Diary of a Political Tourist
by: Anna McCarthy / New York University
Diary of a Political Tourist
Must political documentaries always return always return us to shopworn clichés about the artifice and pageantry of American electoral politics? Isn’t there anything else to say? Can media scholars and critics contribute anything original to the discussion at this point?
These questions crossed my mind watching a review copy of Alexandra Pelosi’s interminable Diary of a Political Tourist, a documentary about the democratic primary races. Scheduled to air on HBO next week, Diary is a follow up to the 2000 video diary Journeys With George in which Pelosi — daughter of Nancy — joined the media correspondents assigned to George W. Bush’s campaign. There were some good moments in Journeys with George. Pelosi’s first person camera captured how the dreary monotony of bad catering, sleepless nights, cramped flights, and monotonous hotel rooms tests the stamina of candidates and correspondents. Her bratty girl bravado was aggravating, but it made it impossible to ignore the masculinist chemistry of campaign culture. Most crucially, she made us confront some worrisome truths about the charisma of the Republican nominee. Affecting an airhead persona only a political insider could pull off, Pelosi exposed the bullying bonhomie with which the Republican nominee alternately charmed and disciplined his captive press.
This year’s Diary of a Political Tourist, like most tourism, is an experience in which we mostly get the feeling we’ve seen it all before. Lack of access to the candidates leads Pelosi to scramble for an angle, especially once Kerry’s nomination has been secured. She resorts to tricks from the Michael Moore repertoire, renting the scoreboard at a baseball game to ask Kerry to give her an interview, interviewing a piñata about how media “is” undermining democracy when Kerry is nowhere to be found. But these extended shenanigans quickly become dull. As if aware of this, Diary looks at other moments, specifically to the political filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s, for visual inspiration. We see cheerleaders in starred and striped leotards prance about like extras in an Altman film. Politicians and their families pose for photos, their grins horrifyingly fixed. Make up artists prettify the blushing candidates. Shriners glide across the screen in their miniature red cars. And in perhaps the most interesting aesthetic reworkings of the documentary past, we see both Bush and Kerry at different times take the camera from Pelosi’s hands and point it back at her — a gesture towards reflexivity that would not be out of place in the era of Medium Cool, not least because of the paternalism of the gesture.
It’s not surprising, given these cinematic intertexts, that the documentary settles into a default form of media critique when it has nothing else to say. It is supposed to show, as Pelosi puts it, the nature of “the dance between the candidate, the staff and the press.” But mostly we get recycled ideas about democracy as spectacle. They issue not only from Pelosi but also from participants like CNN correspondent Candy Crowley, who seems both ashamed and exhilarated at television journalism’s role in shaping the fate of Howard Dean after the Iowa Caucus. Voters also contribute analyses of the mediation process. A young Dean supporter with slacker hair and oversized aviator sunglasses makes the canny observation that the primary process is “like a reality TV show because it’s staged, it’s not like a spur of the moment type thing.” And Bush himself, acknowledging the performative nature of his job, jokingly asks Pelosi “Where’s my Emmy?” (When Pelosi later greets democratic supporter and West Wing star Martin Sheen with the quip “hey, Mr. TV president!” he is not amused, questioning whether such glibness is appropriate.)
In the end the girly glibness is what I found myself focusing on as I tried to answer the questions that ran through my head as I watched the tape. It would have been easy to replicate Sheen’s finger wagging automatically, but why single Pelosi out when shallow one-liners are the essence of so much political speech these days? As I considered Pelosi’s authorial persona in this tape and the one before it, I was struck by the uniqueness of her approach as a political correspondent. What other female reporters get to operate through a kind of kittenish, childish provocation? The effect of this style on her interlocutors is noticeable. Not surprisingly, they tend not to take her seriously when she asks direct questions about the campaign or about her level of access. Instead they respond with tepid wisecracks. When she asks Kerry who his running mate will be he replies instantly “you,” as if being quick and condescending in the comeback is more important than being funny. Other kinds of questions, however, get us to a different and possibly more interesting place. In these moments of female tongue poking, Pelosi tries to crack the armor of a group of men who are all under incredible pressure to look good, wear make up, and perform perfectly at all times. When she asks whether a gathering of senior citizens is “a Gephardt-pallooza” (a quip to which the befuddled and clueless candidate can offer no response whatsoever), and when she compares the primary voters to fickle brides who choose “tall, handsome, electable warriors” Pelosi is not particularly funny. But she is certainly bringing some sass into the proceedings.
Pelosi’s provocations made me think about the potential of bratty girl culture as a medium for political critique, and more generally, about girls as political subjects. There’s been a lot of interest in girl culture in television studies over the past few years. Some might say it’s nothing more than a Buffy Bump. But what if we take Pelosi’s documentary as an example of what happens when Clarissa actually does try and explain it all? And explain it in the world of politics, where young women are largely invisible? Perhaps she does what teenage girls often do — talk about boys and adults and make fun of them. I found this quite entertaining when I watched Journeys with George four years ago. Pelosi drew George W. Bush out, showed him playing to the audience of correspondents with a tight-lipped, self satisfied smile and a script full of catchphrases, his performance reminiscent of the Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse (although when he was sulking, W’s style seemed closer to the morose sadism of Bobby Flay). In Diary of A Political Tourist, even though it was a mostly tedious video to watch, Pelosi continued to show us how weird-acting women make white men in power uncomfortable, and makes us notice how those men (and women) respond. When Pelosi asks Hermes-clad Teresa Heinz Kerry whether she thinks her husband is a movie star, Kerry’s visible recoil, spitting out the word no! is a moment of sharp conflict far less decided than the rote media critiques that occupy us elsewhere in the film.
Unfortunately, as if to anchor and contain the meanings of her potentially disruptive presence, Diary has Pelosi narrating the events of the 2003 primaries with canned voice-over wisecracks. These wacky bits, noticeably louder in the mix on the review copy I received, seemed like anxious last-minute additions. Their effect is to bring Pelosi herself closer to the domesticating discursive sphere of Food Network programming. “We’re here in Las Vegas, where everyone loves a winner. And a wedding,” she announces, right before voters consummate their support for Kerry. Like Rachael Ray introducing us to the culinary delights of Paris, this and other vocal intrusions (“let’s see what it takes to kick the leader of the free world out of office”) are a non-threatening, wholly recognizable form of zany fun. Perhaps this is what Karl Rove has in mind when, at the end of the tape, he tells Pelosi that she has “ennobled our political process through her revealing and candid look.” I can’t answer that, but watching him try to formulate that sentence definitely made me want to giggle.
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