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In interwoven bios of Clinton and Trump, PBS’ ‘The Choice’ offers substantive portraits

Stephen Colbert did a brave thing last night, going on air for his show last night, live (the show is usually taped and edited) just minutes after the Trump-Clinton debate, and doing a hilarious nine-minute stand-up routine about the debate. You can watch it here.

And while we’re doing our homework by watching television you should know that PBS, which traditionally makes a joint/comparative biography of the nominees in the run-up to election day, airs its 2016 edition of “The Choice” tonight at 8. It’s two hours of intertwined biography, jumping back and forth between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

I watched a preview. It’s calm, sober and substantive, more clear-eyed than hard-hitting, not promising (nor delivering) shocking revelations, but going over a classic PBS-serious version of their lives from childhood to the present. I guarantee you’ll learn more actual information about the candidates than you did from last night’s debate. There’s basically no policy in it. Pure biography.

It opens with footage from the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, just after President Obama’s long-form birth certificate had been released. Obama did five full minutes of mocking Trump over the birther stuff, with Trump in the room. The camera captures Trump, who was not laughing much during Obama’s send-up. The film even suggests that Trump’s humiliation at that event may have played a big role in getting him to finally run for president, after flirting with the idea since the 1988 cycle.

The film follows Trump from a childhood under a cold, hard-driving father, being sent to military school to help him overcome discipline issues, the rise and fall of his first fortune, which ended in disaster and bankruptcy in Atlantic City, then his second rise as a TV star and a great salesman for his brand name.

We get to see Hillary Rodham’s middle-class childhood, her early years as an anti-war lefty, her romance, starting at Yale Law School, with Bill Clinton. A funny note, reminding us of how much has changed since the 1950s. Hillary Rodham was so smart and so oriented toward public affairs as a youngster that the “class prophecy” about her in the 5th grade was that she would grow up to be the wife of a U.S. senator.

There’s a key moment about which I was not previously aware. She was out of law school and working in Washington (on the Watergate committee, no less) and hadn’t yet decided to marry Clinton (who had asked her several times), and she took the bar exam in both Washington, D.C., and Arkansas. She failed the D.C. test but passed the Arkansas test. Soon after, she decided to move to Arkansas to be with Clinton, which is soon followed by their marriage. I can’t remember what the narration says about it, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether, if she had passed the D.C. bar exam, she might have stayed in Washington and the rest of her story would be quite different. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns.

There’s a lot more on both lives. Trump gets married a lot. Clinton stays married to a cheating scoundrel. Nothing particularly new or headline-grabbing, but I definitely felt I understood them both a lot better by the end. Tonight, 8 p.m., KTCA and other PBS channels.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/28/2016 - 05:29 pm.

    “The Choice” is one of the best biographical sources we’ll see on each of the major candidates. Hard-hitting, with tons of new information (I hadn’t known a lot of the facts included).

    Thanks, Eric, for giving us the heads-up on this–I don’t think I would have caught the program without this preview of yours. I’m hoping that the lack of other comments doesn’t mean that people missed that documentary.

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