Seduction at 40,000 Ft.

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The biggest beneficiaries of modern electronic politics are the babies: they are no longer the chief recipients of presidential aspirants' saliva. The really important smooching takes place 40,000 ft. above the ground, with the traveling press corps. Kiss a baby, and maybe you will win Mom and Dad's votes. Kiss up to the media, and you can win millions.

Texas Governor George W. Bush learned that lesson fast in the 2000 primaries, when he got buried in a New Hampshire snowdrift by media darling John McCain. Bush, who had been sequestered on his private jet with his aides, began showing up on the press plane to schmooze, pass out drinks, poke fun at himself and knock back a few (nonalcoholic) beers. It was meant to be a private performance. But when nbc News producer Alexandra Pelosi was assigned to cover the Bush campaign, she packed along a Sony digital camcorder to make a movie of life inside what reporters call the bubble. Pelosi began pestering Bush with her camera, teasing him, for instance, about his diet of cheese curls and bologna sandwiches. When he learned she was making a movie, says Pelosi, "he realized he was either going to be the butt of the joke or the star of the show. So he decided to be the star."


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Not only did he play along, but he also suggested the movie's title. Journeys with George (HBO, Nov. 5, 9:30 p.m. E.T.) is a rare record of the one-on-one Dubya we've often heard described by his cronies but rarely seen — a loose, funny, people-savvy seducer. There's goofball George, bowling oranges down the plane's aisle. There's cheerleader George, spelling out v-i-c-t-o-r-y with his arms after a primary win. There's love-doctor George, counseling Pelosi on her flirtation with a Newsweek reporter (journalists call such bubble romances locationships). And there's bad-boy George, defending some rowdy journos' right to whip up margaritas on the plane: "These are my people. It takes an animal to know an animal."

Whether you think Bush is a charismatic regular guy or a sophomoric boy-man, Journeys will prove you right. According to Pelosi, at advance screenings, "people would take their personal politics and see whoever they wanted to see. In San Francisco, people booed whenever [Bush] came onscreen, they hated him so much. At the Tribeca Film Festival — in the shadow of ground zero — a woman said to me, 'How can you release this movie? You're making our President look goofy in a time of war.'"

Pelosi, an avowed liberal and the daughter of House Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi, seems an unlikely pal for a g.o.p. standard bearer. But in person, it's easy to see how she drew Bush out. She's motormouthed, funny and manic — she could be the wisecracking love interest on The West Wing. On video, the two seem to have formed a real bond. Born into political families, both are insiders. But within the bubble, both are also outsiders. Pelosi, covering her first campaign, wears purple-tinted glasses and purple miniskirts, which in the wonky student-council world of elite Beltway journalists counts as weird. Bush was a C student at Yale, which in that same world counts as dumb. "He liked me," she says, "because I didn't underestimate him."

In Journeys, their relationship becomes a microcosm of the symbiosis that develops between reporters and candidates on the road. During one late-night margarita party, Pelosi polls the reporters on who they think will win the election. (Most pick Al Gore.) Someone leaks the poll to the gossip columns, and Pelosi's colleagues are furious. But Bush forgives her in front of the plane, saving her — and scoring points with his videographer. "He could have kicked me off the plane," she recalls. "But he saw I was voted off the island, and he put my feelings above the headline, even though the headline was bad for him."

Is Bush being genuine or calculating? Most likely, he is doling out his genuine self in calculated doses. Journeys is a revealing portrait but not an unguarded one. We get Bush Unplugged when it's fun and games, but when Pelosi's questions turn serious, his protective banality clicks on like the locks on a car entering a bad part of town. And there are punishments for crossing the line. At a press conference, she asks him about Texas' high number of executions; later, he refuses to talk to her — jokingly, but not entirely so — because she "went below the belt."

What Journeys finally exposes is not Bush but the price of access: how the campaign plane creates a dynamic in which pressing a candidate on a substantive issue is bad manners, and getting the big story means not straying too far from what the campaign says that story is. We see the journalists working exhausting hours but also posing for pictures with Bush and having snowball fights with adviser Karl Rove; on Pelosi's birthday, the Bush campaign gives her four cakes. As reporter Richard Wolffe of the Financial Times admits to Pelosi, "We were writing about trivial stuff, because he charmed the pants off us." The political press has front-row seats for the most important story of the day, yet groupthink and space and airtime constraints keep them from sharing its nuance with their audience. It's no accident that Pelosi calls Journeys "the only real piece of journalism I committed while I was at nbc." Journeys with George will not change your mind about whether America picked the right guy. But it will leave you wondering whether this was any way to pick him.

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