When Barack Obama named his vice presidential candidate a few days before the Democratic National Convention in August, he probably wasn’t thinking about the first time he’d listened to Joe Biden preside over a Senate hearing. But back in 2005, when Obama had just started out as the junior senator from Illinois, he could take only so much of Biden’s notoriously verbose public-speaking style. He scribbled a message to an aide, who read one of Obama’s first handwritten notes as a U.S. senator: “Shoot. Me. Now.”
Insider accounts of small moments that shed light on character have always been a hallmark of The Choice, Frontline’s quadrennial two-hour special on the presidential candidates (the 2008 edition debuts tonight). The special has long won recognition for its seriousness and even-handedness. This year, though, it feels anticlimactic, probably because voters have already been subjected to the longest and most heavily covered campaign in history. When the series debuted in 1988 with portraits of George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, not only were campaigns shorter, but the three major networks still controlled the news conversation, the talk-radio boom wasn’t yet on the horizon, cable news meant CNN, and the Internet wasn’t yet a news source. This year’s edition of The Choice suffers no drop-off in quality, but viewers who have been following the race closely won’t find many revelations.
Still, in the homestretch of a hotly contested presidential campaign, watching in-depth portraits devoid of partisan rancor feels something like an oasis. McCain and Obama were made for The Choice; erratic or elusive as politicians, they’ve won loyalists through intangible personal qualities, seeming to stand for values that transcend politics. Though as different in most things as one can imagine, they share certain broad traits.
Chief among them is the life narrative shadowed by the distant or absent father. McCain spends his life working to live up to the example of his father and grandfather, four-star admirals John S. McCain Jr., and Sr. He understands their example much better than he knows the men themselves. Obama barely knew his father at all, meeting him only once; he labors not so much to live up to his father’s example but to understand even the most rudimentary truths about him. Both men wrote acclaimed memoirs with similar titles: Dreams from My Father, by Obama, and Faith of My Fathers, by McCain. Faith of My Fathers is eloquent in a spare, masculine way that one associates with the military and men of a certain generation—men who, like McCain, grew up reading Hemingway. It ends with a Hemingwayesque closing line: “I held on to the memory, left the bad behind, and moved on.” Dreams from My Father, on the other hand, is self-consciously poetic, and its narrator willingly (and sometimes numbingly) grapples with his sense of self. It’s rare to have two presidential candidates in the same year with books to their credit that are not mere campaign talking points.
Both men also see themselves as outliers, set apart from their peers for special missions. That sense of apartness makes it easy to understand how Obama could so quickly become impatient with standard Senate processes. That same sense of “Why do I have to put up with this garbage?” runs through McCain’s biography, too. Though clearly humbled by his scarring POW experience during the Vietnam War, McCain also never lost a prideful sense of himself and the cocky derring-do of the Navy flier (longtime observers saw it again, for good or ill, in his stunning selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate). But where Obama’s separateness has, at least up to now, largely served to advance his own political interests, McCain’s pride can on occasion serve noble ends. The outstanding recent example is McCain’s support for the Surge in Iraq, which he championed despite the war’s by-then overwhelming unpopularity. We hear McCain tell an audience that he’d rather lose an election than lose a war, a statement gloriously out of step with normal politician-speak. One gets the sense that for McCain, losing an election—the politician’s equivalent of death—just doesn’t measure up with what he’s already experienced, above all in Vietnam. The film could have spent more time on the details of that experience, which readers of Faith of My Fathers will not soon forget. Nevertheless, The Choice presents a biography outsized with epic events, even if the man himself, on the campaign trail in 2008, seems to be shrinking.
No great deeds or dramas fill Obama’s life, which is marked by an intense introspection, a talent for getting where he needs to be, and a curious knack for associating with angry people while never seeming to get angry himself. Of course, Obama also has one great trump card: his gift for oratory. It’s what has gotten him so close to winning the White House; it’s what makes his most fervent supporters believe in him; and it is, in a real sense, his true accomplishment. It’s easy to denigrate that gift—he’s a talker, McCain’s a doer, and so on—but American history has shown us that great orators can have a major impact. For conservatives, mocking Obama’s self importance is easy (and often justified); acknowledging how formidable he had to be to get here is harder.
The Choice sheds little light on the signature controversy of Obama’s primary campaign, the one great pothole in the road that nearly caused him to crash: his longtime relationship with Trinity Church pastor Jeremiah Wright. The familiar footage of Wright’s furious sermons is replayed, and we’re told that Obama was upset when he watched them. But the same question that hung in the air last spring—how could Obama not have known about Wright’s toxic racial and political views?—goes unanswered. The Choice doesn’t even bother to ask.
The film is at its best in the segment on Obama’s time at Harvard Law School in the late eighties and early nineties. We see fascinating footage of Obama at a student protest rally, where he addresses the crowd—the familiar cadences already at work—and speaks up in favor of Harvard professor Derrick Bell, a leading purveyor of critical race theory, an ideology that sees almost every aspect of life as racially determined. Bell adds yet another face to the rogues’ gallery of dubious Obama associations, but overall the Harvard segment is more encouraging than troubling, since it shows Obama acting as a conciliator (and not just talking about it). Named the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama is expected to use his new position to “fight for the cause”; instead, he goes out of his way to be fair to conservative students, including members of the Federalist Society like Bradford Berenson, who eventually became an associate counsel in the George W. Bush White House. Obama named three Federalist Society members to top editing positions. The contradictions between his apparently more magnanimous nature and the bitterness of those closest to him—from the pastor he chose to the woman he married—form the core of the Obama mystery: who is he, really? The 2008 election remains in play because so many voters still do not know.
The film mostly covers familiar ground when it comes to McCain: after Vietnam, the return to civilian life; the messy divorce and remarriage; the ascendant political career nearly cut down by the Keating Five scandal, in which McCain and four other senators were accused of using improper influence to shield the chairman of a savings and loan from a regulatory investigation; the forging of his maverick credentials; the presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2008; and the long war and uneasy reconciliation with the Bush White House. McCain has been on the national stage for so long that it’s all but impossible for The Choice to provide much new.
We hear about McCain’s habit of telegraphing irony in public when he takes positions he’d rather not take, but needs to for political expediency. Like Bob Dole before him, McCain exhibits a surprisingly contemporary taste for sarcasm—perhaps the product of their war experiences. We watch McCain on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in 2006, where the host chides him for agreeing to give a commencement speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Back in 2000, McCain had denounced Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance.” Now, he sought to make peace for political purposes. Stewart asks the senator whether he’s going into “crazy base world,” meaning the Republican evangelical voting bloc. With a wry smile, McCain answers, “I’m afraid so.” It’s a reminder that no matter how many compromises he makes, McCain can’t stop being McCain.
Three weeks from Election Day, Obama leads in every poll, and his margin in most is increasing. While the economy remains the dominant issue for voters, character and personality usually come into the mix, especially for those still undecided. The Choice has always worked on this assumption—its focus has always rested less on understanding ideas and policies, that is, than on explaining men and decisions. Without an understanding of ideas, however, choosing the next leader of the world’s only superpower can become an exercise in narcissism, shaped solely by personal tastes, instincts, and prejudices. From that perspective, undecided voters will have to determine whether to choose the cranky older man whose supreme bravery long ago still commands the awe of his colleagues, or the magnetic younger one whose words captivate strangers far and wide. The Choice shows both men doing what they do and being who they are.