It might be hard to imagine after more than a year of presidential campaign coverage that there is anything new to learn about the past lives of George Bush and Bill Clinton.
But reporter Richard Ben Cramer and producer Tom Lennon do come up with information that is going to surprise some viewers of "Frontline's" "The Choice '92," at 9 tonight on MPT (channels 22 and 67). Furthermore, they do an exceptional job of synthesizing that information and putting it in context. "The Choice" is one of TV's better moments of the election year.
Cramer probably does not need much of an introduction to readers of The Sun. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, he worked as a reporter for The Sun in the mid-1970s. In 1979, while at the Philadelphia Inquirer, he won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. His book about the 1988 presidential campaign, "What It Takes," was recently published to considerable critical acclaim.
The methods of biography at work in that book drive tonight's two-hour report, as Cramer and Lennon interweave the life histories of Bush and Clinton. What they are looking for are the patterns of behavior, indications of character and the way these two men see and make sense of their worlds. The report begins in 1924 with the birth of Bush and closes in the present with a lyrical passage from Cramer about American political candidates, imagination and "self-reinvention."
The portrait of Bush has its moments, but is the less impressive of the two. There's the insight that Bush's father, a U.S. senator, was a "Victorian." There's a look at Bush in prep school, World War II and Yale that will do a better job of humanizing him for some viewers than anything done by the Bush campaign itself. There's a hard-eyed look at Bush's about-faces on issues ranging from civil rights to abortion when it seemed to suit his political goals.
The problem here, though, is that Garry Wills did much of it already for "Frontline" in "The Choice '88," and litit up with his soaring intellect as few others can.
Cramer and Lennon's most original work tonight is on Clinton. They lay the foundation by showing us an adolescent eager to please, excel and willing to be many different things to many different people. They show that strain reifying in 1980 when Clinton was voted out of office after one term as governor of Arkansas. They paint a picture of a man who seems to be willing to do virtually whatever it takes to get back in office and stay
One of the things they say Clinton did was become a bedfellow of Tyson Foods and the rest of the poultry industry in Arkansas, letting it pollute the state's streams with chicken waste until many were unfit for human contact. Then, "Frontline" says, Clinton stacked a 27-member Animal Waste Task Force established to investigate the problem with 24 "agribusiness insiders."
"When Clinton's task force on animal waste released its interim report," Cramer tells viewers, "all of its recommendations were optional. Tyson Foods was never mentioned. With the help of Don Tyson and others in the poultry business, Clinton's national campaign was by then well on its way."
Shocking? No. Surprising? To some, probably. Important to know, if you want to understand who Clinton is? Definitely.
"Clinton's last two terms were built to the blueprint of those [national political] aspirations," Cramer says, "as he moved from issue to issue -- enough to build a record, but not enough to offend . . . [His] instinct and experience were now in union, he meant to please."
At the start of tonight's broadcast, "Frontline" will explain to viewers that Ross Perot, the independent candidate, is not included, because "Frontline" abandoned its profile of Perot when he dropped out of the race in July. "Frontline" says there was not time to finish the piece when Perot re-entered this fall. "Frontline" says it invited Perot to sit down for an interview with William Greider, which would have been broadcast immediately following tonight's piece by Cramer, but that Perot declined the offer.
What: 'The Choice '92.'
When: Tonight at 9.
Where: Maryland Public Television (channels 22 and 67).