Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi has one of the most famous last names in American politics. As the daughter of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the granddaughter of a former mayor of Baltimore, Pelosi has been steeped in politics from birth—the perfect pedigree for a documentarian who often gravitates toward political figures as the subjects of her movies. Starting with her Emmy-nominated debut feature, Journeys With George, which chronicled her time on the campaign trail with George W. Bush when he was first running for president, Pelosi has made a string of critically acclaimed films, the most recent of which is the new HBO documentary Fall to Grace, about former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey’s life following his resignation from office amid a scandal and his declaration that he was a “gay American.”
City & State Editor Morgan Pehme spoke with Pelosi about how her upbringing influences her view of politics, and asked if she would ever want to continue her family’s legacy by becoming a candidate herself.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: How did growing up in a family of politicians inform your perspective on politics and making political documentaries?
Alexandra Pelosi: I see the world of politics as two camps: the insiders and the outsiders. The insiders know everything that’s going on, and they have a really good grasp on the political realities in America. The outsiders are all the people who sit at home and blog about it without very much perspective, and the trick is being able to know the difference. I’m an outsider. I’m a nobody. I have no political inside track. I just know when I’m watching cable news, they have little access to what’s really going on in the inside, so I know it’s not an informed perspective. I may not be informed, but at least I have the self-awareness to know that I’m not informed [laughs], and if I really wanted to be informed, the things you can read to get informed. … Being informed is a job. … When I was growing up, my mother always told me that the definition of the word “idiot” was someone who didn’t take a part in civic affairs. Like, the Latin root of the word “idiot” means something along the lines of “he who does not participate in civic affairs.” And so you have an obligation as a citizen to actually know what’s going on in your world, and that’s a heavy responsibility—most people don’t take on that responsibility; they take that responsibility very lightly. You can’t consider yourself a well-informed human being by watching a half hour of cable news.
C&S: Thinking about Jim McGreevey, does being an insider also give you tunnel vision and blind you from having a full perspective on politics, just by virtue of being within the bubble?
AP: People who are inside the bubble have no concept of how they look, nor do they care, which is good in some ways and really dangerous in others. A lot of times politicians don’t have an honest relationship with the mirror, because people around them don’t tell them the truth, because they’re afraid to. So there’s always that disconnect between what they’re doing and how that looks to the outside world—and how much that matters, how much people’s opinions are formed by little things.
C&S: That’s a surprising observation, because so much of being a politician revolves around being watched and judged by the public.
AP: Good politicians don’t care how they look. They do what they think is right. They don’t care about the polls. They don’t care about the whims of the moment or the crisis du jour. They care about trying to affect change, and change is never popular.
C&S: Was Jim McGreevey a good politician?
AP: Probably not. I didn’t know him as a politician, but everything I’ve heard wasn’t pretty, and I’ve gotten a little bit of an education since the movie came out about what a bad politician he was, which is funny because I didn’t really focus on that. I was interested in Jim McGreevey because I was intrigued by his attempt to redeem himself. … [McGreevey] was the first person to admit that he was a self-centered egomaniac and that made him do a lot of stupid things; [he] literally came out of the closet, not just about being gay but being a bad guy.
C&S: Can you not help but like the people that you make movies about after spending so much time with them?
AP: The harshest reviews that I got on the Jim McGreevey movie were that I was too nice to him. I am not Bill O’Reilly. I’m not trying to get in people’s faces and set them straight. I am compassionate toward the human condition. I have great sympathy for broken people. It’s not my job to get in somebody’s face and poke a finger and tell them that everything they’re doing is for all the wrong reasons, that they don’t have the right motivations. Who am I to judge Jim McGreevey for going to jail every day to help prison inmates? What do I do in my life that makes me so high and mighty and righteous that I am the moral authority? … These people are the first to admit they’re broken; they’ve failed. They have this great shame. … There’s a lot to learn from people who had it all and lost and then rebuilt it back again, for whatever reason. I don’t care why Jim McGreevey goes to jail every day; I care that he goes and that he helps people. I don’t care why Ted Haggard rebuilt a church in his backyard and has a couple hundred people show up on a Sunday—if it’s for their own selfish ego, if it’s for their own need to be loved. Who cares? They’re helping in some way. Most people don’t help anybody. So I think it’s very noble that these men have tried to rebuild their lives and not just tried to help themselves.
C&S: What do you think of George W. Bush now?
AP: I am a friend of Bush. … People don’t understand how I can identify myself as a friend of George Bush. I don’t put politics at the forefront of every personal relationship I have. … I wasn’t indoctrinated in a cult. I really like people who aren’t like myself. I live in New York. Sometimes you feel like you live in a liberal bubble. … I love making friends with people who don’t agree with me on everything. I find great joy in life because of the people who tell me that my worldview is totally wrong. I love that! … It makes life fun! How fun is it to live in a world in which every single person agrees with you on everything? … I know what I believe and I’m not going to change my mind just because George Bush tells me I’m wrong. Some people, especially around here, it’s like “After all his wars, how can you be friends with him?” I’m going to go down to Texas for the opening of that library, and I am going to celebrate. Here’s the thing. So George Bush is opening up his library, and when I met my husband we went to every presidential library in America. It doesn’t sound very romantic, but that’s what my husband and I did for our honeymoon. … We went to all of them, and we find them very fascinating: the propaganda that people produce about their own presidency—we love that. And so I’m excited to go to the Bush library, because we want to see how they packaged this presidency. That’s going to be a great sociological experience. I couldn’t be more excited. One of the great highlights of my life will be going to the Bush library and I will enjoy all of it. I’ll soak it in. I might have to stay a week, it’ll be that good. Because I lived through that whole presidency from beginning to end, it’s exciting. It’ll be the first president that I really lived through as an adult and had a real relationship with, so it will be interesting to see how they package that.
C&S: Is it your worst nightmare to ever be a candidate yourself?
AP: I have too much self-respect ever to run for office myself. I’m not a masochist. I love my family too much to ever run for office. I would never subject them to the slings and arrows of the blogosphere. Not that I really care, though. It’s funny. I have really gotten to a place—I’m 42 years old—and this movie was great because I learned something really profound. I learned that critics don’t criticize what they’re looking at; they criticize what they want to be looking at. So when a reviewer is reviewing the film, they’re not reviewing the film they’re watching. They’re reviewing the film they wanted to watch.