Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 1, 2004)
With a presidential election in 2004, plenty of related DVDs have hit the shelves. One of the more interesting comes from a 2002 documentary entitled Journeys With George, a look at GW Bush’s 2000 campaign.
NBC news producer Alexandra Pelosi follows the trek as behind the scenes talent, so she brings along a home video camera to shoot the private moments she experiences. This focuses a lot on her interactions with Bush, but we also see her chat with reporters like Richard Wolffe of the Financial Times, Trent Gegax of Newsweek, RG Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle, Time photographer Brooks Kraft, Fox TV producer Nancy Harmeyer, and Wayne Slater from the Dallas Morning News. We also watch candid moments with others like Bush campaign manager Karl Rove and communications director Karen Hughes.
The program starts in Dubuque in January 2000. We see the rest of the press corps, Bush’s aides, and folks at the events. We proceed to Manchester, New Hampshire at 2:30 AM for an airport rally. This area documents the redundancy of the campaign, as Bush relates the same speech each day and doesn’t offer much content. We also go to photo ops like snowmobile testing and duckpin bowling, but Bush loses to John McCain in NH.
The group follows Bush to South Carolina and a visit to conservative Bob Jones University. Previously kept at a distance, the press gets additional access to Bush as he becomes involved in more of a fight. He succeeds in South Carolina but a loss in Michigan leaves him behind in the race.
After that, Journeys runs through rest of campaign more quickly and seems less specific as Bush sews up the nomination. We watch the fundraiser circuit and the loss of reporters as little news emerges. This grants the remaining correspondents more informal time with Bush, but that ends with his selection of Dick Cheney as running mate. This marks the return of the reporters as well as army of Secret Service agents, and the furor continues through the Republican National Convention.
Once that ends, we go through the post-Convention campaign. This includes various stops and concerns when Bush lags behind Gore around Labor Day. We see a little coverage of their debates as well the controversy over Bush’s drunk driving arrest years earlier. Finally, we get to the actual election and the controversy after that, and the program ends on Bush’s Inauguration Day.
If one wants to find a flaw with Journeys, it stems from the prominent role Pelosi plays in it. I can’t criticize this, as she intends the program more as her video diary than a true documentary, but it gets frustrating at times. Folks who watch this program want a look behind the scenes at a more private side of Bush, and all of the shots of Pelosi and her journalist friends detract from that.
Not that they aren’t informative and revealing in their own right. It’s intriguing to see the cynicism of the press corps - or at least of the folks with whom Pelosi chats. (The rest are probably just as bad, but I won’t assume.) Much of the cynicism is inevitable, but some seems misguided. The reporters seem personally offended by the bland nature the campaigning and its repetitive nature, but I don’t see how these are anything other than inevitable. With the presidency at stake, there’s little advantage to taking risks, so the candidates will do whatever they can to land the job.
Granted, the program exposes some revealing elements. For instance, we see that many of those “home made” signs people carry at rallies are actually created by the campaign. That’s probably the most cynical thing seen in this program; it may seem like a small element, but it’s so dishonest and manipulative that it really bothered me.
Speaking of manipulation, it’s interesting to note that the reporters’ access to Bush varies with his success. When the campaign runs well, they barely get to interact with him. However, when things falter - and they need positive publicity - he hangs out with them and plays their buddy.
Much of the interest in Journeys stems from its portrait of the informal, unscripted Bush. To some degree, this will exist as a Rorschach for viewers, though probably not as much as one might expect. Though I prefer not to delve into personal politics here, let’s just say I’m not a fan of the man. By that token, I should come away with a negative view of him and only recall his graceless moments, right?
But I can’t say that this is true. Given Pelosi’s political background - her mother’s a prominent Democratic politician - the program remains surprisingly non-partisan. It seems unlikely to sway your opinion of Bush in one direction or the other.
That’s not because it doesn’t give us a good enough glimpse of him. Granted, I’d like more raw footage of Bush, but we do still find a lot of his behind the scenes moments. We get quite a few good candid bits with Bush. The show doesn’t really get to the private man, but it shows him in a more contentious and less guarded mode. For instance, he tries to keep it light but can see his irritation with some of Pelosi’s questions. We can also watch how much crap the press gives him, which makes it tough to blame him for occasionally being cranky with them. In a nice touch, Pelosi also shows how Bush stands up for her when her fair-weather press corps friends abandon her.
Perhaps the most revealing moment comes when Pelosi gets into an argument with some partying reporters aboard a flight. Bush barters the peace but clearly feels a kinship with the drunks. Given his old reputation as a lightweight party boy, this is quite interesting and feels like possibly the show’s most insightful sequence. (And I’m not terribly sure I believe Bush’s bottle of Buckler actually contains non-alcoholic beer; he looks buzzed.)
Journeys With George doesn’t present a great documentation of the campaign’s progress, as it flits from place to place a little too loosely. It also fails to offer a thorough examination of its subject. Nonetheless, it acts as a terrific video diary, with plenty of candid moments from the campaign.