Bush, Kerry profiled on PBS


October 12, 2004|By Noel Holston | Noel Holston,NEWSDAY

Television, television, on the wall, who's the fairest of them of all? And, hey, while you're at it, the most balanced?

That would be PBS' Frontline, an anthology of current-events and public-affairs documentaries that seems to get better all the time, this year alone blessing us with well-considered, truth-seeking reports on topics ranging from corporate tax evaders to diet fads to post-invasion Iraq.

Tonight at 9, Frontline demonstrates its primacy again with The Choice 2004, a two-hour program produced by Martin Smith that attempts to explain (or remind us) who this year's presidential candidates are and how they got that way.

The film, video and photo research that went into the parallel profiles is phenomenal. Frontline doesn't just have footage of John Kerry testifying about Vietnam before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971; it has Kerry in a Yale classroom in 1964 discussing the concept of "commitment."

Video of young George Bush is harder to come by. He didn't enter the national spotlight as early as Kerry. But Frontline does have footage of him glad-handing West Texans during his failed bid for Congress in 1978.

The most riveting archival material is audio of White House aide Bob Haldeman briefing President Richard Nixon about Kerry's Senate testimony as a representative of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. "He did a superb job," Haldeman says. "He looks like a Kennedy and he ... talks like a Kennedy."

We also hear Nixon urging on John O'Neill, a pro-war Vietnam veteran who had debated Kerry on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 and is a vocal Kerry detractor (co-author of Unfit to Command). "Give it to him, give it to him," Nixon says. "You can do it because you have a pleasant manner, and I think it is a great service to our country."

The Choice weaves back and forth between Bush and Kerry, showing what each was doing in a given year. By design, there are no fresh interviews with the president or the senator. Frontline delineates the men via clips of what they've said publicly in the past and interviews with what friends, family members, associates and opponents say about them now. We get glimpses of naivete in Kerry, meanness in Bush, amiability and disingenuousness in both.

No aspect of The Choice is more impressive than the producers' willingness to entertain questions that could invite complaints of favoritism. But they lay out information and cue the news clips and leave it to the viewer to decide, whether the issue is Kerry's voting record or Bush's belief, approvingly reiterated by Dallas televangelist James Robison, that God wanted him to run for president in 2000.

No one in Choice 2004 gives us any indication which candidate the Lord prefers this time around. But The Choice, by dispassionately assessing everything from the candidates' service records to their willingness to question their own decisions, tells us more about who these two men are than their campaign films, their political ads or the debates.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


What: The Choice 2004

When: Tonight at 9

Where: MPT, Channels 22, 67

In brief: PBS' Frontline offers parallel profiles of President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

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