As the election season turns from silly to ludicrous, it may be helpful to take a breath and remember how it all began. Or at least how the last American presidential election has led us here. The newest installment of Frontline opens on the 2004 conventions offered precursors of what was to come: Barack Obama spoke in Boston, imagining a United States no longer split into red and blue: “In no other country on earth is my story even possible.” In New York, John McCain urged listeners to “Stand up, stand up!” and fight for their country. A moment so long ago, and yet so utterly like the one we now face.
As The Choice points out, differences between candidates are useful selling points. On election day, the thinking goes, decisions are based on what voters want and don’t want, as if these are always easily opposed. This premise structures the program, which cuts back and forth neatly between comparable incidents in the candidates’ lives, their steps through childhood, school, and families, their grueling primaries and the starts of their presidential campaigns. The comparisons necessarily leave out details and nuances, and doesn’t quite get at how the candidates are shaped by their campaigns—their messages, politics, and images functions of machinery, some inevitable and some malevolent. Still, the effect is vintage Frontline: smartly sober, seemingly balanced, and politely provocative.
At the Democratic convention four years ago, Obama emerged as an ascendant, even transcendent, star (“They need someone who is charismatic and optimistic and could electrify a crowd,” says Liz Mundy), able to “embody his message in a unique way,” says Rob Brownstein, author of The Second Civil War, “I think that is the core of his political strength.” Again and again, observers note Obama’s capacity to move people with his cross-cultural, wholly American “story.” McCain’s experience, the program posits, is American in another, more traditional way, a kid who resisted his family’s military legacy, who survived five years as a POW and came back home to find his own sort of celebrity—a designated spokesperson for the Navy embraced by hard-partying young senators like Gary Hart and William Cohen.
McCain distinguishes himself as “Mr. Outside,” a Republican Senator willing to disagree with other members of his party, most visibly with first-term President George W. Bush, whose dirty campaign against him in North Carolina leaves lasting scars and antipathy (Weaver says, “We were in icy relations with the White House… Siberia doesn’t have that much ice”). Narrator Will Lyman intones that, back in the Senate, “a deeply angry John McCain decided to focus on his own agenda, building his reputation as a maverick” (going so far as to consider changing parties following the 2000 election, according to Daschle and denied by Weaver). During this period, Harvard law graduate (and first black editor of the Law Review) Obama negotiates intraparty politics to achieve particular goals, winning tough contests in Chicago and then for state senator. His arrival in DC as the Junior Senator from Illinois is carefully staged. His mentors, including Tom Daschle, initiate a “two-year plan” to “make him look like a serious senator,” observes the New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny. Pete Rouse, Daschle’s Senate Chief of Staff, shifts to Obama’s team when Daschle left the Senate, describing his new project in this way: “He is very aware of the importance of being a team player and not raising people’s hackles,” while also “build[ing] IOUs” for the future.
These parallel stories repeat information you’ve heard before. The campaigns for party nominee and then president reveal the subjects’ similar toughness and differing temperaments; the questions raised have to do with constructing strategies and shaping histories. The program compares their approaches to potential troubles (Reverend Wright (Time magazine’s Mark Halperin says, “They knew Wright was a problem”)
and the Keating Five scandal (longtime campaign McCain strategist John Weaver says, “He understands the dark stain that has on him”), as well as their efforts to pull together support coalitions. Obama straddles raced identities and affiliations (again, Halperin puts it succinctly, if grandly: “Barack Obama told a different story than anyone had ever told as a presidential candidate; it was post-historical, post-racial, postmodern, and it fits not just his biography, not just his style of rhetoric, but the vision he has for America”) while McCain repositions himself as maverick, then party frontrunner, then maverick again (the collapse of his primary campaign leads to a revival of the straight-talk express, which in turn leads to a rejection of the mainstream press). Even when he looks most finished, Torie Clarke notes, “His life has been proving people wrong.”
Given the speed with which the campaign has changed, it’s not surprising that The Choice is over before the most recent developments, especially the rapid changes in tactics and standings after the conventions. Instead, it offers the kind of compressed, carefully recounted history for which Frontline is well-known—balanced, selective, and fascinating.