The Road to Washington: 'Frontline' Dissects 'The Choice'

They've
been running for over a year, spending more time and more money than any
Presidential candidates in history, each surviving grueling primary bouts with
able opponents whom conventional wisdom thought had a better shot at earning a
chair in the Oval office.

Neither
candidate is running as a party insider, and neither has been able to close the
sale with the voters. If you don't already think you know all you need to know
about John McCain and Barack Obama, then you've probably been in a coma for the
last two years or sharing a cave with Osama bin Laden.

For
most, it's been impossible to tune out the race that began before the surge in
Iraq, when gas prices were around $3.00 a gallon, unemployment was steady at
4.6 percent, consumer confidence was the highest since 2002, Wall Street was
the wonder of the world, Mike Huckabee was a serious contender, Republican
frontrunner Mitt Romney was $42 million richer, John Edwards' pricey haircuts
and sexual appetites were a secret, and the Democrats seemed likely to anoint
Hillary Clinton after a perfunctory round of primary contests.

But
as voters braved the cold Iowa
winter early this year to weigh in at the country's first primary/caucus, it
became clear that this election season's outcome would defy the pundits'
prognostications. Barack Obama seemed to come out of nowhere, and even though
John McCain didn't seriously compete in corn country, he believed that Mike
Huckabee's victory demonstrated that the country was hungry for "change." He
headed for New Hampshire,
where he vowed to make believers out of those who'd given up on his come-from-behind
fight.

Slowly,
primary after primary, caucus after caucus, debate after debate, the two front-runners
emerged. The voters were, in fact, looking for "change," as McCain had
predicted and Obama embraced. While these two candidates had gotten more
television exposure than Paris Hilton and Britney Spears combined, it still
wasn't clear how they'd become poised to assume the most powerful job in the
world.

Frontline, PBS' long-running
investigative news series, returns this season with a two- hour special that
attempts to peel back the mythic curtain surrounding Obama and McCain's
historic rise. The Choice 2008
tells the two candidates' stories in parallel as it compares and contrasts the
journeys that brought them within grasp of victory.

Producer/Director Michael Kirk started this epic undertaking around Thanksgiving 2007,
long before the two parties decided on their stalking horses. This gave Kirk
and his team some time to research the stories. "While waiting for something to
happen to resolve Clinton
versus Obama, we made a two-hour program called Bush's War,
which aired in February," says Kirk. But the two camps still didn't have a
clear nominee, and no one would talk to them until there was a decision.

As
Kirk explains, "The Obama people were saying, ‘Sure, we'd love to cooperate
with you, but we can't authorize anybody to talk to you in any way until there
is resolution, because it would be untoward if we were to act like we were
winners.' And the Clinton
people were saying, ‘If they're not talking to you, we're not really going to
talk to you.'" So Kirk and his team, including producer/reporter Jim Gilmore
and co-producer/writer Paul Stekler, had to start working around the edges.

These edges grew and grew and by March,
McCain's camp had come on board, and eventually the Choice team broke through with Obama's people. The result was an
enormous amount of material. "We interviewed 60 people for the film, shooting
two and two and a half hours per person," Kirk explains. "So we had 250
interview tapes lying around--maybe more, in some cases--and we have all the
transcripts and all that stuff and you get down to about 12 to 14 characters. We
shot a lot of people to get an understanding of these guys."

Kirk
and his colleagues relied on insiders to tell the story. For McCain, it was fellow
former POW Orson Swindle, who accompanies McCain at all times. And in Obama's
camp, it was Harvard
Law School
classmate Cassandra Butz. "Both can kind of talk the philosophy of the
candidate, if nothing else," Kirk notes.

While
the insiders are close to the candidates, neither one is the candidate, and
Kirk chose not to ask either McCain or Obama to sit down for a one-on-one
interview. "Every time you do this, in my experience in biography, what
actually happens is the people who are the least interesting or useful about
their own biographies are the people that they are about," Kirk maintains. "They
spin it; they protect it. It is the rare person who can sit there and talk to
you candidly and not defensively about things that they did. Or not have kind
of a rote response. Oftentimes you're just going to get a little better feel
for the truth of an experience if you have others talking, even if they are not
talking negatively about them. But you are just going to be able to organize
better."

Barack Obama, from FRONTLINE:
The Choice 2008
(Exec. Prod.: David Fanning; Prod./Dir.: Michael Kirk; Prod.: Jim Gilmore;
Co-Prod./Wtr.: Paul Stekler; Prod.: WGBH Boston), which airs October 14 on PBS.
Photo: Scout Tufankian/Polaris.

Instead,
we rely on the observers to interpret the decisive moments that Kirk chooses to
create the context for understanding the candidates' characters. The defining
event for Obama's future in The Choice
is his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where he positions
his personal history as the quintessential American story. Kirk cuts away to
show us Jesse Jackson's reactions, and we can only imagine that he must have
been wondering what this eloquent, uplifting speech delivered by this vibrant,
fresh face meant to the Black struggle. We see Chelsea Clinton, standing by Jackson's side, smiling
and vigorously applauding. She's clearly captivated, like many of her
generation, who've become Obama followers.

Her
mother, Hillary, also rises to her feet and is visibly moved. Kirk muses, "We
can only speculate that she's thinking, ‘Is this my vice president? Is this
what Bill and I have worked for all these years?'"

For
Obama, who's delivering a speech he's given many times before, it's a
triumphant time at the podium that is likely to be regarded as one of the most
transformative moments in American politics.

"You
know what he is saying," Kirk posits. "Not only is he trying to integrate as
he's spent his lifetime trying to integrate himself into a place into society
as a black kid from a white family. It's that guy who is saying to America, ‘My
effort at integration is an allegory.' And he happens to be saying this at
exactly the time a lot of people in the Democratic Party are hungry for a
transcender, not a divider."

This
break with the past almost comes undone when his divisive pastor, Jeremiah
Wright, surfaces. Says Kirk, "Wright is the ultimate test of his efforts at
integrating himself, then transcending the politics of Jesse Jackson and other
politicians and other black politicians, and to say ‘I'm just a politician who
happens to be black.'"

How
Obama handled the Wright crisis and the other major turning points that make up
his metamorphosis into presidential contender reveals a candidate that's more
than someone who has "captured lightning in a bottle," says Kirk. "I was
surprised about the steel inside the guy. The toughness, the calculation."

This
is revealed step by step, in one scene after another. Kirk takes us from
Obama's Illinois State Senate race, where he stands up to a former candidate
who wants him to step aside, to his Congressional campaign challenge against
Bobby Rush, a revered ex-Black Panther and hero of the Chicago black political
machine, to his winning a US Senate race and then crafting a two-year plan to
become a US Presidential candidate shortly after arriving in the Capitol.

 

 

John McCain, from FRONTLINE:
The Choice 2008
(Exec. Prod.: David Fanning; Prod./Dir.: Michael Kirk; Prod.: Jim Gilmore;
Co-Prod./Wtr.: Paul Stekler; Prod.: WGBH Boston), which airs October 14 on PBS.
Photo: Jason Reed/Corbis.

John
McCain's capacity for survival becomes clear when we see how he reinvents
himself after nearly losing his political career during the savings and loan
crisis. Tagged as one of the "Keating Five," he becomes the most open
politician in Congress and reporters embrace him. Says Kirk about the media and
McCain back then, "You can say, ‘Geez, I like a tough guy. I like a John Wayne
kind of character. I think we need one in the world.'"

The
media's response to his open-door policy turned him into such a powerful brand
that he decided to launch a Presidential bid with a bus tour dubbed the
Straight Talk Express.

"No
American candidate for any major office that I've ever seen has ever been so
accessible to the press as John McCain was in the back of that bus in 2000,"
Kirk reflects. "I mean, even in early
2007, everybody could get on, ride around with and get their pictures taken
with him, and no Presidential candidate has ever granted that kind of ongoing
and regular access to the press. And people are only half joking when they say
that McCain's base in the 2000 election was the press corps."

McCain
realized he needed more than the slavish devotion of the press to get elected;
he needed the Republican base. Kirk and his team trace McCain's clear-eyed hunt
for the right wing of the party. "He's also a kind of pragmatist who works on
another level, a level that might make you somewhat uncomfortable--what he had
to do once he decided to run, what he had to do to capture Karl Rove and George
Bush's base," Kirk explains. "And to see him do that and to do that to the extent
at which a very experienced politician will maneuver himself and his positions
to get support in such an obvious way was a very interesting exercise."

This
marked a turning point for his cozy relationship with reporters. "I think it
started to become more uncomfortable for reporters to give him a free pass on
that stuff once they saw where he was headed," says Kirk. "In a way, he lost
the press, and they lost him at the same time."

One
of the most surprising characters in The
Choice 2008
is former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who plays a role in
each of the candidate's senate careers. He counsels freshman Senator Obama that
if he's going to do it, he needs to map out a two-year plan to run before he's
burdened with the baggage of countless votes he'll have to explain. Daschle,
along with Senator Kennedy, also tries to woe McCain to switch parties. We're
left to wonder if a wavering McCain decides not to make the leap because he
can't be guaranteed that the Party will support his Presidential bid.

The Choice 2008 does a good
job focusing on the process and the plot, but doesn't deliver on the details or
the substance of the two candidate's actions. While we do find out that Obama's
tenure as a US Senator was spent planning for a run at the Presidency, the
program doesn't give us much of an idea about what he did as a community
organizer, what articles he pushed as editor of the Harvard Law Review, why he sided with the Federalists on the Review or what he accomplished or stood
for as a state senator.

Nor
do we learn about McCain's legislative record, his years as a womanizer, Daschle's
trips to McCain's ranch or the impact of the policies either is likely to
pursue if elected. This may be more than
any one program-even a two-hour special-can accomplish, but I wanted to know
more about the substance of their political agendas and,
in general, the issues and policies that are dominating this campaign.

Kirk
says that's not the film he set out to make. "Most of the films I make are kind of
character-driven narratives. I know everyone always says that, but I really
believe in that, and that method has its limitations, which I'll freely admit. One
of them, it's really hard to stop in the midst of telling a story about a
character and say, Let's do a little investigative section right there and
really smack him for having done this or not having done that."

Kirk
agrees that providing this level of detail and context is one of the ways the Internet
can work in concert with a broadcast--which is what PBS is doing this election
season as it rolls out its PBS Vote 2008
election lineup that will enhance its over-the-air content from The NewsHour, Washington Week, National
Journal
, NOW on PBS, Bill Moyers Journal, Tavis Smiley and Frontline with unique content.

Kirk
couldn't predict who was going to win or if there was going to be a much talked
about "October surprise." He'd only say, "I think it's either going to be a
slaughter or it's going to be really, really close. I don't think anybody knows
what's going to happen when the curtain gets pulled and people go into that
room."

If you're having a hard time making
your choice, tune in tonight and watch The
Choice 2008
. Encore broadcasts are scheduled for Sunday, October 26, and
Monday, November 3. In addition, viewers will also be able to watch the program
in its entirety on YouTube (youtube.com/pbs)
and download it free from iTunes beginning October 15 through the month of
November. The Choice 2008 will also stream in the high-quality News
& Public Affairs Player at pbs.org/frontline.

Michael Rose is
a writer/producer/director.