Diary of a Political Tourist

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Diary of a Political Tourist

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.

Links of Interest:

1. HBO’s homepage for Diary of a Political Tourist

2. IMDB site for Journeys with George

3. IMDb site for Alexandra Pelosi

Image Credits:

Diary of a Political Tourist

Please feel free to comment.




Homework

by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

The first presidential debate garnered predictable media excitement. The tv run-up included a week’s worth of entrenchment, with usual suspects — anchors, analysts, seeming armies of spinners — setting up shop outside the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

There’s a big problem with young people not voting. –Drew Barrymore, The Best Place to Start (MTV 28 September 2004)

The revolution will be televised, mark my words. –P. Diddy, The Oprah Winfrey Show (ABC 28 September 2004)

Today it seems like practically everybody is calling herself an activist. –Yvonne Bynoe, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and Hip Hop Culture

The first presidential debate garnered predictable media excitement. The tv run-up included a week’s worth of entrenchment, with usual suspects — anchors, analysts, seeming armies of spinners — setting up shop outside the University of Miami in Coral Gables. For days they anticipated what each candidate must do to appear “presidential” for those 62.5 million viewers who ended up watching, gazing solemnly into their teleprompters as they asserted the event’s “importance,” not only for Bush and Kerry, but also for voters.

Some reporters ventured off their established locations to interview people on campus, usually former Clinton Secretary of Health and Human Services and current University president Donna Shalala, but also the occasional professorial type. But if — as they demonstrated all week and all the night of 30 September, the mediators really only wanted to talk to one another — their background space was typically cluttered with placards and bodies — most all of them young. brandishing signs, pointing to their t-shirt logos, talking on cell phones, smiling and waving to friends out in tv-land, these kids were everywhere.

And they are members of the demographic that so-called experts say don’t know and don’t care about world events, domestic politics, or this year’s election.

Of course, much of this “youth” effect was site specific. If the debate were held in a location harder for students to enter or less fun for them to crash, it’s likely that the backgrounds for Hardball and Larry King would have been less busy, less antic, less peculiarly chaotic. And if the Today Show has taught tv talking heads anything, it’s that an enthusiastic background crowd makes any interview look more energetic and vital, perhaps even more compelling. In a word, more like reality tv, that supposed ratings magnet for, among other viewers, “kids.” At the same time, these kids — who come with their own backgrounds, interests, and dimensions — are increasingly turning to non-reality tv for their sense of how the world works. Drew Barrymore finds out as much during her trek across America to discover the whereabouts of the “youth vote” for her “Choose or Lose” documentary, The Best Place To Start. When she asks university students (“boys,” as she calls them) where they got their “information,” they tell her: The Daily Show, described repeatedly by Stewart as “fake news.” The next day, Barrymore has her own experience confirmed in seeming “real news” — while riding in her bus (understandably, she hates to fly, following 9/11), she opens a newspaper and then displays the headline to her cameraperson: “There’s an article in USA Today about how comedy with Bill Maher and Jon Stewart is making politics palatable to young males.” She sees this as “sort of ironic,” given that she was just talking about this very subject, but the point is less “ironic” in the way she means it than straight-ahead telling: in a universe where the real news lies and spins as a matter of course, what better source for some semblance of “truth” than speakers who tell you upfront they have ideas, construe askew, and read between lines?

No surprise, the post-debate breakdown that outdrew all others — especially in the coveted “adults 18-34” bracket (otherwise known, in Bill O’Reilly’s estimation, as “stoned slackers”) — was The Daily Show. Reportedly, some 2.4 million viewers saw Jon Stewart point out that Iraqis have in fact been trying to protect themselves, against U.S. troops (“I think that’s actually kind of been the problem”); that naming Poland as “your second country” in a list of coalition partners is hardly effective in building confidence in the U.S. “mission.”

When it comes to watching tv this political season, confidence is key. If watching O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, or even Tom Brokaw is an act of faith, seeking out alternatives is increasingly a combination of wit and perseverance: kids look hard for what they consider quality tv. And tv (quality or not) is looking for them. Consider the many and mighty efforts of the past months: the Bush and Kerry girls soliciting registration on the MTV Video Music Awards (one of many deployments that had Shaila K. Dewan worrying the “children” were becoming “weapons of mass affection” [New York Times, 5 September 2004]); Christina Aguilera’s own “Choose or Lose” special, Sex, Votes, and Higher Power (in which she spends 20-some minutes explaining the differences between the presidential candidates’ stands on abstinence, abortion, and funding for women’s shelters, tactfully leaving little doubt as to her own ideas on these issues); MTV’s proliferating “Choose or Lose” PSAs (by J. Lo, Alicia Keys, Jadakiss, Hilary Duff, and Kanye West); or the multiple, much-publicized campaigns by P. Diddy (who’s pumping his “Vote or Die” campaign every Friday on 106 and Park), Russell Simmons’ “Hip Hop Action Summit,” and the currently touring “Vote for Change” crew, including Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Jackson Browne, Babyface, the Dixie Chicks, Keb Mo, and James Taylor, among other not-so-youthful rockers. The get-kids-to-vote movement has even caught the attention of tv forums usually directed at so-called adults: everyone from Deborah Norville to Oprah Winfrey to Larry King wants to know how the youth vote has turned so crucial. And, no small thing, their producers want a piece of this lucrative bandwagon.

All this sudden love for kids might be considered disingenuous, even exploitative, if not for the well-performed sincerity of the most prominent pitch-people. This isn’t to say that such “celebrities” might actually secure the “youth vote” in a sustained, coherent, or even sensible way. Alan Wirzbicki of the New Republic is particularly skeptical of Barrymore’s effort: “She talks about voting like a civic virtue that one should practice along with all the other virtues — and to fight the man, or whatever” (“Celebrities and the Youth Vote: Star Power,” 23 September 2004). It’s true, that at 29, Barrymore retains a naïveté that seems as cloying as it is adorable. Here, in her honesty, she seems most unreal. But that might just be what makes her most persuasive on tv.

Barrymore realizes during her documentary that young voters are caught up in a cycle (“That chicken and egg thing,” explains Hillary Rodham Clinton), left out of politicians’ appeals because they don’t vote, and not voting because politicians don’t attend to their concerns. This cycle, apparently by definition, both stems from and reproduces what Farai Chideya calls a lack of trust in political, economic, and legal systems. This disconnect has to do with ideology as much as generation, class, race, and gender: in her new book, Trust: Reaching 100 Million Missing Voters, Chideya writes, “Today’s political landscape is the result of a forty-year movement by social and fiscal conservatives to claim political power and reshape intellectual debate” (35).

While it’s called “conservative,” such reshaping largely rejects democratic ideals articulated during previous eras, and explicitly rebuffs viewpoints that might be termed “diverse.” It’s the logical next step in the cycle, to judge non-believers summarily, to skip even pretending to care about kids’ concerns. This attitude is hardly confined to self-proclaimed “conservatives.” At a later point in her excursion, Barrymore comes across another newspaper, featuring a photo of herself speaking with Wesley Clarke in New Hampshire (a conversation that, she noted in her “confessional cam,” made her feel slighted, indeed, treated like a “10-year-old”). Captioned “Get Off the Bus, Angel,” the image underlines that this girl is going to have trouble being taken seriously.

This even as she makes her most sincere and frankly public effort to get “educated.” Barrymore reveals her own insecurities (in one scene, she’s in tears while talking to producing partner Nancy Juvonen on the phone, fretting, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” That’s okay, soothes Juvonen. She can incorporate that very ignorance into the project. And so, Drew is inspired once more, and sets forth to “stop feeling like politics was so daunting and start making it more personal.” To this end, she visits with celebrities whom she feels influence those “boys” she met in New Hampshire, that is, other boys. Following brief and mostly conventional observations by Stewart, Chris Rock, Michael Moore, and James Carville (who fusses that at malls, he sees “kids hanging out, with this vacant look”), she finds Bill Maher himself, who tells her, “Young kids, I notice a lot, will say, ‘I don’t follow politics because politics is dirty,’ as if that somehow makes them cleaner. That doesn’t make you cleaner. That’s just an excuse to not do your homework.”

Moved to do some homework, Barrymore heads to Selma on a “Civil Rights quest,” because, she says, it marks voting rights history, namely, the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where police stopped marchers by force in March 1965, and the National Voting Rights Museum. Here she talks with black people, and participates in a black kids’ classroom exercise, where she discovers (apparently to her surprise) that most everything you do is affected by voting, from the food you eat to the air you breathe.

When she leaves, Drew spends a few minutes hugging the kids good-bye as the handheld camera watches from a low angle, underlining the earnestness of the moment, despite its wholly overt banality. While it hardly inclines you to trust in the possibility that political imbalances will work out, or that race and class relations might be changed, for a second, you think this authentic white girl believes it. From here, Barrymore walks across that historic bridge, to look back on what she’s learned. “I come from a privileged world,” she observes, “but I’ve always been enlightened by struggle. No matter where we come from, all over the world, whatever location, from whatever history, we all have the power to make a difference. And in the voting booth is one of the most tremendous places where this is evident. I have also come to believe that we all passionately want to feel a part of something, so that we are not alone. And although voting is a very personal ritual, it brings us all together in the most profound way.”

Following this moment, so fragile, so faux-haunting, the scene cuts to Drew sending in her vote by mail, in a tender, home-video-ish sequence. It’s way too MTV, way too connived. But it’s also familiar, careful, and self-knowing, a kind of Real World flash for those who know all the tricks, the viewers who were far ahead on the reality tv curve that now bedevils adult primetime. Even if you still don’t understand why voting is “important,” an obligation as much as a right, you may also be moved to do your homework.

Links of Interest
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Alan Wirzbicki’s New Republic article on Barrymore
Chideya’s work Trust: Reaching 100 Million Missing Voters:

Please feel free to comment.