Imagine going to work each day and hearing people call your mother a Nazi.
Alexandra Pelosi, the filmmaker daughter of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, heard it frequently last fall in speeches meant to fire up the crowds at McCain-Palin campaign rallies.
She attended many such events to make a film about the people who attended, those who fought against a Barack Obama presidency.
“Right America, Feeling Wronged,” debuts Monday on HBO.
The work wasn’t easy. Pelosi was spat upon at the Iowa State Fair, leading her to enlist her husband as a bodyguard. Her name would make potential subjects turn away in disgust. But Pelosi was also asked for autographs by people who fondly remembered her Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Journeys With George,” about the first presidential campaign of George W. Bush.
“I didn’t know how nasty it was going to get,” she said.
“If I knew, I don’t know if I would have signed up for it.”
Many of the people who attended the McCain campaign rallies complained – rightfully so, Pelosi believes – that the mainstream media wasn’t interested in hearing what they had to say.
So she set out to listen.
For all the talk about the historic nature of Obama’s victory, there were still millions of Americans who weren’t ready for that kind of change, weren’t ready for a black president, she said.
Her film opens and closes with a tearful woman attending John McCain’s Election Night wake in Arizona. In between, she found serious people with serious concerns – such as Elaine Tornero, an Ohio woman who went door-to-door supporting the McCain candidacy. Tornero is shown bypassing a home with an Obama lawn sign.
“Interesting,” she said.
“I’m too afraid to get into a fight with a neighbour.”
Pelosi also films a truck driver who uses a racial slur against Obama. One man wears a misspelled T-shirt, “Say No to Socilism” and fumbles when Pelosi asks him to define socialism.
Another man says he looks at Obama and “I see 666 in his eyeballs.”
Others wrongly believe Obama is a Muslim, or chant “Obama is Osama.”
It’s in these moments that you wonder if part of the motivation is to mock the less sophisticated McCain supporters, a notion Pelosi strongly rejects.
“I showed up,” she said.
“You can’t show up for an entire campaign and then be accused of trying to make fun of them.”
It would have been easy to make a film showing only the ugly side, she said. Similarly, she wouldn’t have broken a sweat reporting on Obama supporters, since she knew so many of them but going to McCain rallies was subversive.
“I actually thought that it was kind of punk rock,” she said.
Campaigns are tough and the rallies bring out the true believers. There was plenty of nastiness on the other side, such as people at Obama rallies who called Bush a terrorist, or the woman selling buttons outside her Manhattan home depicting Sarah Palin with devil’s horns.
The film’s chief value lies in illustrating the moment of time. It’s one thing to assume racism or ignorance is still alive and played a role in how some people voted, quite another to see how Pelosi found it and stuck a camera in its face. Still, there was enough concern about how this would be taken that HBO and Pelosi made a last-minute change to a printed introduction to the film.
Initially, the introduction read: “In 2008, I followed the McCain campaign across the country to listen to Americans who did not want Barack Obama to be their president. These are some of the people I met at campaign stops along the way.”
The second sentence was changed to read: “While not representative of the entire Republican party, these are just some of the faithful who turned out at campaign rallies along the way.”
Pelosi also seems to accept the truck driver she finds in Mississippi who says he won’t vote for Obama because he’s black (using an offensive word) is likely to draw plenty of attention.
“I would imagine that a lot of Republicans are going to be skeptical and concerned that a documentary like this portrays them as everything that they fear the media wants to believe – that they’re racist rednecks who are uneducated,” said Karen Hanretty, an activist and former spokeswoman for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
Pelosi’s name will also draw inevitable suspicion, which Hanretty said was unfair considering she has established herself as a successful filmmaker in her own right.
At one point in the film, Pelosi catches Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity signing autographs at a rally.
Hannity points her out and says: “That’s Nancy Pelosi’s daughter.”
The crowd begins to boo.
“You’re going to get me lynched!” Pelosi said.
Hannity defused the moment.
“She’s a very nice lady,” he said.
While several people wouldn’t talk to Pelosi because of the family connection, it meant little to others. She found the McCain campaign hard to handle: Five large aides once blocked her when she was trying to film the candidate and she was removed from one rally by the Secret Service.
“You have good days and bad days,” she said.
“Some days people were really nice to you and other days people would be really nasty.”
The campaign offered little help in mapping out its schedule, so Pelosi was tipped off by friends who sold buttons at the rallies. Since they depended upon it for their livelihoods, they had the connections to know where McCain and Palin would show up next.
Despite the tough regimen, Pelosi doesn’t get enough of campaigns.
“Can’t you tell?” she said.
“I love road trips.”
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