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'Choice' is strong but made late

For reasons of its own, "Frontline" has skipped this presidential campaign that, hyperbole aside, most Americans consider one of the most important in memory. Nothing from this fine public affairs unit on the Howard Dean phenomenon last fall and its groundbreaking use of the Internet. Nothing on the astonishing John Kerry comeback last winter.

Tonight, it finally weighs in with a biographical look at the two candidates. Insightful biography, to be sure, but biography at a time when we are beyond biography. There have already been scads of books and newspaper and magazine profiles on the candidates. Most of us have a fair idea by now who George Bush and John Kerry are. Certainly the PBS crowd does, and within it, no cohort is better informed than the "Frontline" viewer. So "The Choice 2004" feels late. It breaks no new ground. We already know about the trajectories of Bush and Kerry from Yale to the military and on to their respective ascents to power. We hear from the usual suspects -- classmates and friends of each man -- none of whom offers anything fresh.

Too bad, because "The Choice" is a strong program -- well reported, written, and produced -- that would've been a humdinger last spring. ("Frontline" veteran Martin Smith produced, Nicholas Lemann reported. The pair co-wrote the two-hour show.)

It begins, mercifully, at Yale, sparing us the B matter and armchair psychology surrounding the early years of both men. This is a smart move because it is at Yale in the mid-'60s where the two first overlap and manifest their signature character traits about the great events of the day. Bush, an unwavering hawk on Vietnam who abhors protesters, sees life in black and white. Kerry, in contast, is already slipping into his cosmic dance of the cranes. He cares about the world around him, thinks big thoughts and, at once, supports and questions Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam.

"The Choice" is nicely textured. We see old footage of Yale quadrangles full of frisbees, Bermuda shorts, and tweeds. We see Kerry in his unsuccessful run for Congress in 1972, long hair and pinstripe suits, clueless about the staggering gap between his cosmopolitan mien and the blue-collar ethos of Lowell. (To these ears, his speech sounded more patrician back then. His vowels floated long and lazy.)

We see clips of Kerry and his Swift Boat nemesis, John O'Neill, trading verbal blows about Vietnam on "The Dick Cavett Show" more than 30 years ago. There are bonbons for the political insider, such as clips of a Texas television reporter named Kay Bailey covering the Senate campaign of George H. W. Bush in 1970; we know her today as the senior senator from the Lone Star state, Kay Bailey Hutchison.

"Frontline" reminds us how George Bush has been underestimated throughout his political career. How while working in his father's campaign for president in 1988 he saw the potential of the evangelical vote for himself. And how Kerry successfully reinvented himself after his defeat in 1972, moving from law school to public prosecutor and eventually the Senate.

Lemann, the writer who in a New Yorker profile best captured the needling, competitive personality of Bush, correctly separates the intellectual rigor of Kerry from the political gut of Bush. Lemann could be speaking about Bill Clinton when he says this about the president: "Deep inside, he's a politician. When you're with a politician, they want to look you in the eye. They want to touch you."

The great strength of "The Choice" is its definition of each man in terms of his position on Iraq, the issue that, in turn, defines the campaign. We follow the tortured nuances of Kerry on the subject and the disturbing clarity of Bush, who loses no sleep over any of these decisions. "He has no doubt," says uber-journalist Bob Woodward, who interviewed Bush at length for a book on the war. At another point, Woodward states the obvious: "If you want to know who George Bush is, look at the Iraq war. It's his war."

Lemann concludes, "Bush is more ambitious than Kerry. You feel Bush really wants to change the world in a fundamental way. . . . I think this is a president who wants to leave a really, really big footprint."

That, for about half of voting Americans, is the problem.

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