Comparing Bush and Gore
Friday, Oct. 27, 2000; 10 a.m. EDT
Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, two sons of privilege, heirs to two political dynasties, are facing off in the most crucial contest of their careers.
What got them here? What experiences shaped the people they are now? How do they compare?
Michael Kirk, co-author, producer and director of PBS' "The Choice," will join washingtonpost.com to discuss the personal and political journeys of George W. Bush and Al Gore and how two men with such similar backgrounds ended up facing off against one another.
Kirk, co-founder of "Frontline," served as senior producer before leaving to form his own production company. To date, he has produced more than two dozen films for the "Frontline" series, for which he has won journalism's highest award, the George F. Peabody, as well as several national Emmys.
The transcript follows.
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Good morning Mr. Kirk and welcome. Would you please tell us about "The Choice" and what you learned from the project?
Michael Kirk: Every four years since 1988 FRONTLINE has produced a two hour biography of the Presidential candidates. The program weaves the two lives together in a way that is designed to highlight the differences between the candidates. This particular program, "The Choice 2000" was fascinating to make because both candidates experienced most of their vivid life experiences during the same time frames. That has allowed us to compare boyhood...prep school...college...the draft...and all the rest side-by-side...What I learned from the project is the extent to which both men are very different (and much more complex) than I imagined when we began. They race is much more than frat boy versus student body president...
After you were done with "The Choice," did you change who you were planning to vote for?
Michael Kirk: Finishing the program actually made my personal choice more difficult...In many ways I know too much to be totally comfortable with either candidate...and in other ways I have a kind of understanding about them that I don't believe many consumers of most of the political reporting have...So, for me, this is a hard one...
What did you learn about Bush and Gore that you didn't know when you began the project?
Michael Kirk: I figured George W. was probably the slightly simplistic, frat boy, rich kid my own prejudices suggested he was...I figured Al Gore was a kind of choir-boy, class president type.
I learned that both men were much more complicated than I expected.
Al Gore's life story is fascinating...watchin him grow up, burdened by the ambitions and expectations of his family...stuggling to find political success measured against his father (and even Bill Clinton)...the entire history we detail--yielded a much more interesting person than I expected...
And George W. Bush--a genuine Texas upbringing--with all that it entails--a kind of built in optimism...finding out where that smirk and wise guy attitude came from (the death of his sister and his effort to buck up his mother and father)...the native political talent as it emerges (even to the surprise of his parents and friends)...and watching him come to success and learn to use the family connections...etc., all made him, for me, much more than the one dimensional character I created in my mind...
If we could morph Bush and Gore into one candidate, I might be able to vote for that politician. Your thoughts?
Michael Kirk: These two men are very different...optimist versus pessimist...micro-manager versus "big picture" guy...fighter versus lover...and all the rest...how would you merge them?
How similar do you think these two candidates are? Both personality wise and in how they were raised?
Michael Kirk: I don't believe the two candidates are very similar. Their personalities couldn't be much different...as you'll see in our program, they were raised very differently -- you pick up different values and ways of looking at the world when you spend your formative years in Midland, Texas...or at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington (with summers in Tenn.)...and their entire work lives have been in very different sectors--private enterprise (Bush) with 6 years as a weak governor of Texas versus nearly a quarter century in government service (gore)...In other words, lots of differences between the two--
Of the two candidates, which do you think would be most likely to stand up for what he believes, no matter how unpopular.
Michael Kirk: Our program, in exploring the lives of the two men, spent some time trying to suggest an answer to your very good question. I'm not entirely comfortable giving my own opinion--but I'd recommend you watch the sections of our program that deal with Al Gore's difficult decision about military service and his father's reelection campaign...and George W.'s triangulation of the Texas legislature...and his personal stand on the death penalty as possible answers to your question.
How much show biz do you suspect is involved in Bush's good-'ole-boy-regular-guy act? You mentioned a genuine Texas upbringing. I'll buy that. But the affectations -- including the accent? Jeb, Neil and Doro don't have it. Are we just looking at a good political operator here?
Michael Kirk: George W. lived in Midland--genuine West Texas drawl-land--longer than his siblings...(the early years of his life...then moving back during his mid-twenties and thirties). I'll tell you this--I'm from Idaho, but after two weeks in Midland I picked up the drawl...
As to your other question are we looking at a good political operator here--the answer is absolutely...but we're also looking at something more than that (as our program suggests)
Chino Hills, Calif.:
Hello Mr Kirk. I enjoyed your documentary. I got the impression that Texas Gov. Bush did a whole lot of "growing up" after marriage, while Vice President Gore has always been focused on what he wanted in life. Any feel of how much influence the wives of these two men has played in shaping their lives?
Michael Kirk: My personal opinion is both men were very lucky in love. Tipper Gore has raised the Gore children and despite her own emotional and personal difficulties stood by her man all the way...
Laura Bush was a big surprise to me--warm, intelligent, down-to-earth. As George W's friends told us, "he really married up" when he married Laura.
On a local TV talk show last night here in Pittsburgh, one host had a discussion about "Doofus Boy vs. Smarmy Boy" and asked, "Would you rather have an idiot or a stiff in the White House."
Where, in your opinion, do these stereotypes of the two (which I find offensive in both cases although I am clearly more in the corner of one than the other) come from and what do you see each candidate doing to change them?
Michael Kirk: It sounds like the TV talk show host needs to watch our program.
Of these two men, which did you find was truly more family oriented? Thank you.
Michael Kirk: It's hard to say.
Al Gore (especially before his son Albert's accident in 1988) was, by his own admission, driven. He was over scheduled and always on the go. After Albert's accident Tipper leaned on him pretty hard to spend more time with the family. By all accounts he has tried hard to do that.
George W. Bush has, according to everyone we talked to, an extremely close relationship with his parents...and a fierce loyalty to them. It's also clear he's very close to Laura and his daughters.
But these are both public and very successful men--does either man get to spend enough time with family to win a contest about which is most "family-oriented"--I'm not sure about that.
George Bush seems to have gotten a pass on character issues, particularly on the now documented "unfit to serve" days of his National Guard assignment, and some of the good old boy shenanigans in his current Texas administration. Why the focus on Gore and character?
Michael Kirk: I'm not sure what the "unfit to serve" reference is about. We found that both men satisfactorily completed their military obligations.
I'm also not sure what you mean by the focus on Gore and character?
If you watch our program you'll see an examination of how Al responded to questions about his smoking of marijuana, how his staff worried about his tendency to exaggerate, and why he got involved in some of the fund raising problems during the Clinton/Gore administration. Those specific examples may help voters understand where some of the "character" focus on Gore comes from...
Did you like these men more before or after your project? Or was it not an issue of that at all?
Michael Kirk: It's fascinating to get to know so much about the lives of these two men. It really doesn't matter to me when I start a project whether I like them or not...but as the process goes on I look for ways to like them..so I can understand them. In the end we got to know them well enough that they became almost like people we've known all our lives...and like good friends, there were things about them we really liked...and flaws in them that caused us pause...
In the end, we tried to come down in the middle on both of them...and to be equally tough (but not cheap and easily nasty) on them both.
I'm really sorry I missed the PBS program. Any chance it will be rerun?
Michael Kirk: The program runs again on PBS nationally, the night before the election (Nov. 6)--check local listings for the time
Sir, Based on your research why do you think Gov. Bush is running for president? Thank you.
Michael Kirk: His friends and family tell us it is because he looked around at the rest of the field and felt he was the most qualified Republican at this moment. As his cousin John Ellis told us, "He looked around and said, 'If Steve Forbes can become the Republican nominee, I can be God!"
How did you get old family friends to go on camera and talk about Bush and Gore? Did you have a tough time convincing anyone? Did they talk only with their blessing?
Michael Kirk: We interviewed more than 100 people for the program. Our golden rule is that only people who have "standing" in a particular part of the story are interviewed...(no professors or pundits or reporters)...Most people talked because we work hard to get their trust...and because they know we will do an honest job of telling their story. I think they also talk because they want Americans to know the candidate the way they know him. Yes we had a tough time convincing a few people to talk to us but in almost every case they finally did...and I think they were happy with the result...although not always.
Hoping to get this under the wire. Given the scrutiny of the campaign, is there little or no chance that anything of any positive or negative interest has yet to be revealed about these men's pasts? Can either man expect to be able to take the oath with essentially a blank slate, with no fear of damaging or edifying revelations?
Michael Kirk: We spent more than one year looking at every aspect of these men's lives. We chased down a lot of blind alleys...to date--nothing stunning has come forward. Is there something out there? Maybe, but time's running out.
Clearly, family history and legacy are huge parts of who these guys are. For whom does the family mantle weigh more heavily?
Michael Kirk: I believe Al Gore carries the burden of legacy, expectation and ambition more heavily. That's not to say George W. Bush doesn't know where he comes from (or that his father was beaten by Bill Clinton and Al Gore).
Silver Spring, Md.:
There are a lot of very famous rumors about both Bush and Gore, and their pasts. Did you investigate these for your film?
Michael Kirk: Yes. We still are.
I've seen The Choice '92, '96 and 2000, and I think they're all great pieces -- really interesting looks at what makes these candidates tick. In the past three election cycles, which do you think have been the most evenly matched opponents, intellectually, charismatically and in terms of ability to be an effective leader?
Michael Kirk: I think the two most similar candidates (to the extent any of them are really similar) were Clinton and Dole (political brothers from different generations). The starkest contrast was Dukakis and Bush.
That was our last question for Michael Kirk, producer of "The Choice." Thank you to Mr. Kirk and to all who participated.
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