Politics & Policy

The Kerry Enigma

Pelosi captures the Democratic nominee unplugged.

Alexandra Pelosi’s Diary of a Political Tourist, a documentary about the 2004 Democratic primaries that premieres October 11 on HBO, is, among other things, a reminder of why John Kerry came off as surprisingly commanding and manly during last week’s debate as he did: Normally, of course, he seems wavering and robotic, and never more so than in this film.

We get our first glimpse of the candidate here when Pelosi approaches him to ask an innocuous question: “How’s your speech?” And he can’t manage a simple, direct answer to even that, turning to an aide and asking, “How’s my speech?” as Teresa glares suspiciously at Pelosi and her camcorder.

Pelosi, remember, is basically on Kerry’s side, even if she did vote for Richard Gephardt in the primaries. Her mother is House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and George W. Bush knew perfectly well he wasn’t getting the daughter’s vote (although he still asked for it) as she followed him around the 2000 presidential campaign while filming her previous documentary, Journeys With George.

But Bush still treated her with a lot more warmth than Kerry did, kissing her on the cheek, calling her “baby,” giving her dating advice, and–in Journeys’ most memorable scene–generously getting her back in the press corps’ good graces after a gaffe on her part meant they’d frozen her out.

The most human Kerry ever seems in Diary is when he finally, about two-thirds of the way through, looks straight at Pelosi, smiles in resigned recognition, and manages a “Hello, Alexandra” that does sound sincerely friendly, even if it comes off rather like Mr. Wilson caught by Dennis the Menace in a less-grumpy-than-usual mood. There’s one other (relatively) relaxed moment near the end, when Kerry grabs the camcorder and starts interviewing his interviewer.

The only Democratic candidate who displays anything like the ironic good humor Bush did in Journeys is Joe Lieberman, whom Pelosi captures at various trying moments on the campaign trail–listening patiently as a small girl recites the state capitols at some buffet (the camera pans at this point to a fly drowning in water), or eating a piece of abominable flyover-state food.

“Would you be eating that if the cameras weren’t on?” Pelosi asks.

“Yes!” Lieberman responds gamely, adding that in his America, “there’ll be a place for fried Twinkies.”

“I loved Joe Lieberman because he was great for my movie,” Pelosi noted at the HBO news conference. “Every time I saw him he sang a show tune. I loved Dick Gephardt because every time I saw him he would sit down and eat a pie.”

“After 30 years in public service,” she added, “I thought if there was any meritocracy in this country, [Gephardt] deserved some sort of credit for getting out there. And, you know, he got crushed…. Eleven percent of the people that can vote in Iowa determine who the nominee of a party was going to be? And that’s in the end what the movie is really about–this system and how dysfunctional it really is, and how did John Kerry become the nominee?”

“All of the candidates were little caricatures,” she continued. “John Edwards was the cute one who was really nice and never said anything mean about anybody. John Kerry was the war hero who just hung out in the Senate for two decades.”

“John is no George,” she continued. “I wouldn’t say that John Kerry was a very good television character… I didn’t find John particularly warm and fuzzy and good for TV.”

But then, Diary, unlike Journeys, doesn’t have the luxury of focusing on one candidate. It’s more an examination of the process, and has all of Pelosi’s smart-ass charm–which is sort of like Michael Moore’s minus the dishonesty, agitprop, and, of course, about 200 pounds–even if it lacks that of her first movie’s star.

I should say, almost lacks. “Alexandra!” Bush exclaims cheerfully in a Diary cameo, when he spots her and her camcorder at some White House social function. “I made you famous once and I’m not gonna do it again!”

“[Bush] is a screen-grabber when he shows up,” Pelosi acknowledged, “but I don’t really have any sort of political ambitions with the film.” She’s a true, blue-state Democrat, but unlike Michael Moore, she doesn’t hope to affect elections with her documentaries.

“I’m not really a political person; to me, it all sounds like propaganda,” she added. Pelosi first became disillusioned with the process when she was a teenager, and her mother made her work at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. “I was hanging out with all the reporters…and I learned that it’s all about what the press sees and not about what is actually happening. And that’s where I started to develop all of my disdain for the system.”

She was no fan of Howard Dean, although Dean’s supporters probably had the most in common with her mother’s politics. “He made a sound no one’s ever heard before on national television,” she comments dryly in the film. “It was death by 1000 edits.”

“There was something wrong with Howard Dean,” Pelosi noted at the HBO news conference. “He didn’t have the right psychological profile to be president and at that moment revealed it. I spent a week with him in the armpit of New Hampshire, and for every single day, he would never say ‘Hello’ or ‘Goodbye.’ He was like a machine. Politics is about the personal connection, and he had no personal connection to voters.”

“When you looked at his supporters, you knew it was not Howard Dean,” she added. “It was something in their eyes, that they needed him so badly they placed all their hopes on him.”

So why does she think Kerry became the Democratic nominee? “He had the most stamina and he was the most politically savvy, and I think he had the best organization,” Pelosi said. Or at least, that was as good a reason as she could offer. In the end, Kerry remains as much an enigma to her as he does to voters.

“The truth is,” she says at the end of Diary, “after a year on the road, I know why the other guys lost. But I still don’t know why John Kerry was the winner.”

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.


The Latest

A Revolt in Cuba

A Revolt in Cuba

Last month, thousands of Cubans poured into the streets, daring to protest the government that has ruled them for 60-plus years.