Here is what the press and tv critics said
about the program............
From USA Today
Writer: Matt Roush
"An artfully crafted, unexpectedly sensitive and often sobering comparative
profile of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.
This is the third time FRONTLINE has presented such an election-year
bonus, and each improves upon the last. Even when the material is familiar,
producer/director Helen Whitney shapes and arranges it with such skill and
purpose, it provides a fresh take on our understanding (if not appreciation) of
these exhaustively examined public lives.
After a sly prologue with White House photographers and cartoonists, The
Choice settles into a methodical side-by-side exploration of the
influences and accomplishments and defeats that shaped two of the most
politically expedient personalities ever to compete for high office.
In an absorbing and entertaining if sometimes indulgent first segment, titled
Landscape , Whitney assembles regional writers from the Midwest and the
South to glean insight on character from the candidates' geographical roots.
For Dole, the harsh and often cruel Kansas plains seem to have instilled a
natural reticence, a feeling that 'what's of value is not speaking, but doing.'
For Clinton, the lush and sensual Arkansas terrain with its all-consuming kudzu
vines serves as a metaphor for a man known for excessive appetites and
unashamed passions. 'A thinking Bubba,' says former Saturday Evening
Post editor Bill Emerson, while journalist Marshall Frady describes
Clinton as Jimmy Carter and Billy Carter morphed into the same being.'
Similarly pungent and critical observations are made as the program moves on to
areas including their war records (or lack thereof), their religions (Dole the
stoic Methodist, Clinton the voluble Baptist, counting on a 'God of second
chances') and their complex relationships with mentor......
As this two-hour exercise shifts into the political arena, we're left with a
sense that despite their different styles and generational temperament, they're
brothers under the skin, consensus-building pragmatists who'll reinvent
themselves as needed- Dole's 15% tax cut, Clinton signing the welfare reform
bill- to claim the ideological center and win.
Even if you've soured on the process and these participants, The Choice
is a fascinating and essential addition to any voter's video reference
From The New York Times
Writer: Walter Goodman
"Although some weeding out of contributors who have little to offer but
personal opinions or flights of speculation wouldn't have hurt the program,
close observers like Richard Ben Cramer, a Dole watcher, and David Maraniss, a
Clinton biographer, are illuminating, and effective use is made of newsreels
through the years.
".....It's a revealing two hours. Viewers may come away with the dismaying and
perhaps unintended conclusion that however different candidates' backgrounds,
styles and beliefs may be, when it comes to running for President expediency
From New York Daily News
Writer: Eric Mink
"The Choice '96 dissects President Bill Clinton and Sen. Bob
Dole with an astuteness-not to mention an artistry-almost never seen on
television or even, truth be told, in daily or weekly print journalism."
"...The Choice '96 goes on to compare the candidates' special gifts-
Saturday Night Live comedian/impersonator Darrell Hammond offers a
brilliant analysis of Clinton's communication technique-and their response to
The program concludes with an effort to identify something in both men's public
lives that might be called a core belief. For Dole, it's battling government
deficits; for Clinton, it's health care. If neither seems particularly
satisfying, it may be because Clinton and Dole share a kind of bedrock
pragmatism that makes them less inclined to embrace fervent beliefs and more
likely to seek middle ground.
No middle ground for The Choice '96, though. Compelling in content and
style and original in approach, this program is in a class by itself."
From The Dallas Morning News
Writer: Ed Bark
"Tuesday brings a gem in the form of The Choice '96. Every minute of
its two hours glistens and glimmers with informed insight.......whether you're
a Republican, a Democrat or fed up, this is the sort of enthralling public
affairs reporting that every democracy deserves. Choose The Choice for
whatever reason. But don't lose this chance to view the election from all the
angles that count.
Airing as part of the exemplary Frontline series, this is PBS' third
quadrennial look at the two principal finalists for the presidency. From the
opening bell, it improves on its first-rate predecessors by stating a simple
premise: presidential candidates above all are illusionists out to "trick us."
Now you see them- no, you really don't."
".....The documentary's two principal consultants are Richard Ben Cramer,
author ofWhat It Takes., and David Maraniss, whose Clinton biography,
First In His Class, is so far the definitive dissection of its subject.
Hosts of other writers, editors, and intimates also are interviewed. The
President and Mr. Dole occasionally speak for themselves, but only via previous
interviews. Theirs is not to answer why. Theirs is to let others see them for
what they are, were and want to be.
'I think what's really fundamental to them both is their agendalessness,' he
[Cramer] says, 'They are not about any ideology. They're about the conviction
that when the deal goes down , it's they who should be in the center of the
table.... And this makes for some terrible shocks to their supporters because
the supporters are about some issue, whereas Dole and Clinton are about
One doesn't have to agree with any of these assertions to savor The
Choice as an altogether unique look at an outwardly humdrum presidential
campaign. Here's a program that cares and dares and fares all the better for
it. It is easily television's most ambitious, literate and instructive look at
the 'endless piece of the theater' ending in Election Day.
Bravo, Frontline , and likewise, PBS. Many thanks for sending us a
From The Boston Globe
Writer: Frederic M. Biddle
"Early on, the Frontline camera's eye strains a bit: I'm glad Bob
Dole's sister, Norma Jean Steele, has informed me that their mother waxed the
insides of the family's wastebaskets. Yet this sort of detail also reaches a
bit, as if to compensate viewers for having to sit through such oft-told tales
as Dole's war injury, or Clinton's defeat and subsequent reelection as Arkansas
But these are necessary sins in a comprehensive political profile, and The
Choice is a good one. The more recent the chapter, the better its analysis
Consider Washington Post political writer David Maraniss' observation that "the
central theme of Clinton's life is a repetitive cycle of loss and recovery....
He's someone who you think of as being the ultimate golden boy, triumphant,
someone who at such an early age became president, and yet to understand him
and to understand his ability to constantly come back you have to understand
that cycle being defined by loss.'
Corkers like that make even the story of Clinton's loss and reelection in
Arkansas seem fresh and relevant. Smile through the occasional distractions of
The Choice '96, and keep in mind its main points come Election Day.
Although it doesn't address issues, you couldn't ask TV to produce a better,
more concise voter's guide."
From Cleveland Plain Dealer
Writer: Tom Feran
"Instead of focusing on political positions The Choice tries for a more
personal understanding of Clinton and Dole through the people , pieces, places,
and events that helped shape them.
Forget about politics being boring, or about sound bites, spin and illusions.
The Choice is incisive, substantial and thoroughly engrossing. Built
from more that 500 research interviews, it will hold some suprises even for
From The Chicago Tribune
Writer: Steve Johnson
"... Debates and ads give you the candidates as they would appear to be. They
are salesmanship. Profiles give you what they have been. It is the difference
between words and deeds. PBS' FRONTLINE ...is more than equal to the
task, with a two-hour exploration of the lives of the Men Who Would Be
President (and Are On a Major-Party Ticket) that covers much familiar ground
but puts it all together into a coherent, knowing whole. Enlisting Bill
Clinton biographer David Maraniss and Bob Dole profiler Richard Ben Cramer as
consultants, producer Helen Whitney has crafted a meticulous study in the
shaping of modern politicians, concluding that Clinton would not be President
now if his defeat as Arkansas governor had not taught him how to cast himself
as a moderate, and that Dole still bears profound scars of his childhood
poverty and wartime experience. An intriguing section at the end casts the two
men as brothers, with much more in common than is immediately apparent."
From Houston Chronicle
Writer: Ann Hodges
"If there is such a thing as presidential psychoanalysis by TV, PBS'
Frontline does it. The Choice '96 ...is the best chance yet, and
probably the best you're going to get on TV, to see what makes Bill Clinton and
Bob Dole run.
The people interviews for this are not just TV's same old talking head
know-it-alls, thank goodness. And this program digs far deeper than the usual
biographical point-and-counterpoint. It's beautifully done, and what it says
so eloquently is underscored by a rich vein of films, still photos and family
It begins in the very different places these two came from, Kansas and
Arkansas. 'Poets tell us the land is the map of the soul,' as the narrator
explains. 'Our first landscapes are written into us, and as years pass, convey
the essential lines of our character.'
From those roots it moves to other areas of influence-war, mentors, political
victories and defeats, even religious beliefs. And in the end, the political
personas emerge- surprisingly in almost the same way they did in Sunday night's
From Atlanta Constitution
Writer: Drew Jubera
"...The Choice '96 frames candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in ways
that feel far more developed than the public personas they've constructed for
themselves. The personal is the political here: the opposing landscapes they
grew up on, the God they worship, their defeats, their gifts."
"...It's fascinating the way reading a horoscope is fascinating: Everything
fits. But like a horoscope, it sometimes fits too well. All Southerners
become lusty loudmouths; all Midwesterners stoic tight-lips. Then Dole is
shown crying no less than three times, while the women in Clinton's life are
Yet it's this biographical sign reading that gets closest to these men's souls.
By the end, they're defined as much by what they've lost as what they've
gained, and we're moved in ways that no debate or campaign speech can move
From Seattle Times
Writer: John Voorhees
"The Choice looks at President Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole - but
before you groan and grumble about how this election campaign seems to have
gone on for four years, be advised that The Choice '96 manages to bring
some fresh slants and insights to two overly familiar subjects.
The goal of producer Helen Whitney, who co-wrote the script with Jane Barnes,
in consultation with Richard Ben Cramer (for Dole) and David Maraniss (for
Clinton), was to examine the factors that shaped these two men. To that end,
the program examines their roots and backgrounds, what influences were at work
during their growing-up period. It looks at their families, mentors and
beliefs. While both men are political animals, politics, in the form of
campaign speeches and promises, are definitely downplayed.
The program also offers a wide and refreshing range of commentators. There are
a few well-known names--Gail Sheehy, John Ehrlichman, Haynes Johnson, Bob
Woodward and Sen. Alan Simpson and Mark Hatfield. Most of those who offer
information, thoughts and assessment about President Clinton and Dole may be
unfamiliar but they offer interesting insights into the two men.
In the long run, The Choice '96 is probably of greater use to voters
than the debates."
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