Under a Political Big Top
With two presidential elections, eight candidates and two political movies on her résumé, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi can sum up the presidential campaigning process in four words:
“It’s just a circus.”
The Barnum & Bailey-like campaigns that roam the country every four years form the topic of Pelosi’s first book, “Sneaking into the Flying Circus: How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns into Freak Shows.”
Pelosi, daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), made her first film during the 2000 campaign, when she followed then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) as a producer for NBC. The result was “Journeys with George,” a humorous look at daily life on the campaign trail that aired on HBO.
Her latest film, “Diary of a Political Tourist,” followed the seven major Democratic candidates in 2004. The book was born out of the e-mails she sent to HBO to accompany the footage.
“Sneaking into the Flying Circus” documents the “absurd hazing rituals” that presidential candidates go through
and critiques the dysfunctional relationship between the media and candidates.
“I didn’t come from a legitimate news organization. I was literally sneaking into the circus,” Pelosi said of the book’s title. “These networks and newspapers have been around since the dawn of presidential elections, well the newspapers anyway. And they’ve always covered it the same way. Every four years it’s the same. It’s like I was the odd man out. On one hand, they’re the corporate media, and I felt like the illegitimate child.”
But even the illegitimate child had some fun.
Pelosi’s most enjoyable experiences were with the campaigns of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and then-Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), all of whom, she said, “were so honest I liked being with them.”
“They were the ones who were human,” Pelosi said. “They gave deep stories and insights. They were real.”
She recounts her time with the Lieberman family as they pushed “Joementum,” and observed that despite his television persona, Lieberman is “funny and full of life.”
Pelosi tagged along on the Graham family’s summer vacation as they drove a recreational vehicle across Iowa. “The best part about this RV trip is that it is not a campaign gimmick; this actually is their family vacation,” she wrote.
Yet, Pelosi does not have such pleasant anecdotes about the eventual Democratic candidate and his running mate.
She tried so desperately to get an interview with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) that her young niece even suggested that she bake him cookies because “everyone loves cookies.” And then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) was so “on-message,” she wrote, that he could never make news.
She said Kerry and Edwards “stuck to their script, were good little boys and got rewarded” for adhering to their message.
“Part of the conclusion I came to is that you cannot run for president and be honest,” Pelosi said. “You have to be a sound bite machine, and I hate to think that’s where American politics is headed.”
More than 30 minutes into the telephone interview from her home in New York, Pelosi realized that she had not mentioned the biggest newsmaker of the 2004 race: then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D).
“It’s taken me months of bubble baths and real meals and life away from the campaign, and I’m glad I can go through a whole conversation without talking about Howard Dean,” she said with a laugh. “Now that I’m out of politics, it’s nice not to think about him for awhile.”
Dean is one of the central characters in “Sneaking into the Flying Circus,” as Pelosi documented his rise and fall on video tape.
“He was honest,” Pelosi said. “I believe the media undermined his campaign. I learned a lot from him, and I appreciated him as a candidate. But he was so naïve putting his campaign in the hands of kids. It was like he was lining up the lambs to slaughter them. I knew these kids were going to be heartbroken.”
Pelosi praises Dean for using his presidential campaign experience to the win the Democratic National Committee chairmanship, noting that none of the other failed Democratic candidates has moved on to bigger and better things.
“If Dean taught us anything, it’s that you have to manage the media,” she said.
In this “Monty Python” meets C-SPAN tale, the biggest challenge, Pelosi said, is simply surviving the daily grind while maintaining journalistic integrity.
“You’ve got to eat tons of junk food. You don’t sleep,” she said. “It’s a challenge not to succumb to the propaganda [from the campaigns]. Obviously, judging by their reputation, [the media are] not winning. The campaign tells you things and you find out they lied to your face. It’s a complicated relationship.”
This “complicated relationship” is at the heart of Pelosi’s thesis. The candidates and the media have no respect for each other, and nearly everyone she met had nothing but revulsion for the media.
“It’s weird to make apologies for being a journalist, but people said nasty, nasty things” about journalists, she said. “I could feel it in Iowa. I could feel it in New Hampshire. They loved the candidates and had disdain for the press. Yet, people also don’t trust politicians, so it’s very complicated.”
Pelosi contends that politicians see journalists as a “dirty, unwashed mob,” and journalists see candidates as “cardboard cutout liars,” and the truth lies somewhere in between.
Being born into a political family, she learned about the distrust between politicians and the media at an early age.
“The thing I learned growing up is that candidates had to be different around the press. When someone would say, ‘What are we going to tell press?’ that made an impression on me,” Pelosi said. “I always got the impression that politicians and journalists were locked in this kind of dance. It’s a little dance, and you know you can’t be open, honest and real in front of a reporter.”
Yet, she contends that if the right candidate comes along, this whole situation could change, but Pelosi could not name a current political figure who could be such a figure.
Having finished two political documentaries, Pelosi is currently planning her wedding and making a movie about religion in America.
“It’s a totally different subject and it’s fun,” she said. “When you’re talking to a Christian skater, he doesn’t have to withhold information like a politician.”
She said she has sworn off the campaign trail forever.
“I was a news nun. I’m not going back. I would rather do ‘I Love the ’80s.’”