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Frontline: The Choice 2004

Martin Smith
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; 1:00 PM

As Americans prepare to choose their next president, Frontline offers viewers a special, two-hour dual biography of the two candidates who hope to lead the nation for the next four years. The fifth installment in Frontline's continuing election series pairs filmmaker Martin Smith and correspondent Nicholas Lemann, who go beyond sound bites and political rhetoric to explore how the candidates and their values have been shaped by family background, history, victory and defeat. By eschewing political pundits in favor of insightful comments from friends, mentors, historians and spiritual advisers, "The Choice 2004" offers viewers -- and voters -- a chance to see the candidates in a fresh light before the campaign reaches its climax on election day.

Watch "The Choice 2004" on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). Then, join Smith online Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the report.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Thanks for an informative, well balanced piece. Just wish it could have been longer! Not sure I understood your analysis at the end regarding George Bush and his ambitions -- that he was perhaps more ambitious than John Kerry and that he wanted to leave a larger presidential footprint. Can you explain what you meant and how you came to this conclusion? From your piece, I got the impression that John Kerry was filled with his own ambition from day one and that for most of his life, George Bush had little ambition of his own -- his ambition came from his friends and family connections.

Martin Smith: Thank you for your message. There is a big irony regarding ambition. John Kerry has been teased and criticized his whole life for harboring immense ambition. It is true, all his friends as well as his detractors speak of it. But What Nicholas Lemann was addressing at the end of the program was the fact that Kerry for all his ambition has developed into a very cautious politician. Both his vietnam experience and the attacks he has endured from the right in various campaigns have made him think twice. Bush on the other hand is quite forthright and steadfast. He talks in his speeches about changing the world and speaks to reporters like Bob Woodward of the WPost about not playing by the book. Thus Lemann's closing comments which turn the conventional wisdom about the two candidates upside down. I think it is an interesting and very valid observation.


Sun City, Ariz.: Why was there no mention of Cheney's taking "control" of the selection of members of Bush's cabinet, and the final choice of himself as vice president? And connections between George Schultz and Cheney when Bush was approached for the presidency?

Martin Smith: This was a biographical piece that focussed on the two candidates. Had there been more time the piece might have had reason to analyze the Bush Cheney relationship in detail. While 2 hours is a long program by any standards, we simply didn't have the time to explore what I think is a very interesting area.


New York, N.Y.: Is the footage of Senator Kerry on 2002, in the Senate, accurate.

He said the same things in 2002, as he is saying today.

1. That we need a real coalition.
2. That the inspectors need to complete their job and " If " WMD are found and not destroyed, we will go in and remove them.
3. The Senator also complained that the President didn't have a plan for the Peace, once combat operations stopped.

The dates looked like 2002, when Kerry said these things, on the Senate floor. Did I see it right?

Martin Smith: Yes this is accurate as we played the clips in the program. Kerry made this speech in October of 2002 on the eve of a vote regarding giving the president the authority to use force in Iraq. As the program notes, he voted in favor of granting this authority. Likely he was thinking hard about how this might affect any future run for the Presidency.


Atlanta, Ga.: This was an interesting program, but I did not see much discussion of the major issues of the day (other than Iraq).

In what way do you think the biographies of these gentlemen affect their voting records and their stances on issues?

Martin Smith: These two men come out of a very serious split in American society as Nicholas Lemann notes. That split was evident by the mid sixties and foremost issue of the day was the war in Vietnam. However, the country was also divided about other issues such as civil rights, the enviroment, social spending etc.. By taking the divergent paths that Bush and Kerry took in the sixties has continued to influence where they stand regaring this divide today. This election (in 2004) has pitted two men of the sixties generation against one another. They remain divided over how America should use force abroad as well as how to use the powers of government at home. We focused on the two wars, Vietnam and Iraq because they have dominated the campaign and because they are hugely symbolic of our divided society.


Reston, Va.: My interpretation after watching was that we are in a historical loop, where vietnam is replaced by Iraq.

Kerry's only life focus is making sure there isn't another Vietnam, and Bush's focus is making sure he always does the "right" thing (i.e. WWGCD, What Would a Good Conservative Do)

Which leaves me wishing there was an alternative candidate who was not still fighting the vietnam war and who did not have to become more conservative in his thinking in order to become successful.

Martin Smith: Unfortunately we have to choose between two human beings affected by history. As always it is an imperfect choice.


Houston, Tex.: As a voter, I am saddened that even Frontline could not produce an unbiased report. This piece clearly favored John Kerry.

Martin Smith: Thank you for your concern. I feel we presented these two men as truthfully as we could.


Indiana, Pa.: Who is Nicholas Lehmann, and why would I care what he says or thinks about anything? His title, apparently, is "correspondent" which doesn't give him the qualifications to serve me french fries at McDonalds, let alone comment on the character of the presidential candidates. He was evidently a contributor to the program. His blatantly pro-Kerry views color every comment he made on "Frontline" and called my attention to the subtle bias of the show. I would have expected a more impartial treatment of the subject from a publicly funded broadcasting system in a very evenly divided nation. Please spare us the nauseating propaganda.

Martin Smith: Nicholas Lemann was reporter and co-writer on the program. He is a politcal correspondent for the New Yorker magazine and Dean the Columbia Graduate school of journalism. He has extensive experience covering George W. Bush in Washington and in Texas. He is originally from New Orleans.


Washington, D.C.: You seem not to have availed yourselves of the information in the recent Craig Unger book about the many and strong Bush connections with the House of Saud. Having just read that book, I was rather shocked to see your upbeat and favorable assessment of W's business acumen.

Martin Smith: We are currently at work on a production about US Saudi relations. If there is merit to Unger assertions we might explore this area further. We had pretty tight limits on whay we could include in two hours with so many decades to cover.


Rockville, Md.: WOW, Frontline has done it again! This piece was as intriguing as any of the other ones. It's hard to imagine two more opposite people to be running for president, in both style and substance. I only wished this was required viewing for anyone voting this time around! Thank you!

Martin Smith: If this were required viewing, I guess this would not be a free country. But, certainly we hope as you do that as many people are able to see it as possible. Thank you for watching.


Baton Rouge, La.: I just watched Frontline's Choice 2004.An excellent comprehensive analytical look at the two candidates. I also checked out the discussion on pbs.org following the program.

I suppose I can understand the outrage of some of the commenters, who called the program biased. These people have obviously been in denial and are in shock when confronted with unspun facts which demonstrate the stark contrast between President Bush and Senator John Kerry. These are the simple facts. These two men have made very different choices througout their lives. I personally believe that one of the outraged commenters was somewhat hard on her candidate concluding that this adds up to him being a "party frat boy turned religious zealot and political opportunist."

I personally believe in the power of people to change.
I was impressed with the characterization of Senator Kerry as a man who appreciates complexity. How refreshing!

Martin Smith: Thank you. I too believe in people's ability to change. I think what matters is what these men have become.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I was trying to guess how you leaned politically while watching the show. It's hard to say but I gather you'll be voting for Kerry this November. Am I right?

Martin Smith: I will be voting. That is certain. But I want to separate my role as a journalist from that of a private citizen. I take my profession too seriously to want to blur the distinction between the two. My job is to simly report what we find vigorously and fairly.


Washington, D.C.: Will a DVD of this program be for sale before the election? Or will it be available for online viewing?

Martin Smith: The answer to both your questions is yes. the program will also be repeated on Thursday Oct 14 and Monday Nov 1st. It will be streamed on line at www.pbs.org/frontline starting on Oct. 15th.


Falls Church, Va.: How did you arrive at the view expressed in the film that this was Bush's war? I was under the impression that the strategy to take on Iraq was a Paul Wolfewitz-Chalabi connection. I am still reading from the abundance of books and articles available. I think the Iraq campaign was strategically stupid but I was under the impression that the President bought the Wolfewitz argument because he thought it would be wrapped up quickly and he could glory in the victory.

I assume you have inside information that says that it was Bush's lonely stance.

Martin Smith: No. You are correct that Wolfowitz and some others in the administration were very influential. What we were emphasizing was that the responsibility for going to war is fully the President's. No one made the decision for him. And besides people like wolfowitz and Chalabi there were voice of caution. The President made the final choice. And as we all know he has remained steadfast and determined to see it through.


Port Orford, Ore.: Was this program funded by MoveOn.com or the DNC? It sure appeared to be a paid political ad for John Kerry. Most all the narration was by friends of John Kerry. Was public money spent on this political endorsement of Kerry? I used to watch OPB nature, history, and science programs. Now I mostly watch the History channel, National Geographic and the Discovery channel. I also used to donate money to OPB. Because of the political bias of PBS I support removing all government funding.

Martin Smith: I am sorry to receive messages like this one. We spoke to friends and associates of Kerry's as you point out. However, we did the same regarding the President. We don't endorse either candidate. And, I remind you that some of Senator Kerry's friends warn of his prevaricating or equivocating in the film, just as some of the criticisms of President Bush come from his long time friends and associates. These are, after all, the people who know them best.


Sacramento, Calif.: I just finished watching "The Choice", PBS's deceitful commentary on President Bush, and Senator Kerry's personal history, and public record. Fantastic whitewash on Kerry's past and record, while painting Bush as a draft dodger (oh, you forgot to mention he volunteered for flight duty in Vietnam), a partying drunk, a business failure, a sneaky politician, a war monger who's only purpose was to attack Iraq.

My teenage daughter who cares more about the latest pop songs, and the guys she likes, watched 25 minutes and correctly identified your piece as; "TV journalism at its worst, so obviously bias and slanted, what a mis-service to the viewing public."

When it matters, the true colors of the liberal media show plain and clear. You would have thought Dan Rather produced this dribble, I'm sure you can get a re-run on CBS, and ABC, and plenty of free press by API.

Martin Smith: Thank you for your thoughts.

Bush was centainly not a draft dodger and we said nothing of the kind. He enlisted in the Guard. However, the record on whether George Bush actually volunteered for flight duty in Vietnam, as you state, is unclear. On Meet the Press this year (February 8th) President Bush himself said he DID NOT volunteer or enlist to go to Vietnam. He did say that he would have gone if his unit had been called up. Also, friends of Bush in the Guard have stated that Bush inquired about service in Vietnam but that he was told he was ineligible because he didn't have enough flight hours.

Also, note, when he enlisted in May 1968, he was given the option to volunteer for foreign duty and Bush checked the box that read "do not volunteer for service overseas."

As for the "Whitewash on Kerry." His weaknesses were, I believe, properly displayed. His embarassment over Ortega's trip to Moscow, his diffculties as a communicator, his 1991 Gulf war vote, his equivocating style, his naivete in 1972, etc.


Lubbock, Tex.: Congratulations on a job well done. The program appeared even handed, detailing concerns about both men. It was a well produced biography.

Martin Smith: Thank you very much. I am glad you like it.


Berkeley, Calif.: Do you believe your critics have no point when they complain that the words chosen to describe Kerry were all positive -- even when you "criticised" him it was for being too thoughtful or wanting too much detail. You, and your "expert" Nicholas Lemann had no such reluctance to be critical of Bush. Did you think we wouldn't notice that the only candidate Lemann spoke of on camera was Bush? Kerry traits were discussed by friends and co-workers -- Bush had Woodward and Lemann in many cases. Why is that not biased?

Martin Smith: You are correct that Woodward commented on Bush. That is where his expertise lies. As to Lemann, he gave closing comments regarding Kerry but you are correct that most of his comments focused on Bush. Both men have covered the White House up close. That is why we spoke them. Access to a sitting administration is difficult and that is why we interviewed those journalists.

Please note that friends of Kerry had their criticisms aired in the program. We also spoke to his chief opponent in the 1996 Senate race, William Weld, an informal Republican adivsor today. He delined to say anything harshly critical however.

For more material on both candidates I refer you to the website www.pbs.org/frontline.


Indianapolis, Ind.: I think The Choice 2000 compares well with the choice 2004 as far as giving a pretty complete bio of the two candidates. DID you produced both of them?

What sticks me is that Gore's profile in 2000 he was less "likeable than Bush but Bush's profile from the show last night is less likeable than Kerry. Maybe that's why some people are bothered the the profile of bush in choice 2000. Did you all make The Choice 2000.

Martin Smith: No. This is the first time I have produced this program for FRONTLINE. Michael Kirk produced Choice 2000.


San Antonio, Tex.: Are there any other ironies you see between the two candidates, beyond the one about ambition that you mentioned in your first response during the chat?

Martin Smith: The conventional wisdom about George W. Bush is that he was really not engaged in politics until sometime in the 1980's. It is a version Bush himself has promoted, for example in the clip on the televangelist's program when he says that he didn't live my life in order to become governor or president. This is ironic and perhaps disingeneous. The portrait that emerged from our reporting was of a young man learning the "family business" from a young age. And someone who even if he was fond of having a good time (who isn't) he was early on very skilled with people. He was steeped in politics. What is salient about Bush is not that he partied hard or drank, but that he was a natural politician (as his longime friend Don Evans says in the film) who learned early what it takes.


New York, N.Y.: Great program, very balanced and I thought very well written. Were there specific things about Bush or Kerry (either positive or negative) that you were not able to put on the air, that might be mentioned in a forum like this? I always wonder what juicy details end up on the editing room floor. Thanks again for such a great look at the two candidates.

Martin Smith: Thanks. Inevitably there are many things omitted for time. Also, documentary films are not very good at digression. You have to stay on track to hold an audience.

I would have liked to explore Bush's record as governor in more detail. We had several interviews regarding his efforts to reform the tax code and education. Sadly, we did not find time for this material. It is a mixed record and poorly understood.

As for Kerry I would have liked to explore his support for military action in Bosnia. Again, we had to make some hard decisions about what to include.


Chicago Ill.: I was amazed to hear that many in West Texas viewed Bush as an Ivy League outsider when he first ran for office. Is that still the case? If not, how and when did they come to view Bush as one of their own? Thanks.

Martin Smith: This is a very good question. I think Bush learned a lot from that loss in 1978. It taught him that he needed to decide who he really was. His family was waspy, Northeastern, establishment Republican. After that loss, Bush became more Texan. And today he is enormously popular in his home state. Unlike his father who remains a Connecticut Yankee even though he lives in Houston.

I am sure he will have no trouble carrying the voter in Midland this fall.


Orlando, Fla.: Thanks for a job well done. The special was an intriguing look at both candidates. I don't understand the outrage and charges of a liberal conspiracy. There were some great comments from Schultz, Frum, Dowd and Don Evans discussing Bush's unwavering strength. Somehow that's a liberal bias.

I talked with a couple undecided voters and they felt it was balanced and felt very informed after viewing it. They still don't know who to vote for but now they know what the candidates stand for.

At least it's all over soon!

Martin Smith: We hope it will be over soon. I doubt the country wants to endure another hanging chad election. As for liberal bias, it comes with the territory. The program has stirred some to applaud and others to boo. Viewers like the country seem sharply divided. We did not set out to promote one candidate over another. I don't believe we have. But I certainly welcome the opportunity to address any and all criticisms.


Raleigh, N.C.: Kerry doesn't need Michael Moore, when he's got a more subtle, sophisticated minion in you. Your obvious bias is not even varnished with an attempt to gather a single conservative voice toward the end of the program. Sure you had those who were in his corner in the early days but you disdain for his policies as President were glaringly highlighted in the last 15 minutes of the piece. You failed your journalist's obligation. I had hoped for more from a PBS piece but alas the conservations may indeed have a point. It's not that I disagree with your analysis of Bush in the last few years, it just that you hardly applied the same rigorous analysis to Kerry's pandering, waffling and arrogance. Kerry is better suited as an adviser than a leader. That is something that almost no one in the press is willing to acknowledge or examine. The fact that most of the men who were near him in Vietnam despise him is testament to his lack of leadership. The point is not whether the position the Swift Boat Vets hold is "right" but that they were so antagonized by his leadership style so as to provoke this type of reaction.

Martin Smith: I was with you up until you said that most of the men close to Kerry in Vietnam despise him. The facts just don't support this. The only man who doesn't like Kerry who served directly with him (on his Swiftboat) is Steve Gardner. The anger at Kerry I think stems not from his service in Vietnam but from his anti war activities and most importantly, his recounting of atrocities in 1971 before a Senate committee. In the views of many, many vets, Kerry besmirched their honorable service. Had it not been for this I don't imagine he would ever have come under attack what what he did or didn't do in the Mekong delta.


Denver, Colo.: As a Registered Republican I was disapointed to learn how close we came to having McCain in office instead of Bush. If the political machine could have been directed for the benefit of McCain and we'd have a choice of McCain vs. Kerry. You would really have a tough choice for the Americans to make this year. Instead, this year it seams the choice is to either reject our religious leaders or pray to God they are right for once in 2000 years of predicting the future.
I'm going with the odds.

Martin Smith: I think you mean you're voting for Kerry. Although I find your message a little obsure. I agree McCain would make an intersting choice.


Eugene, Ore.: Another great program Martin, the rest of the media could learn a lot from you guys at PBS and Frontline. The part that surprised me the most was John Kerry's speech to the Senate prior to his vote for giving the president authority for the war. I've never seen this before and its one of the few of his prior statements that is in tune to what he has been saying recently at the debates. It really clears up his position. Why do you think the media, or for that matter the Kerry campaign, has not brought this up? Also what are you working on next.


Martin Smith: I found it refreshing too. I can't say why it has not come to your attention before. i.e. i can't speak for the MEDIA. I think part of the problem is that both candidates have been so vigoruously on the attack that the media has been in a reactive mode day to day. Very few outlets allow the time for journalists to reach deeper as Frontline tries to do.


Minneapolis, Minn.: You say that President Bush's friends know him best. But I'll bet you left a lot of their positive comments on the editing floor.

Martin Smith: Well, sure. And a lot of positive comments about Kerry as well. The problem is that both sets of people are carrying water for their man and they do everything they can to spin journalists. We look for comments that have a ring of sincerity to them. Of course, that approach means most comments get left out. If you sit for a hour with a surrogate for Bush or Kerry you will leave the interview decidedly dizzy. It is for us in the editing process to sort out the what is candid and revealing.


Bethesda, Md.: How did you handle rumors of Bush's drug use?

Martin Smith: From the beginning we decided to focus less attention on the personal foibles of the two men. Lots of people drank and used drugs in their youth. Does it disqualify someone to be a leader? In most casesI think not.

We were aware of rumors of Bush using illegal drugs but did not pursue them to any certain conclusion that we could report reliably. We discussed his drinking because it intersects with his very important religious conversion.


Bozeman, Mont.: Where can we read John Kerry's transcript at the hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee in 1971?

Martin Smith: You can read his full statement and q and a with the Senators at www.nationalreview.com/document/kerry200404231047.asp.


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