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Access Powers

For over eighteen months, Alexandra Pelosi trained her video cam on George Bush, who comes across with just-folks charm; American Experience finds less of that quality in Jimmy Carter.

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In Plane Sight: Candidate Bush makes a point to Pelosi in Journeys with George.  

In the eighteen months that Alexandra Pelosi followed George W. Bush around with a video camera -- from June 13, 1999, in Austin, Texas, for the launching of his campaign, to January 21, 2001, in Washington, D.C., for his inauguration -- only once did the candidate freeze her out of his cheerful frat-boy presence. And that was when he felt she had hit him "below the belt" with a question about the record number of death-row executions during his years as governor of Texas. Before and after this big chill, he was inclined to call her "baby."

No wonder, then, that she usually stuck to lobbing softballs, and keeps her own opinions secret from the rest of us, even now, after the Supreme Court voted. The daughter of Democratic House minority whip Nancy Pelosi, Alexandra may have grown up a liberal, but she was onboard the campaign bus and plane as a producer of photo ops and sound bites for NBC News (snowmobiles! bowling alleys!), a member of the journalistic pack committed to shadowing W. 24/7 (with a career investment in his election no matter their personal politics) and a citizen of "The Bubble," a "womblike" ecosystem where the politicians and the reporters all have to go along to get along -- which, while not amounting to a co-dependency as psychopathological as the Stockholm syndrome, did occasionally oblige those reporters to buy the candidate's spin on something, even when they knew different.

You'll like Alexandra. She's cute and feisty and the others enjoy teasing her, especially about that guy from Newsweek. When it dawns on her that the Bush campaign has given her four different birthday cakes while her own network has forgotten she exists, you even identify with her as she wonders where her loyalties ought to lie. If this were a docudrama, Sandra Bullock could play her part. But then, Journeys With George really is a docudrama, with real people playing themselves, a camera-savvy performance even by those Bushies who perceived the press as a bunch of DNA-sucking alien abductors. Like docudrama, it spends so much time on self-presentation as a proof of character that when an issue like gun laws or homophobia raises its pointy head, the seriousness seems a distraction from the Cheetos and the tequila -- off-message, not about personality, failing to forward the momentum of a story about media warriors, Greek heroes out of Xenophon's Anabasis who must fight their way home from hostile Persia with a laptop and a wisecrack.

Nor does personality tell us much about intellect. Back when it was still permissible to disrespect the current president, before doubts about him got you blogged to death by squeaky pips, it was sometimes wondered if his IQ got much above room temp. Journeys, an exercise in affability, doesn't speak to such wonder. But maybe degrees of personal brainpower are as irrelevant to a discharging of presidential duties as degrees of sexual kinkiness. Jimmy Carter, we are told in the two-part American Experience portrait of him, was smarter than almost anybody else in the room, a nuclear engineer who made millions out of peanuts. Yet the Oval Office was over his head.

Why this was so -- why we ended up not trusting and not even liking our only born-again president, the Man of Peace who really meant it, who signed off on salt II and got Egypt and Israel to sit down together -- is remarked upon by variously perplexed journalists like Roger Wilkins and Elizabeth Drew, historians like Gaddis Smith and Douglas Brinkley, and former colleagues like Jody Powell, Andrew Young, and Hendrik Hertzberg. Linda Hunt leads us from Plains to Annapolis to the nuclear submarine Sea Wolf to the governor's mansion to the Playboy interview, the energy shortage, the hostage crisis, the "malaise" speech, and the rabid rabbit. Boy, was he a downer, with that smile like a sugared skull on Mexico's Day of the Dead.

Nothing became his presidency like his behavior after leaving it, for which he's just won the Nobel Prize. Jimmy Carter omits what happened on his watch in Latin America, South Korea, East Timor, and Cambodia -- not something for a champion of human rights to be proud of. On the other hand, before him human rights went unmentioned in the higher altitudes of Realpolitik. One can't help thinking that more humor and less self-righteousness would have helped. Wasn't Nixon also supposed to be smart? And Woodrow Wilson was a college professor, just like Jed Bartlett.


In Brief

  • Grizzly Falls (November 5; 8 to 10 p.m.; Animal Planet) may be almost your last chance to see Richard Harris, who sits with his grandchildren around a campfire telling a story about a wayward father (Bryan Brown) who, on the death of his wife, decides to take his son Harry (Daniel Clark) on a hunt for a grizzly bear. They actually capture a pair of cubs and cruelly cage them, which causes Mama Bear to abduct Harry before he can grow up to become . . . guess who.

  • Shahrbanoo (November 5; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is the name of the housekeeper who works in Tehran for the family of Melissa Hibbard's new husband. While Hamid Rahmanian rolls his camera, the two women disengage from stereotypes and engage in the sort of cultural exchange one wants to bottle and sell all over Washington.

  • Bond Girls Are Forever (November 6; 8 to 9 p.m.; AMC), but not all of them get famous. For every Ursula Andress, Honor Blackman, Jill St. John, Jane Seymour, Kim Basinger, Grace Jones, Michelle Yeoh, and Carey Lowell -- not to mention the forthcoming Halle Berry -- there were two or three Prunella Gees. Maryam d'Abo takes on a stroll through the social history of female roles.

  • The Outsider (November 10; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime) lets us see Naomi Watts in a role less edgy than usual, as a comely widow among the Amish-like Plain People who will fall in nineteenth-century love with gunslinger Tim Daly just in time for everyone to cease being pacifist long enough to wipe out the bad guys. Two Carradines, David and Keith, co-star. The people behind the camera are all old pros who grew up on such Gentle Persuasions at High Noon.

Journeys With George
Tuesday, November 5; 9:30 to 10:45 p.m.; HBO.
Jimmy Carter
Monday and Tuesday, November 11 and 12; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13.


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