There's an old saying that each country gets the leaders it deserves. Given the way the Supreme Court intervened in 2000 to tip the election to George W. Bush, it's probably not fair to blame the American people for the unfolding debacle that is the Bush administration. Yet for anyone interested in how such an intellectual lightweight and obviously unqualified candidate could end up getting nearly as many votes as a sitting vice-president during a time of peace and prosperity, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys with George provides a unique look into the charmed life of a gifted politician, who, even if he stands a better than even chance of going down as one of the worst presidents in U.S history, still enamors nearly half the electorate. Pelosi's film is a testament to the triumph of style over substance in American politics today.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Pelosi became something of a guinea pig for the strategy the future Bush Administration would use of embedding journalists to co-opt the media and gain favorable coverage for its war in Iraq. To watch Journeys with George is to realize what a savvy and effective political strategy it was, and how thoroughly corrupting the incestuous relationship between the Fourth Estate and the political class has become.
Pelosi's film is especially valuable because, although she is acutely cognizant of the manipulation she and her fellow members of the press are undergoing, she actually manages to turn the tables on the Bush campaign by going them one better. Pelosi's vivacious, slightly flirtatious, and endearingly genuine manner encourage candidate Bush to spend plenty of time schmoozing with her on camera.
One might have hoped that all of Pelosi's face-time with the future commander-in-chief might reveal some measure of the man. Unfortunately, Bush comes across as remarkably superficial, schmaltzy, and intellectually vacuous. In a scene that may be a metaphor for Pelosi's entire experience covering the Bush campaign for roughly three months, the young filmmaker strives mightily to engage Bush in a serious conversation about what he stands for as a candidate. But Bush doesn't even attempt to converse about issues or even resort to a standard campaign boilerplate. Rather, Pelosi's futile attempts to ask Bush if his administration will represent “the little guy” elicits nothing but playful doubletalk, culminating in Bush's artful dodge that he--by his own admission an unremarkable 5' 11" tall--is a little guy too.
And so it goes. Throughout the entire campaign tour, the press corps laments the dearth of ideas, news, or substance in the campaign and the candidate they are covering. But the press manages to have a great time nevertheless, partying hearty while they recognize the Faustian bargain they've made: Provide positive coverage of the candidate or else they'll lose the precious access to the candidate upon whom their careers depend.
In the end, Bush ends up giving away nothing about his inner self, his political core, or the ultra-conservative agenda he will soon unleash. He has managed to give the appearance of access and intimacy in return for favorable coverage, but has remained a virtual cipher. Like Chauncey Gardiner from the film Being There, one hardly knows if Bush is some sort of political savant or just an idiot. Is there a method to Bush's hokey madness? As a columnist for the Financial Times of London opines, Bush is a lot smarter than he seems. It's not hard to disagree with this assessment.
In 2000 Bush managed to sell himself to the press, and hence to the electorate, as the political equivalent of a Happy Meal, where image, slick packaging, and a token surprise substitute for real nourishment. Actually, one of Pelosi's media comrades suggests a similarly apt metaphor having to do with all the baloney and cheese sandwiches the members of the press are forced to digest over the course of the campaign. As the correspondent notes, the white bread represents the bland, synthetic, and thoroughly processed nature of the candidate himself; the baloney refers to the campaign's platform, and the cheese with holes in it to the “cheesy” photo ops and heavily scripted campaign rallies. (Bush himself reinforces this image by devouring vast quantities of cheese doodles regularly during the campaign).
If Bush represents the political and intellectual equivalent of junk food, this does not bode well for the body politic. Pelosi's film does much to indict the press itself for failing to alert the public to Bush’s lack of substance. When Pelosi tried asking tough questions about then governor Bush’s record on the death penalty, Bush deftly accused her of “hitting below the belt,” and she, like the other reporters, soon learned that substantive questions would soon jeopardize their contact with the candidate, and therefore their careers.
Pelosi's film may not reveal much about Bush himself, but it reveals a great deal about how this country has been poorly served by reporters willing to swallow anything to curry favor with power.