Meet the President as The Cutup in Chief

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George Bush is a careful custodian of his image. It's fine to snap a photo of him without a tie as he works on his ranch, but photographers have been prevented from snapping him with his tie loosened. So the premiere next month at an Austin film festival of a feature-length movie that depicts Governor Bush merrymaking with journalists aboard his presidential campaign plane in the fall of 2000 may not get a thumbs-up from the Commander in Chief. "These are my people," says Bush, who is seen wading into the boozy throng's cocktail hour as the press corps whips up margaritas in the back rows of the 757. "It takes an animal to know an animal," Bush proclaims, to the whir of a blender. "And I'm not admitting I'm an animal, with 60 days to go in the campaign." The ex-tippler doesn't break his sobriety, but he is filmed doing something else that other photographers were forbidden to capture: drinking a nonalcoholic beer with the gusto of a man who has downed the real thing in his day.

How did someone film that scene and hours more of Bush at his most relaxed, when the rest of the press corps was told Bush's back-of-the-plane antics were "off the record"? The answer comes in one of the early scenes of Journeys with George, the video by former NBC producer Alexandra Pelosi, who is the child of Nancy Pelosi, the new House Democratic whip. At a New Hampshire rally in the fall of 1999, Pelosi jokes to a fellow reporter about their colleagues, "I hate these people." Suddenly, Bush is in the camera frame. "Why do you hate me?" he mistakenly asks. For the next 18 months of the campaign, Bush was drawn to Pelosi's camera with an intensity that almost matched his dislike for the big, imposing network ones. In front of them, he had to work, but when the red light was lighted on Pelosi's Sony handheld, that was fun. Even on the night of his loss in Michigan, Bush was mugging for Pelosi, wearing a sleeping mask and bumping his way down the plane aisle.

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Unlike The War Room, which chronicled the back-room intensity of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, the Pelosi video does not pan across the full landscape of the campaign. Cut down from hundreds of hours of footage and put together in her New York City apartment, what it does capture is a never-before-seen view of the cutup former Deke fraternity president who, friends and supporters always boasted, was such fun in close quarters. If Americans were surprised that Bush at war was so different from the man they saw before Sept. 11, they are likely to be just as amazed now at the campaign trickster. Is the somber man who consoled a nation at the National Cathedral days after the attacks the same guy who walked the aisles wearing a neck pillow, asking Pelosi for her vote? More Jonathan Winters than John Wayne, Bush can't pass the camera without twisting his face in on itself or striking a pose. Often the Governor provides mock counseling to the filmmaker on her careening romance with another member of the press corps. "I predict that you...will have a relationship that goes beyond hand holding," he says of the fling. Bush never leaves PG-13 territory, but that has not kept the White House from fretting about the movie. Former campaign media adviser Mark McKinnon persuaded Pelosi to show him a copy. Afterward, he sent White House counselor Karen Hughes an e-mail saying there was no great damage. Late-night comedians and columnists are likely to have a different view, though, using the video to open up a new season of poking fun at the Commander in Chief as a fraternity goof. Clips are certain to find their way onto the Internet to provide a bright contrast to the square-jawed Bush who is trying to fight terrorism. "The Europeans will love this," chuckles one Administration official.

But some senior advisers are a good deal more concerned, claiming Pelosi, who now has her own production company, broke an agreement with the campaign. "She promised then Governor Bush and looked him in the eye and said it was for personal use," says one. "It is disappointing that she gave her word and didn't keep it." Pelosi says the conversations she had with Bush about her filming are in the movie, which speaks for itself.

Those who have seen it say the President was a willing participant, referring often to how the movie will make a "lousy documentary" and even coming up with the title himself. He asks what the movie will be called and then offers his own suggestion. "Journeys with George," he says, adding mysteriously, "You know, you can spell it with a G."