Inside Inside the Bubble

The film about John Kerry’s campaign won’t tell you why he lost.

Inside the Bubble, a documentary that promises to reveal how the Kerry campaign lost the 2004 election, has restored a bit of campaign-season buzz to Washington. The Drudge Report called the film a “devastating behind-the-scenes look.” Lloyd Grove promised despair among Kerry loyalists and snickering from Hillary’s followers as the doc revealed the Massachusetts senator, who still hopes to run in 2008, as boobish and flailing. Democrats e-mailed preview clips and weighed how much exposing the underbelly of a Democratic campaign would hurt the party. Defensive quotes from Kerry staffers about the film suggested they had something to hide.

Titillating possibilities flitted through my head: grainy footage of John Kerry flip-flopping late at night in his hotel room. Strategist Bob Shrum controlling the candidate’s every move from behind a glowing orb. Modern campaigns are so freeze-dried and antiseptic that one longs for unscripted moments, even after the fact. Plus, the film arrives as Democrats are still mulling the lessons of their loss. Should leaders of the party be cautious and calibrated to appeal to moderates and independents—or should they roar and stomp in an attempt to rally the base and captivate voters with authenticity?

Unfortunately, Inside the Bubble, which premiered at the New York Television Festival Thursday, doesn’t do much to answer those questions. The movie overpromises the way sham politicians do. There are some amusing and entertaining moments, but there is little in it to explain why Kerry lost—no inside scoop from his senior advisers or much insight into the man himself. The strategists who may have botched the effort are either not seen or pass through in a blink. Instead, we spend a lot of time with secondary and tertiary players.

Vanity Fair media critic Michael Wolff is called in to add some structure and sometimes to slash and burn. “Stephanie is a horror show,” he says of the campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. He makes sweeping statements about the campaign that may or may not be true, but the footage doesn’t back him up. And he contradicts himself. Wolff claims that Bob Shrum kept Kerry too safe and controlled but then spanks the campaign for not controlling the candidate’s image in a photo shoot as ruthlessly as the Hollywood actors do. Oh, the Vanity Fair cover he could have had!

As for the candidate himself, we don’t see much of him that we haven’t seen already. But there are a few surprises. Kerry the candidate seems tantalizingly less stiff than we remember. As he waits in a locker room for a satellite interview, he pretends to interview himself. It’s a goofy, amusing moment. I’ve watched presidential candidates in this familiar, tense setting and seen them anxious that time’s wasting, irritated by a local anchor’s gooey snap, bark at their staffs, or even, in one case, bolt from a Marriot ballroom. Off-camera, Kerry is surprisingly at ease. “I don’t know who exercised in this locker room last,” he jokes with his aides, “but they left a lot of themselves here.” Alas, when the interview starts, he snaps back into that familiar wooden image.

In the most talked-about scene, Kerry pulls aside his press spokeswoman and pushes her to correct two reporters who have mischaracterized the number of bills he has sponsored in the Senate. You’ll remember Kerry remarkably glossed over his many years in that body in his convention speech. So it’s amusing to see him here in his barn jacket fixating on the point. Others might chuckle because the accomplishments he’s boasting are so minor. Though if you catch the reference to the bills he’s talking about, they have a certain belated bite: flood protection, coastal zone protection …

Why is the candidate picking these nits when he’s got bigger fish to fry? You could draw the conclusion that Kerry was a hopeless micromanager, but the truth is that they all do this: Candidates focus on the little stuff because it helps them feel in control. George Bush did this kind of thing a lot in 2000 and 2004. If there were scores of such clips, or if it were part of the larger narrative, perhaps we could draw conclusions about Kerry’s controlling nature. But as a single incident it doesn’t tell the uninitiated viewer much. Washington insiders may also note that the two reporters Kerry charges with distorting his record both once worked for the Boston Globe. Kerry’s relationship with (some would say fixation on) his hometown newspaper is deep and complicated, which makes this an interesting moment for political obsessives, but not necessarily a revealing one.

If you’re not a campaign-bus alum, the movie is most revealing as a window into what happens to staffers who live on the road for months at a time, their metabolisms in a blender as they chug coffee all day, drink too much at night, and fold and unfold themselves into plane, bus, and auditorium seats in the hours in-between. It’s like a campaign version of Super Size Me.

Senior press wrangler Jim Loftus 

If the movie has a star, it’s Jim Loftus, the Kerry press wrangler who made sure the photographers stayed behind the rope lines and that the press got on the buses and into their seats without getting too close to the candidate or delaying his schedule.

He’s manic and insane. Loftus rails at the New York Times for an unflattering picture of Kerry and rags on the campaign’s own press spokesperson for her bad relations with the media. At one point, he tries as a birthday prank to get a pony into the room of Marvin Nicholson, Kerry’s personal aide and the other star of the film. “Get the fucking pony and put it in the hotel room … if you can’t get a pony get a goat but I want it in women’s lingerie … and in that case you do have to stay with the goat or the goat will fucking eat the lingerie and the joke will be ruined.”

John Kerry’s personal aide (with blow-up sheep under arm) talks with press secretary David Wade

Some might be tempted to shake their heads. You mean this is what Kerry’s senior people were up to? Stow the sanctimony. This is what people like Loftus do. They are asked to ruin their bodies, spoil their minds, and shorten their life spans handling the logistics of campaign life. They blow off steam by playing jokes on each other. Later, when Loftus breaks down talking about how he’d give up his long-hoped-for Red Sox World Series victory if Kerry won the presidency, it makes you wonder if the Kerry campaign couldn’t have used a few more such lunatics.

Because the Steve Rosenbaum wasn’t given much access to the real strategists, he tries to make the subjects he gets sound more important than they are. When not doing that, the film tries to suggest that the confusion you’re watching represents the chaos afflicting the Kerry campaign. It doesn’t. It’s garden-variety chaos that hits all campaigns.

The same endless series of switchbacks bedeviled the Bush campaign, which I spent most of my time covering at Time. Once when the president visited his campaign headquarters to buck up the troops, he and his entourage got lost in the warren of desks. The president blew up: “Is this how you want to be spending the president’s time?” he snapped. “Lost and meandering within his campaign headquarters,” reporters could have all written, if they’d seen the Bush campaign as undisciplined and disorganized at the time instead of hearing harrowing tales later. If Democrats are going to learn anything from this film or their loss in 2004, they will have to separate what was the normal confusion of a campaign from the confusion of this particular campaign.

It’s not that the lower-level staffers don’t have the potential to be interesting. Marvin Nicholson is no strategist, but he was Kerry’s body guy and during the campaign was with him more than his wife. But alas, the film doesn’t get much from him on Kerry the man. The other person physically closest to Kerry was John Sasso, his lifelong friend and confidant. Sasso is on-screen so briefly that if you glance away at the wrong moment to unstick your Milk Duds, you may miss him.

After the swirl of the campaign is over, Loftus is interviewed and offered as a sage to pinpoint the Kerry team’s one great weakness. “What was the overarching point of the campaign?” he asks. “I don’t know what the hell it was … I don’t know now. I lived it for 11 months, admittedly intoxicated and exhausted and strung out from cigarettes and arguing with the press and sappers and the whole thing. I don’t know. That’s a problem.” That is a problem, even when the guy saying it isn’t your tactician or strategist. But the filmmakers shouldn’t expect Loftus to play analyst—especially after lampooning him.

This genre has delivered before. The War Room let us into Clinton’s scrappy 1992 campaign, and Journeys With George showed us the goofy, some would say frightening, side of the current president during his 2000 run. This movie can’t achieve the grand goal it sets for itself, in part because the campaign seems to have known enough to keep the cameras out of the rooms where the important bad decisions were being made. But if you aren’t going to allow the cameras inside, letting them hang around the outskirts of a campaign only courts misinterpretation. If the 2008 documentarians get any more distanced from the action, we’ll be watching shaky footage of volunteers painting placards before rallies.