Sheila Nevins, HBO's executive vice president of original programming, is a liberal Democrat but said she found Pelosi's Bush to be charming. "I had thought he was an ogre," she said. "I didn't know he was so quick on the uptake."
Nevins said she doesn't think it's unfair to spotlight road-trip goofiness in wartime. "You can't hold someone responsible for what they did on their 10th birthday when they're 11," she said.
Bush occasionally gave Pelosi stage directions, and one time he grabbed the camera and began grilling her about her after-hours hand-holding with a Newsweek correspondent. "I'm a student of human beings. I've spent a lot of time looking at human beings look at me," said Bush, who loves keeping up with the personal lives of aides and reporters. "I can see a little chemistry there. You know what I mean by chemistry there?" He went on to predict Pelosi and "Newsweek man," as Bush called the correspondent, would hook up. "We're talking about a deeply romantic relationship," Bush said with a wink. "I am an optimist. I'm a uniter, not a divider."
The film offers several flashes of Bush's sharp edge, which the public rarely sees. With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) still in the race, Pelosi brought up the chumminess of the press corps aboard "Straight Talk Express," McCain's campaign bus. She asked Bush if he thought any of his own press corps "has had the Kool-Aid yet."
"No, particularly when there was a collective wisdom that said I wasn't working hard enough to be the president," he said in a caustic reference to a series of stories about his light schedule.
Bush's skin looked thin when Pelosi asked him at a news conference about the record number of executions taking place in Texas. "You sleep at night knowing that everyone that has been sentenced to death on your watch was completely guilty?" she asked.
"Alexandra, let me put it to you this way: I'm sleeping safely -- soundly -- at night," Bush said icily. Then he ended the news conference with an arch of his eyebrows. "Thank you for the question," he said. "See you all later."
Bush often tries to make up after moments like that, and he had a hint of playfulness when he brushed off Pelosi later by saying, "I'm not answering your questions. Because you came after me the other day. You went below the belt."
But Bush whistled and led a cheer for a reporter who had learned his wife was pregnant, and Bush joined a midair birthday party for Pelosi. When the press corps briefly turned on Pelosi because of a misunderstanding late in the campaign, Bush restored her standing by calling her up to the front for a private chat. What the reporters didn't know was that he had talked to her about fair-weather friendship, and how important it is to know who you are.
Several professors who have viewed "Journeys With George" at film festivals said Pelosi bears damning witness to coziness between reporters and the campaign. Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, calls the film "chillingly revelatory about a lame press and a masterful team of managers of the press, including Bush himself."
"He arranges matters so that if you ask a tough question, you feel like a party pooper who's abusing your host's hospitality," Gitlin says.
Some regulars in the Bush campaign press corps said "Journeys With George" gives a distorted view because it looks like Bush was always hanging out with reporters. In fact, he rarely took questions after winning the Republican nomination. He stopped visiting the press compartment after newcomers would not agree to keep the exchanges off the record.
Pelosi, now 31, has several offers to make cinema verite renditions of the Democratic derby in 2004. She hopes to start the night of next month's elections, when "Journeys With George" begins showing on HBO. "One of the biggest obstacles I face in '04 is that everyone's going to take me seriously," she says.
Bush indicated during one late-night flight that his image had been transformed during the marathon from Iowa to New Hampshire and beyond. With 60 days left in the campaign, Pelosi asked him what had changed since she had first spoken to him a year earlier.
Bush, nursing a Buckler non-alcoholic brew, tried to deflect her with humor, as he often does when asked something serious. "We've actually had several primaries and I gave a couple of speeches," he said. "You know. Couple of Bucklers. My girls went to college. Rangers are in last place. There hasn't been any rain on the ranch, except for today. We got about a half inch, I want everybody to hear."
Pelosi asked again how he had evolved as a candidate. He said he was losing hair, and it was grayer. She asked a third time.
"I started off as, uh, a cowboy," Bush finally said. "I'm now a, uh, statesman."