By: Tom Raum, Associated Press Writer
(AP) George W. Bush mugs for the camera. He pats a reporter’s bald head and, mimicking a preacher, intones, “Heal.” He sticks his fingers in the ears of another. “The coolest thing of all was to light up a butt,” he confides, fondly recalling the days before he quit smoking.
Hardly the kind of images the White House would consider presidential.
Bush’s aides are bracing for the release of two behind-the-scenes accounts of the president’s 2000 presidential campaign — one a book, the other a documentary film — that reveal a wisecracking, prankish side seldom seen in public.
The book is “Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush,” by New York Times reporter Frank Bruni. The film is “Journeys with George,” by former NBC news producer Alexandra Pelosi. Both are due out in early March.
Both Bruni and Pelosi covered Bush’s presidential campaign, and both portray the candidate as a relaxed, but often culturally challenged, cutup.
Some administration aides were apprehensive, fearing the Bruni book and Pelosi film might provide new fodder for late-night comedians and revive old questions about Bush’s intellect, syntax, and competency — criticism that has faded as Bush’s war-driven approval ratings have soared.
White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said there’s “more curiosity than anything else.” He said both accounts might help give the public a fuller sense of Bush’s personality.
Bruni’s book, which goes on sale March 5, reports that Bush considered Chuck Norris his favorite actor, had never heard of “Titanic” movie star Leonardo DiCaprio, didn’t know “Friends” was a TV show, and favored a campaign-trail diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Fritos, and Cheese Doodles.
The pre-presidential Bush was “part scamp, part bumbler, a timeless fraternity boy and heedless cutup, a weekday gym rat, and weekend napster,” Bruni writes.
Bush would playfully pinch, poke, and put headlocks on male reporters, pat bald ones on the head, and once put his index fingers in Bruni’s ears “to illustrate that a comment he was about to make would be off the record,” he writes.
But Bruni also suggests that Bush matured along the way, and has gone on to project clarity of purpose and presidential power in leading the nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Pelosi, the daughter of House Democratic Whip Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., carried her own personal camcorder and used it to capture Bush’s antics and horseplay on the nearly two-year-long campaign trail.
Bush often wandered into the press section in the back of his campaign plane to banter with reporters, photographers, and network crew members. He mugged frequently for Pelosi’s handheld camera, making faces, joking, even dispensing mock romantic advice.
In the footage, Bush gulps a nonalcoholic beer with relish at one point. “It takes an animal to know an animal,” he tells revelers on his plane.
Pelosi, who now has her own production company, distilled hundreds of hours of raw video footage into an 85-minute documentary, which opens on March 8 at a film festival in Austin, Texas.
Some White House officials said that going public with the film violated ground rules that Bush’s back-of-the-plane comments and antics were off the record. But Pelosi openly filmed the then-Texas governor and he even suggested — on camera — the documentary’s title.
“There was a question about what the agreement was originally. But, at the end of the day, it’s simply a reflection of what happened on the campaign trail — the long hours and long weeks,” said White House spokesman Bartlett. He said Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon had seen an advance copy of the film and pronounced it “pretty funny, pretty harmless.”
Meanwhile, published accounts of the Bruni book have fueled sharp criticism by conservative commentators. “So Bush is so out of it … he doesn’t know any of the latest pop icons,” taunted syndicated broadcaster Rush Limbaugh. “The important thing is this: George W. Bush knows who he is. George W. Bush knows this country, and he knows who you are, and he knows what’s best.”
Bruni said he was surprised the book has become so controversial in advance of its publication. “There is an erroneous assumption that this entire book is about the gaps in Bush’s knowledge, or an attempt to poke fun at him. It’s a much broader, balanced book than that, I believe,” Bruni said.