ABC Heavily Promotes New HBO Documentary on Obama: He's so 'Zen' and 'Normal'

Good Morning America co-host Diane Sawyer on Tuesday helped promote an upcoming HBO documentary on Barack Obama and allowed producer Ed Norton to gush over the "zen" presidential campaign of the Democratic candidate. Sawyer breathlessly teased the program as "the Obamas behind closed doors. The grandmother who raised him and the man you've never seen."

Sawyer played several clips of the By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, a film that followed Obama and his family during the 2008 campaign. The segment, which ran six and a half minutes, will be supplemented by more promotion on Tuesday's Nightline. When asked what surprised her about the Obamas, director Amy Rice enthused about "just how normal they were."

Norton was impressed with the "calm," "no-drama Obama." The actor continued, "And in a weird way, when you look behind the curtain with that team, they are really zen. It's amazing how zen they are."

To her credit, Sawyer did at least express some skepticism as to how authentic the whole project was: "Do you really think you saw the true family, though? Because as we know, when you set out to do these documentaries, everyone says complete access."

However, she didn't ask any questions as to the left-wing bent of HBO and the network's documentaries. Earlier in the year, the channel produced Teddy: In His Own Words.

Norton is a well known liberal activist and Hollywood star. On March 27, 2009, he appeared on NBC's Today to compare his Earth Hour documentary on global warming to the civil rights march on Selma. On April 22, 2008, he lamented how America lagged behind China when it came to banning plastic bags.

A transcript of the October 27 segment, which aired at 7:33am, follows:

7am tease

DIANE SAWYER: The Obamas behind closed doors. The grandmother who raised him and the man you've never seen.

7:30am tease

SAWYER: [Video of the Obama family playing a game.] Take a look. This is inside the kitchen in the Chicago house of the Obamas. And there, Sasha, Michelle and Malia are there behind the scenes. And- suddenly- playing dominos when, when a phone rings. Who is it? Stay tuned, because it's a new, unprecedented documentary. Filmmakers behind the scenes. An exclusive first look coming up.


DIANE SAWYER: We're going to turn to that never-before-seen footage of the Obama family, on the journey to the White House. It's behind-the-scenes video of an HBO documentary called By the People: the Election of Barack Obama. It captures the family at home and candidate Obama preparing for one of those nerve-racking debates.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFFER: You seem to feel the need to really answer every single McCain attack. I think our view is you're at the stage of the race, you won two debates. Your numbers are strong, where you can push past it. You shouldn't feel vulnerable to every single thing the guy says.

BARACK OBAMA: I mean, I think if he presses me on honesty, I think there's nothing wrong- the only thing I don't want to sound whiney about his lies.

SAWYER: I don't want to sound whiney. There he was. Oscar-nominated actor Edward Norton, the film's producer. And joining us along with Amy Rice, who co-directed the film. It's great to have you both with us this morning.

EDWARD NORTON: Thanks. Good to be here.

SAWYER: How many hours did you spend with him and his family?

NORTON: Oh my God.

AMY RICE: We ended up with 770 hours of footage in the end.

SAWYER: 770 Hours.

RICE: Not necessarily all with them. But we and our editors ended up cutting into two hours.

SAWYER: And, Ed, why did you want to do it?

NORTON: You know, it started off as an entirely different idea. We originally had planned to make a film about a freshman senator's experience in politics. And Amy and Alicia had been filming for nine months already when, suddenly, they decided to run. And so, we found ourselves actually entirely, unexpectedly, with this opportunity to make a film about a presidential campaign.

SAWYER: Quite a trajectory from a freshman senator to the man running for President there.

NORTON: Yeah. It was- for us, it was really lightening in a bottle in the sense that, having to gotten to know him, and his staff a little and them understanding that we were doing this film, they were sort of comfortable with Amy and Alicia. So, we got this amazing opportunity.

SAWYER: I want to take us back into the kitchen in Chicago that we saw earlier.

NORTON: That was Amy filming that.

SAWYER: That was Amy filming. And we know- They're playing dominos in the kitchen. And we had heard during the campaign trail, that his calls home were everything. We have a chance to see what happens when they answer the phone this time.

[Phone ringing ]

MICHELLE OBAMA: Would you get that?

MALIA OBAMA: I'll get it.

MICHELLE OBAMA: If it's Kathy, tell her she can stay as long as she wants.

MALIA OBAMA: Hello? Hello? Hi, daddy.


MALIA OBAMA: Fine. Daddy, I had to eat a lot of chocolate today. Yep. Okay. I love you.

SASHA OBAMA: Hi, daddy. Good.

SAWYER: Had to eat a lot of chocolate today. I'm still parsing that. Nice thing to have to do. Do you really think you saw the true family, though? Because as we know, when you set out to do these documentaries, everyone says complete access. And the next thing you know, they're shutting a few doors here and there.

NORTON: It's true. I mean, I think we can say that there's an unprecedented level of access to a candidate as he goes through this experience. And his family and his senior advisers. I mean, we got opportunities to shoot debate prep, to be with them in the surge of the emotion of the victories and kind of setbacks. And I think it's an unusual intimacy with that process.

SAWYER: And yet, we're all different in private than we are in public. There's small ways in which we are. What were the ones you learned, Amy? What were the things that we would never have had a chance to see, just looking at the public Obama?

RICE: There's a lot of humor, I think. But they're pretty much the same on and off camera. I mean, we were around them for three years filming.

SAWYER: Nothing surprised either of the two of you?

RICE: What surprised me was just how normal they were.

NORTON: And how calm. I mean, if you remember in some election films, like The War Room, you peek around the corner and everybody's screaming at each other. And, you know, they called him no-drama Obama. And in a weird way, when you look behind the curtain with that team, they are really zen. It's amazing how zen they are.

SAWYER: The War Room, of course, about the Clinton run. I want to turn to the clip about his grandmother, because you had a chance to interview her, which is unheard of. We knew there was one, little clip we'd ever seen of her. But you had a chance to talk to her. And then, he gives her a phone call at one point. And I want to play that.

MADELYN DUNHAM: He wanted to be a big-time basketball player. And he played basketball every minute that he could. He had a group of boys that would come over to this apartment and raid the refrigerator. And go play basketball and do things.

BARACK OBAMA: I know this is hard on you. All of this. Well, I love you, sweetie. All right. Bye-bye. Yeah. That was a good call.

SAWYER: And as we know, she died the day before the election. Before I let you go, you're going to run the marathon.

NORTON: I am running the New York marathon.

SAWYER: Ed Norton. With a Masai warrior?

NORTON: With three of them. I threw down a-

SAWYER: Are you a masochist?

NORTON: No. We're raising money for a terrific conservation organization that I've been involved with for a long time. And we created this great web-based campaign, where people can sponsor the Masai warriors or me in our run. And-

SAWYER: Have you ever run a marathon before?

NORTON: I have not, Diane. And I- I found out that it's 26.2 miles. Did you know that?

SAWYER: Did you google that last night?

NORTON: I found that out last night.

SAWYER: I just want to know what the Masai word for "Who is this guy?"

NORTON: They're used to the distances. They're more fascinated. Pavement is going to be new for them.

SAWYER: That's right. Well, again, thanks to you both. And it's great to get a preview of the documentary. We always imagine what it was really like during a campaign. You got a chance to be there. Thanks again. And you can see more of By the People: the Election of Barack Obama tonight on Nightline and the HBO documentary premieres on November 3.

-Scott Whitlock is a news analyst for the Media Research Center.