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PBS FRONTLINE Election Doc ‘The Choice 2016’ Connects the Dots

A riveting, revealing look at candidates Trump and Clinton


Next Avenue Blogger
Next Avenue Blogger

Part of the Election 2016 Special Report

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been performing on the national stage for decades. By now, you probably you think you know more than you’d ever want to know about them. But if you watch PBS FRONTLINE’s two-hour election documentary, The Choice 2016 (premiering Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 9 pm ET and online), I think you’ll come away having learned a lot about who these presidential candidates are. More to the point, you’ll learn what makes them who they are — and why.

The New York Times says the program “will probably be the most serious reporting on the presidential election that you’ll find on television this fall.” I agree. But I’d also say the most entertaining. After all, as Michael Kirk, the show’s producer and producer of three earlier The Choice presidential election documentaries, says: Clinton and Trump are “two great American stories” and “true survivors.”

‘The Apprentice’ and The Presidency

The challenge for The Choice, Kirk said, was “taking stories you think you know and, in a way, connecting the dots so you come away saying: ‘I knew that, but I didn’t know it that way.’ With Donald Trump, it might be, ‘I knew he was on The Apprentice, but I didn’t know what that had to do with the presidency.’”

I always feel it’s a little dangerous ascribing too much behavior of a 70-year-old to their childhoods.

— Michael Kirk, producer of 'The Choice'

As Trump adviser Roger Stone explains in the documentary, The Apprentice was the ideal setup for Trump’s White House run. Stone calls the  NBC show’s 14-season TV audience “the greatest single asset of his campaign.” On The Apprentice, Stone says, Trump was perfectly lit, perfectly coiffed, perfectly made up and in a high-backed chair that made him look like a president. “The elites say, ‘That’s reality TV,’ but the voters don’t see it that way. To them, TV news and entertainment — it’s all television,” says Stone.

The Choice also reveals that Trump has harbored some of his political views since 1988. Back then, viewers see, he gave a New Hampshire speech saying, “My message is simple and direct: I want strength and extreme competence at the helm of this country. I am personally tired of seeing this great country of ours being ripped off and really decimated and hurt badly by so many foreign nations that are supposedly our allies.”

Trump’s Art of the Deal co-author Tony Schwartz’s take on that moment: “I don’t believe Trump himself thought he was running for president. But once the notion got stirred up in him, it never went away.”

Clinton’s Battles Over the Years

Clinton, says Kirk, “has been striving since the 1960s to live up to a political set of ideals she created. And through all the wars and battles she’s been through, she has emerged as a person some people have suspicions about.” The question this raises, Kirk adds, is: “Has she compromised too much so she is now representing not fresh ideals, but the establishment in a difficult and uninteresting way?”

The Choice doesn’t take sides. Instead, the program selects the choicest morsels from all the two-to-three-hour interviews the producers conducted over six months. Kirk has described his reporting style as “reproducing the ambiance of a dinner party” and told me: “I want to make it feel a little more conversational and accessible, rather than big ideas and experts yakking at you.”

His dinner guests happen to be an assortment of Trump and Clinton friends, relatives and colleagues past and present (Omarosa, Robert Reich) as well as sharp journalists (Carl Bernstein, David Maraniss, Gail Sheehy, Michael D’Antonio, Gwenda Blair) who’ve covered or written books about them.

Children of Two Tough Fathers

One thread running through The Choice is the powerful, lasting influence of the tough fathers Clinton and Trump had. “I always feel it’s a little dangerous ascribing too much behavior of a 70-year-old to their childhood,” said Kirk. “A lot of other things happen to people in their lives.”

Nevertheless, numerous stories told on The Choice show that these candidates’ dads made quite a mark on them.

A Clinton confidant from Arkansas, Jim Blair, says that when the Democratic nominee was a child and got straight A’s, her father said, “that must be a really easy school.” Kirk believes Clinton “has got a lot of armor built up around herself that probably started at an early age.”

Trump’s father Fred, according to The Choice, believed that life is a competition — with winners and losers. Fred Trump called the winners “killers.” Schwartz says on the program: “In his house, if you did not win, you lost and if you were losing, you were nothing.” Kirk’s take: “That push from Trump’s dad really drove him. He wanted to show his dad he could do it.”

The Filmmaker’s Challenge: Two Candidates With High Undesirables

Kirk told me that an interesting challenge in creating The Choice was that “the undesirables [poll ratings] have been so high for both candidates.” That meant, he said, the documentary had to “address the anger going on in America and the real unhappiness going on in Washington” in its approach to Trump and Clinton. “Not in an overt way, but realizing that people watching have strong opinions about these candidates and we have an obligation to respect both candidates, the process and the people who voted for them,” Kirk added.

“I hope that after the people who really dislike Hillary Clinton see this, they understand who she is and how she became who she became,” he said. “And the same is true for the people who hate or fear Donald Trump.”

Why ‘The Choice’ Has Appeal to Boomers

I think they will. I also think The Choice will particularly resonate with viewers in their 50s and 60s. So does Kirk.

As they watch the transformation of Clinton from the 1969 Wellesley commencement speaker featured in Life magazine to the first woman presidential nominee of a major political party in America, “they’ll recognize a life journey and what happens to someone going through a life journey,” said Kirk. “We’ve all been Hillary Clinton to one degree or another, and the same is true with Donald Trump.”

Boomer viewers will also likely come away from The Choice realizing, as Kirk said, that “these are probably the last boomers running for the presidency — the last wave with common points of reference. It’ll probably be the last time there will be talk about Watergate, Vietnam, Martin Luther King’s influence, Bobby Kennedy’s death and the Democratic national convention in Chicago in 1968.”

In future elections, Kirk said, “We’ll have Gen X and Millennials running for president. They’ll be talking about 9/11 as a major issue, and security and privacy and what to do about the Middle East and the economic collapse after 2008.”

I look forward to Kirk’s next project, a four-part, four-hour PBS miniseries airing the week before the 2017 inauguration called Divided States of America. Its focus: Obama’s eight years in office. “It’ll be about what Obama thought he’d be able to do and what happened to change that,” said Kirk. “It’ll be like a briefing paper for the new president. Here’s what awaits you. Good luck.”

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