Every four years we get a new presidential campaign and a new version of “The Choice,” "Frontline's" attempt to present a clear-eyed, nonpartisan profile of the candidates. This year's installment, which airs at 9 tonight on PBS, marks the project's 20th anniversary and provides a two-hour oasis of informative calm in what has become an increasingly socially tense and incendiary campaign.
In fact, it's difficult to watch "The Choice 2008" without feeling, at times, an almost overwhelming sorrow. Specifically for our political system, which seems to demand, if not ruthlessness, then a calculated single-mindedness antithetical to what Americans say they value in a leader.
"The Choice" may refer to what the American people face on Nov. 4, but it is also what every presidential candidate must make, over and over again, during the course of his or her political life.
This is particularly clear in Sen. John McCain's story, if only because he's been in politics so much longer than Sen. Barack Obama. McCain's life is the stuff of opera -- the distant military father, the years as a prisoner of war, the ugly divorce, the remarriage and the soaring political career.
But the centerpiece here is McCain's complicated dance with the Republican Party -- to be both part of and distinct from it. After years of rejecting the far right, McCain finally kept his presidential hopes alive by making a Faustian truce with religious conservatives and the Bush administration. A truce that has, ironically, become the most vulnerable point of his 2008 campaign.
As the first African American nominated by a major party to run for president, Obama's inspiring personal story matches McCain's, and his mythology is just as complicated.
Far from being a visionary who appeared from nowhere to deliver a galvanizing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama developed his message of change along with his signature eye-of-the-storm calm during his college days, cutting his political teeth overseeing the contentious Harvard Law Review.
Rootless, he chose to live in Chicago because it was the center of African American politics. But those were politics Obama more than occasionally flouted, a tack that enabled him to maintain an insider/outsider status remarkably similar to McCain's. His stirring convention oration, far from plucking him from obscurity, was a tried-and-true stump speech that merely accelerated his already ambitious timetable.
"The Choice," written, produced and directed by veteran "Frontline" producer Michael Kirk, is a model for the phrase "fair and balanced." The program keeps an almost ledger-like accounting of positives and negatives: McCain's being part of the savings-and-loan scandal's Keating Five is set in opposition to Obama's troublesome relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; Obama's denouncement of the war in Iraq is positioned next to McCain's support for more soldiers; and so on.
With just an hour to devote to each candidate, much of "The Choice" boils down to highlights. It ends with the selection of the vice presidential candidate (which some could argue is where the race got interesting). But if "The Choice" plays, at times, like an excerpt of a young adult Modern American Hero book -- with other chapters highlighting Thomas Edison, Helen Keller or Michael Phelps -- well, sometimes simplicity trumps saturation.
It certainly provides a startling contrast to the rest of the news cycle. Given the minute-by-minute media frenzy over this campaign, the air of calm that presides over "The Choice" (much of it due to narrator Will Lyman's miraculous ability to sound reasonable yet dramatic) is excruciatingly poignant.
Why, we ask ourselves as the credits roll, can't the actual campaign be as sensible as the "Frontline" documentary?
'Frontline: The Choice 2008'
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be
unsuitable for young children)