PBS once again is planning another Frontline this cycle devoted to profiling the two presidential candidates, to the point where filmmaker Michael Kirk says that it will reveal enough so viewers “will feel that you know them anew in a kind of special new way.”
The Choice 2020: Trump Vs. Biden, a two-hour documentary to debut on Sept. 22, includes interviews with friends and co-workers of Biden and Trump but, as is tradition, not the candidates themselves.
At the Television Critics Association press tour on Tuesday, Frontline executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath and Kirk, who is director and producer, teased some of the content of The Choice. That included what Kirk said was a “kind of secret history of Joe Biden.”
“There is in Biden’s secret life a wonderful, rich, fascinating story, that as it is revealed by us and others, I suppose, will make him a much more interesting character than the Joe Biden who has never won a major national election, who has stumbled in significant ways along the way, and yet here he is again, has faced unbelievable crises and tragedy,” he told reporters. “Grief is his middle name, yet he doesn’t carry it. He is a positive person.”
That is a contrast to Trump, who has lived his life to an extent where “everything is in plain sight.”
“We are finding that by going back to six or seven great crisis moments in his life, a kind of pattern that will help you know if he gets reelected, what he’s going to about things,” Kirk said. Also, because we have seen him acting in action so much over the last three years, it will also explain some things about why he does what he does.”
An example: The Choice will do a deep dive on Trump’s decision in 1989 to place full-page ads in New York papers calling for the execution of the Central Park five, the Black and Hispanic teens who had been arrested for the rape of a jogger in the city. They were ultimately convicted but exonerated after a convicted murderer confessed to the crime.
At the time, Trump had been pondering the idea of running for president. “The ad is very incendiary, calling for the death penalty for five young men who have not yet been convicted, and he’s very vituperative in interviews. It says to me a great deal, to know all the details of it, how he decided to buy the ads, what he’s trying to do there. What were his ambitions at that moment? What was he thinking about?” Included is an interview with one of the men falsely convicted.
In Biden’s case, the project looks at his first run for the presidency, which ended in 1987 after stories surfaced that he had plagiarized the speech of the leader of the British Labor Party.
Biden was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and that summer presided over the hearings of President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
“Biden has to make a decision about, does he throw himself at the Bork hearings and stop a conservative jurist from getting on the court. So it is a wonderful story. It gets you at all of the dimensions that somebody like Biden faced,” he said, adding that one of those interviewed is Gary Hart, a Senate colleague who had dropped out of the 1988 presidential race just before Biden did.
Even though Trump and Biden are of the same generation and have spent their lives in the public eye, Kirk said, “The difference between the two men is unbelievable in all those dimensions.”
Kirk said that he does not think that Trump expected to win in 2016, right up until election night. “I know, from talking to people who were with him that night, and in the hours before, I don’t think he thought he was going to win at all. And he was more surprised than anybody. And if you have seen the pictures that I have seen, and talked to the people I’ve talked to, that night, as he watches the election returns, you’d believe that too.”