Depending on whom you ask these days, he’s either a war mongering tyrant or a freedom-loving hero. As protests for and against the U.S.-led war in Iraq rage around the globe, there’s little middle ground when it comes to discussions about George Bush. For Bush’s part, it’s clear how he’d like to be seen (evildoers beware), but his public statements give little insight into how personally invested he is in his self-described altruistic attempts to rid the world of a “ruthless dictator.”
In fact, Bush’s brief addresses during this crisis so far have consistently carried the same impersonal tone and delivery, making them utterly predictable and not at all revealing. Like the rhetoric of many politicians, his prepared statements — even in a time of war — give no insight into the “real” George Bush.
Whether or not the “real” Bush is something the public wants, or even needs, to see, is another question. Such is the premise, however, of Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary Journeys With George. The film is a video travelogue that follows the pre-9/11, pre-war ex-governor of Texas on his circuitous, but eventually successful bid to become President. Pelosi, the daughter of ranking House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, worked as a member of the press corps during the filming. The result follows Bush’s wrangling in the primaries with John McCain and continuing all the way through to his legal battles in the Supreme Court against Al Gore, organized as her experiences with Bush, overdubbing the action with her own meditations on the role of the press in politics.
Introducing the film’s premiere at the 2002 South by Southwest Film Festival, Pelosi downplayed such weighty considerations, however, calling the film “a home movie.” And, to be sure, the film hardly appears a hard-hitting political commentary. Its main draw is its behind-the-scenes “access,” a glimpse of the man behind the podium, unscripted and unpolished. Many moments in the film shoot for this angle, as the precocious Pelosi approaches Bush less like a reporter interviewing a political candidate and more like she’s only recording their joint road trip. One exchange has Pelosi asking Bush, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” To which he replies, “I’m not, I’m a Bush.”
These sorts of encounters show a relaxed, jovial, at times even goofy Bush, as he mugs for the camera and flirts with Pelosi. One scene shows him literally wooing her vote, as Bush sits next to her on the plane, holding her hand in his, as Pelosi attempts to fill out her official absentee ballot. (We later learn that her choice is Bill Bradley.)
The reality, however, is that even these impromptu scenes are highly crafted. To be a politician is to always be “on.” Whether it’s a coliseum full of steel workers or a reporter on the press plane, Bush’s primary and ongoing job is to sell Bush. Much to his credit, he does so with a great deal of skill. Through Pelosi’s lens, the candidate comes off as laid-back, charming, and funny. Watching the film, one could easily see why Bush has done so well in politics with such polished “people skills.”
But then, we realize that this, too, is a put on. The film reminds us of this and raises key questions about journalistic objectivity and integrity in a press corps. When Bush snubs Pelosi after she asks him at a press conference about his execution record as Texas governor, she wonders out loud, “Who am I working for?”, questioning the quid-pro-quo game that reporters are expected to play, in order to gain access to politicians.
By way of illustration, Pelosi’s polite behavior (i.e., non-controversial questions) during press conferences is rewarded by personal visits from Bush on the press plane. But her execution question causes him to walk right past her in a huff. If Pelosi, or her audience, believed Bush was speaking with her simply because he’s a nice guy, these kinds of exchanges disabuse both of such a notion. The film illustrates that the world of politics eventually boils down to a constant game of give and take, sell and buy.
Journeys With George importantly exposes the politics that govern the interaction between Bush and the press, the unspoken rules of engagement that prevent journalists from assuming a truly unbiased stance. If Pelosi can fall for Bush’s charm, the film suggests, so can any reporter looking to present a “balanced” account of the man and his ideas.
In this time of war, the extension can easily be made from this relationship between Bush and the reporters to the relationship between Bush and “the American people.” Unlike in the film, where candidate Bush relies on his political wiles to project an image, the President now has a vast propaganda machine at his disposal. Recently a bootleg tape has appeared on the Internet, showing a TV news program cutting to Bush too early before he made his televised announcement declaring war on Iraq. Here, viewers are treated to a picture of Bush, seated at his desk and having his hair tended to by a stylist in the minutes before he was scheduled to go live.
This too is the face of war. Bush’s grave and determined image, projected during his speech, is precisely that, a face he must literally apply (or have applied) for a desired effect. Journeys With George points out that whether he’s wooing Pelosi, her colleagues, or the nation at large, Bush must first and foremost tell them what they want to hear. If the film can’t exactly answer the question, “Who is George Bush?”, it does point out that there is no definitive version. Instead, Bush is many things to many people: a tyrant, a savior, a great guy, a shyster, a man of the people, and a moneyed elitist. In short, he’s a politician.