'The Choice' Considers the Packaging

As The Choice presents the opponents, they seem at once opposites and flip-sides of each other, both sure of themselves and shaped by their experiences, both borne by forces outside themselves into their vaunted social and historical positions.

Frontline: The Choice 2012

Airtime: Tuesday, 9pm ET
Cast: Jonathan Alter, David Axelrod, David Brooks, Jonathan Gruber, Ryan Lizza, Nicholas Lemann, Dave Maraniss, Jesse Jackson, Shannon O'Brien, Geoff Rehnert, Janny Scott, Ann Romney, Michael Kranish
Network: PBS
Producer: Michael Kirk Jim Gilmore, Gabrielle Tenenbaum, Mike Wiser
Air date: 2012-10-09

"According to those closest to him, he come to see himself as a white knight. He could fix anything." Frontline narrator Will Lyman is describing Mitt Romney here, but he might also be talking about Barack Obama, the other subject in the 2012 version of The Choice, premiering on 9 October on PBS. As the show presents the opponents, they seem at once opposites and flip-sides of each other, both sure of themselves and shaped by their experiences, both borne by forces outside themselves into their vaunted social and historical positions. The primary difference has to do with money, not just who has it and who has less of it, but also how they appear to think about money, as a means or an end.

I say "appear" because, while Frontline lines up a series of experts on each man -- biographers, classmates, colleagues, and, as always, reporters -- who speak knowledgeably about the "key moments" in each man's life, but doesn't pretend to grant direct access to either man. Where the associated website focuses on artifacts of character," signs of Romney and Obama's evolving ideas, the show offers images (Burnsian moving photos as well as footage from debates, events or campaigns) that might mark a shift or an amalgamation, whether this has to do with race (questions Obama faced early in his career had to do with a half-white man's commitment to the cause, "How dedicated is he to the black struggle?"), religion ("it's an incredible history," says David Brooks of Mormonism, the "core" of Romney's personality, "But you can't talk about it because it involves polygamy").

The show considers how their marriages have shaped them and revisits familiar episodes (Obama's election as Harvard Law Review editor and Romney's devastating debate with Ted Kennedy, Obama's student days at Columbia ("It was the period where he does the least, but figures out the most," says Dave Maraniss, who has a book to pitch) and Romney's success with Bain ("There's something messianic about the culture of private equity," says the New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann, "There's this internal sense of 'We're the people who are disciplined and smart and know how to make things work'").

Frontline doesn’t assess Romney's observations of his parents' runs for office, his experience with Bain or his job with the 1996 Olympics; it does, however, present these as indications of how Romney perceives the world and his role in it. Primarily, the show notes more than once, he hates to lose, and can be vicious in his efforts to win ("Once he has something that he wants, he doesn't stop until he gets it," says Ryan Lizza). At the same time, the show walks through Obama's history, his adolescence in Hawaii (where he smoked marijuana), his absent parents and alcoholic grandparents, and his decisions to go to school at Columbia and then Harvard, both steps to further his ambition to "lift people out of poverty."

As it notes their differences, Frontline also notes similarities, in particular, their affecting charismas and comparable arguments in favor of bipartisanship. This last is evident in their analogous campaigns to pass universal health care bills, in 2006 and 2009. To make Romneycare work, the governor joined forces with Teddy Kennedy ("This for me feels a bit like the Titanic coming to revisit the iceberg," he joked) and obtained $4 million in federal funds; when the Republicans refused even to discuss this ostensibly Republican idea, including the Heritage Foundation's notion of the individual mandate, which Obama initially resisted then agreed to pursue, in league with Romney's erstwhile advisors, including Jonathan Gruber, in order to appeal to Republicans, an ambitious and failed strategy.

The reason for this failure, Frontline proposes, are almost entirely political, Republican legislators ran against the bill and fell in with the Tea Party to do so. ("You want to kill my grandparents?" protests a Tea Partier at an unidentified rally, "You come through me first.") If the program doesn’t look into how the Tea Party came to be, it does underscore its effects, its aggression and its hyperbole, and its reflection of politicized divisions.

In its final minutes, the program makes a familiar case that Obama's turn to international affairs -- especially the wars, secret and overt -- results from his frustration with the obstacles confronting him in domestic legislating, and also that the office has "changed" him. That is, he loses his hope that he might work across divisions, and reinforces and also "doubles down" on Bush administration hardline tactics (drone strikes, for instance, covert special forces raids and cyberwar). As Obama returns to the campaign trail, his approval ratings down, his views more "skeptical," more inclined to emphasize differences than to find similarities: "If I said the sky was blue, they said no," an Obama speech sounds over a black and white picture of him looking pensively out the window of Air Force One. "If I said there were fish in the sea, they said no. They figured, if Obama failed, then we win."

As the speech illustrates Obama's recognition that he's lost the ability to pursue his early hope to bring together red and blue states. Back at Harvard, when he became editor of the Law Review, he said, ""My election signals some small progress, but it's important to keep the focus on the broader world out there. For a lot of kids, the doors that have been open to me aren’t open to them." This remains true, of course, and gaps of opportunity have only widened since 2008. And Frontline underscores how circumstances (political and marketing designs) shape candidates, makes them seem different and also alike.

Certainly, both candidates make use of research and polls to position themselves to win. Romney applies his business training to politics. "He's a product of a world," says David Brooks, "Where you do market research, you find out what's working, what's not working, you control the experiments, and then you dovetail your product to suit the marketplace."

It's clear enough that politics follows a coincident model, that campaigns pitch products, ideas, parties and candidates. And this may be the most daunting conclusion to be drawn from The Choice, that the choice is less a function of principles and policies than sales strategies.

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