The essential mystery of the 2000 election has always been this: How in the world did George W. Bush ever get close enough to invite the Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to give him his “victory”?

Of course, he couldn’t have done it all by himself. Al Gore ran away from one of the most successful economic records of any Administration this century and could not seem to articulate a single compelling reason that he should be President. Bush was also mightily aided by Ralph Nader, whose spoiler candidacy commanded just enough support to swing battleground states for the Republicans while failing to come even remotely close to the 5 percent, matching-funds goal that was his professed inspiration. But the biggest piece of the puzzle is still Bush. He may have “grown” in office, but the fact is he had some of the skimpiest qualifications for the job of almost any successful candidate in our history, while Gore’s were among the best. Moreover, his political views were well to the right of most voters on almost everything, while Gore’s were well within the national consensus. By any conventional calculation, Bush should have lost in a landslide.

The obvious answer to the paradox is that Bush sold his personality, not his politics. But how? Are people just stupid? Don’t they realize that it doesn’t matter if one candidate is a likable cutup and the other one a superior stiff when it comes to stuff like global warming, a patients’ bills of rights, Social Security, the right to choose, etc.? Well, that’s one answer. But a more compelling one is that the so-called liberal media, contrary to its nonsensical reputation for favoring Democrats, failed to inform the public of the two candidates’ political and ideological differences, and the implications those differences held for the nation’s future.

The release of two different kinds of campaign documents–Ambling Into History, a book by New York Times reporter Frank Bruni, and Journeys With George, a film by former NBC News producer Alexandra Pelosi–shed considerable light on just how the media managed to spend millions upon millions covering the candidates while reporting next to nothing of value to voters. Ambling is a memoir of a love-struck reporter. The journalist charged with covering the campaign for the newspaper that sets the agenda for most of the elite media focuses with laserlike intensity on every nod, wink, smile and profession of alleged “love” that comes his way from the candidate. But we hear barely a word about the candidate’s pollution- and fat-cat-friendly policies as governor of Texas or his lies and dissimulations when it came to environmental protection, affirmative action, issues of corporate responsibility, healthcare policy and the like. If you want to know the exact number of seconds that George and Laura Bush danced at every one of their nine Inaugural Balls, then the intrepid Mr. Bruni is your man. If you have any interest in what Bush might have been doing at his desk the following morning, well, where did you get the silly idea that a New York Times reporter should concern himself with boring stuff like that?

The willingness of the Times bigfoot to treat the election as the equivalent of a junior high popularity contest signaled to the rest of the media that contentless coverage would be the order of the day. The net result, as Pelosi shows us in her fascinating but nauseating documentary–to be broadcast on HBO in November–is a press corps that follows its campaign masters like a litter of newborn puppies. They wait open-mouthed for Karl Rove or Karen Hughes to drop a tender morsel of warmed-over baloney into their mouths, wagging their tails in appreciation after every feeding.

The clowning frat boy who plays the Republican presidential candidate in the Pelosi movie does turn out to be a genuinely congenial fellow. If you’ve been wondering why it is that everybody seems to like this guy–and how he has managed to forge so many lifelong bonds with people irrespective of his apparent doofus-like qualities–then this movie will provide a painless seventy-six-minute education. The filmmaker–the daughter of House Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi–hates Bush’s politics but likes him personally, and so can we. She tells audiences that Journeys is a documentary about process and that the candidate himself is unimportant. But that’s nonsense. Bush is a star. If Pelosi had had the misfortune to be assigned to Al Gore’s press plane, this movie would have sucked.

But like Ambling, Journeys is more valuable for what it shows than what it tells. Over and over we hear the reporters criticize themselves for the emptiness of their coverage as they express a kind of wearied contempt for the snowmobile rides and other pseudoevents that substitute for substance. But over and over again, they submit without apparent protest. They regurgitate the campaign’s baloney sandwiches and watered-down Kool-Aid–without even bothering to convince themselves that it’s really steak and champagne. In between feedings, they ask the Man for his autograph, laugh at his jokes and seek, without much success, to justify the effects of their collective lobotomy to Pelosi’s pitiless focus.

Unlike Bruni, Pelosi demonstrates considerable professional self-awareness (which is why she felt compelled to quit her job and leave the field entirely after the campaign). Early on, she gives us the Financial Times‘s Richard Wolffe speaking excitedly about covering “the greatest story in the world…big issues, big stakes; it’s a big game, but it’s important.” A little later he admits, “Most of our time is spent doing really stupid things, in stupid places with stupid people.” If you want your mystery summed up in a single sentence, it would be hard to outdo Wolffe: “The Gore press corps is about how they didn’t like Gore, didn’t trust him…. Over here, we were writing only about the trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off us.”

But Bush himself puts it best, just before kissing Pelosi in pursuit of her (meaningless) vote in the California primary: “If I lose,” he playfully smirks, “you’re out of work, baby. You’re off the plane.”