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David Zurawik

Frontline offers much needed clarity with Clinton, Trump biographies

If you feel like your head is going to explode with all the hype, spin and madness surrounding Monday night's debate, check out Frontline's "The Choice" on Tuesday night for some much needed clarity on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Frontline, the public television series that embodies some of the highest ideals of American journalism, offers intertwined investigative biographies of the two candidates in a two-hour special at 9 p.m. on PBS.

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The piece opens on Trump, with a provocative suggestion that he became committed to his current presidential run in 2011 when President Barack Obama savaged him from the podium at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And make no mistake about it, Obama did not "roast" Trump, as some headlines from the time say. He used the bully pulpit of the presidency to shred Trump, who was sitting in the audience trying to stoneface his way through it.

The clips show the personal nastiness of Obama's attack, and the talking heads who know and work with Trump flesh out what he was thinking and feeling as he endured cutting joke after joke before the Washington elites.

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I love political psychobiographies. I think I read every one of the 10,000 books that tried to psyche out Richard Nixon. So maybe I am a bit of a sucker here. After all, Trump flirted with a presidential run in 1988 and 2000, so the idea of running clearly was not first planted at that dinner. But the Frontline film suggests that's where it became a mission for Trump to win the White House, "take the keys from Obama," as the film says, and do all he could to avenge that humiliation.

President Trump as part of the Obama legacy — now there's a notion to kick around in your brain.

The opening for Clinton is just as provocative. It follows her and husband Bill to Arkansas where after just two years he is defeated to become the youngest governor ever (age 32) voted out of office.
These are dark political days for the young couple, and the filmmakers suggest we can get a look at Hillary Clinton's core character by how she responded.

And how did she respond? By turning to a political operative named Dick Morris. Yes, that Dick Morris, one of the sleaziest political operatives in America political history.

"The Choice" says she formed an "alliance" with him. He says in the film she didn't think Bill was tough enough to win, but Morris was. And she wanted his kind of hardball on Team Clinton.

Speaking of that period when she used Morris to help rebuild her husband's career, David Maraniss, who wrote a biography of Bill Clinton, says of the couple: "I think it intensified and began a lot of the characteristics you saw from then on: that the ends justify the means, that we'll do what we have to do to win, turn to the dark arts of politics to survive."

If you watch, check out the photos they run of Hillary Clinton from this period. They speak volumes about her, too. But I'll let you judge for yourself what they say.

I love the hard-hitting, fact-based Frontline every bit as much as I loathe the other major PBS journalistic enterprise, the pusillanimous, opinion-driven "NewsHour."

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If you are only going to watch one thing about the election on public television this year, let it be "The Choice."


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