Making “The Choice”


ARCHIVE: We are going to begin tonight with a dangerous and growing surge of new coronavirus cases across 40 states, pushing hospitals to test limits… Closing down tonight to contain the coronavirus pandemic. New York state and Illinois have now joined California in taking that step… COVID-19 has brought this country to its knees as the death toll surpasses 160,000. Nearly five million Americans have been infected… A grim milestone. 100,000… Over the last week one American has died every 80 second from complications of the virus. 


RANEY ARONSON: For months the United States has been overwhelmed by a historic pandemic, nationwide protests and mounting economic hardship.


Many say the nation is in crisis.


ARCHIVE: The anger over the death of George Floyd spilled into many cities across the United States, not only in Minneapolis… Filled the streets in cities large and small demanding justice and change. The vast majority have been peaceful… And the Western wildfires are burning at such an alarming rate that smoke has now made its way to the East Coast… So far at least 30 people have been confirmed dead across three states and two dozen are missing. 


ARONSON: Ahead of the November election, FRONTLINE’s critically acclaimed series “The Choice” is returning with interwoven investigative biographies of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.


In this episode, veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk about “The Choice” and the personal crises that have shaped the lives of Trump and Biden, who are both vying for the presidency, and your vote, on November 3.


I'm Raney Aronson, and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch.


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism, and by the WGBH Catalyst Fund. Support for The FRONTLINE Dispatch also comes from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Early detection is key to catching and treating many cancers. You can learn more about the innovative programs at mass-general-dot-org-slash-cancer. Mass General Cancer Center: Everyday amazing. 

ARONSON: Mike, thanks so much for joining me on The Dispatch.


MICHAEL KIRK: It's my pleasure Raney, it's always good to talk to you even virtually.


ARONSON: I know, we’ve been talking so often. And it's just great to be able to sit back and talk with you about, you know, the mammoth undertaking of “The Choice.” And I know you've done five of them but, in this iteration, I know you've done about 50 interviews, and you guys have been working for months and tell me how it feels to be finally done. We'll start, we'll start at the end this time.


KIRK: Well, as you know, it's so interesting because it feels like we're at this tremendous moment of crisis in the country with the pandemic and racial tension and all of that and it feels like it shaped what we did, and it's shaped the way the candidates have acted. Certainly how the electorate is approaching it, the way the rest of the press is handling it. So, you know, we made a film about the crisis in the country and the crisis in the lives of the two candidates.  


ARONSON: Can you help us understand that, the organizing idea behind the film, it's not a straight biography of the men who are running for president. So I was hoping you could articulate for all of our listeners, what were you thinking and how did you organize it?


KIRK: Well, rather than focusing as the rest of the press is doing on the horse race, or competing policy platforms, we decided to take a look at, in this moment of tremendous crisis, the crises that actually happened to them in their lives, hoping that what it would actually do is yield for us a sense and for our viewers, a sense of how these men have handled crises in the past. And as a kind of predictor of what it might be like for them as president. So we looked long and hard at all of the things that have happened in their lives, decided we would come up with eight major crises that they've confronted, how they've solved them, what they've learned from them, and what they've contributed to the life method the men would bring to the White House. And in doing that, we just, you know, went through basically everything that's ever happened to them, talked to as many people as we could before we started shooting interviews about the crisis. And came up with, as I say, eight crises in each man's life that sort of neatly fit along a chronology because they're essentially the same age. And that's how we went about making the film. As a way of understanding that in this crisis, as we Americans, in a very divided country go to the polls, one of the things we might really need to know is how are they prepared by crises that have happened in the past to lead us in this crisis that confronts us all.


ARONSON: So, once you organize the crises, did you find yourself just dealing with so many different crises in these people's lives? Or was it pretty clarifying once you had that idea?


KIRK: Well, both of them, of course, have been forged by lots of personal crises, but the big ones became pretty evident. The way we do it, of course, is we don't interview the two candidates, we really talk to friends, family, associates, enemies, all the biographers, reporters, all the people who have surrounded and observed these moments, these critical moments and it creates both a incredibly diverse and interesting kind of crowd of people talking about a life and a human being in what they were like at various moments of crisis. So it does reveal, I think, a kind of clearer picture of the two men and how they were forged by the personal crises that shape how they will see themselves in the world.


ARONSON: You know, Mike, you've done five of these and I'm just curious. So, when you embarked upon this one, again, you know, with our country in a real crisis point, what felt different to you making this “Choice” than other ones?


KIRK: There's an urgency to this film that there wasn't in the others. They were all always important and they all, if you do it right, they all kind of reflect the personalities of the two characters and their life stories, of course, do reflect that. This is one level deeper. This is a slightly more painful level because the nation is in pain.


ARCHIVE: As the presidential campaign enters a brand new phase, there were new clashes in Portland overnight after a caravan of Trump supporters waving flags arrived in the city over the weekend. Now some of them drove through a crowd… Investigators are pointing to white supremacist organizations and far left-wing extremist groups as being responsible for some of the violence.


KIRK: We are divided. We are under the lens of serious crises: fires, floods, the coronavirus pandemic, the racial reckoning. All of it is much more intense and the candidates, as we view the candidates, they become sort of more intense and it was absolutely more intense to make the film. So this one is different because it feels like the stakes of understanding who they are and how they are in crisis, really were heightened. 


ARONSON: So with that in mind, I was hoping you could tell me what is your most surprising Trump moment? You've done multiple films on him and you've done “The Choice” already once with Trump, of course against Hillary, so help me understand, what as a filmmaker and a storyteller and a journalist surprised you the most about Trump?


KIRK: Well, I thought… I couldn't understand as the crisis was going on why the President, President Trump, seemed to be ignoring Tony Fauci and other experts. What was that about? Why, in the face of what we all or many of us, most of us, I hope, understood was a genuine emergency and something we all needed to react to by locking ourselves down, by wearing masks, etc. I wondered why the President himself, what was it about his life story that brought him to a place where that was what it was. It couldn't be just as simple as he was argumentative and you know, didn't like scientists or something, what could it be? And I think the great surprise for us was finding a direct corollary, almost, to the way that he acted as his casinos were imploding in Atlantic City.


ARCHIVE: Amidst great hooplah this week, Donald Trump is opening his one billion dollar Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. Some economists call it a reckless gamble… His business condition was terrible, worse than terrible. We were in a deep recession, people weren’t going to Atlantic City so the revenue stream from Atlantic City, the Taj Mahal and the other casinos…


KIRK: Okay, so now you understand that, now why? Why does he not listen to the experts in finance from Wall Street and journalism, who were saying to him, ‘You can't make a billion dollar bet on the Taj Mahal.’ And he would say, ‘Nope, I've got a vision. I've got a view of it. I can visualize the future.’ It was almost like he was in rapture around positive thinking. So we started to look and we discovered that yes, in fact, he had attended Norman Vincent Peale's church in Manhattan where socialites and politicians and the Trump's attended services. Peale had written the famous book in the 1950s, a huge bestseller, called “The Power of Positive Thinking.” 


ARCHIVE: Positive thinking is both a philosophy and an expression of faith. It teaches the cultivation of peace of mind. Not as an escape from problems, but as a practical approach to creating a life…


KIRK: Donald's father, Fred, was a big believer. Donald grew up in a family that was full of positive thinking. And as we started to trace the early days of that, all the way out, through other campaigns and other moments, suddenly, you understood why President Trump was so in the face of such a crisis that he couldn't control. Many times, Raney, he creates crises so that he can control them. In this case, it was a crisis he couldn't control. And how did he respond? He responded by being a positivist by saying, ‘Nope, we're going to overcome this. It's going to go away. And, you know, we have 15 ill people now but they're going to be better and we're going to have this down to nothing and nothing flat.’ And suddenly it explained everything to me about that part of the way Trump has handled this imperative surrounding the coronavirus.


ARONSON: Now, let's talk about Biden. You know, of course, he's lived such a public life and we know, sort of superficially, a bit about Biden, but what I thought was most enlightening about the Biden crises moments were the depth of how those then shaped how he then presented and acted in public life. So, what in the Biden story surprised you the most?


KIRK: I had no idea how profoundly affected by his stuttering as a little boy, Joe Biden was. That he carries it with him to this very day. To go back to the roots of that, you have to take yourself back to the early 1950s when Americans were just not as aware and sympathetic to people with physical challenges. This was a different time. And young Joey Biden, the harassment, the humiliation, the bullying that he endured Is a part of our film and was so formative in who he is and how he acts and the fact that he, what he did taking a flashlight to a mirror in his bedroom as a 10-year-old and teaching himself not to stutter. This was before there were lots of specialists and parents who could afford to take their children places to have treatment for any number of challenges. And little Joey's challenge was something he had to do on his own and did do on his own. Joe learned to sort of admit his problem, in some ways, come up with solutions to it, and work it and persevere and you begin to see those qualities all through the career of Joseph Biden, who's made many, many, many mistakes in his political career, and had many, many personal tragedies and challenges confront him. And the pattern for Biden? Admit your mistakes. Apologize. Could the two men be any different? Trump's playbook says never apologize. Never admit a mistake. Something he gathered from his father and through life. And he’s been a very successful man in life. Biden sees it the other way. Make mistakes, admit them, apologize for them. And a word I've ended up using a lot lately, the word is persevere. Move forward. Through Anita Hill, through a plagiarism scandal, through a gaffe where you said things that a lot of people thought were racist comments about Obama when you were running against him, through two other, failed presidential candidacies, Joe Biden has admitted mistakes and tried to move on. And that all has its roots in these terrible years when Joe was humiliated, and afraid, because of a physical disability, stuttering.


ARONSON: You know, one of the earlier chapters that I had no idea about was the extent of the bullying and what he did in the face of bullying. And of course, Trump, a lot of the ways that you describe him as a child, have to do with active bullying. And one of the contrasts that I was hoping you could talk about is, you know, those childhood moments and then if you could just leap forward. Where do you see those connective tissues built inside the run up to the election right now? And let's start with Biden.


KIRK: Well, Biden has never had any kind of a sort of policy perspective attached to him. He's not a not a big ideas guy. He's never been known as that. And this goes all the way back throughout his life. What he's really become and the thing that's really hooked people about him, is he's very good interpersonally. So, even as a young man working as a lifeguard at a pool, in what we would call the inner city part of Wilmington, Delaware, Joe became friends with, hung out with members of the gangs that came to the pool, developed close personal friendships, in one case, based on helping somebody with a stutter, a man who became Joe's friend for life. 


JOE BIDEN: I was a pretty darn good lifeguard. Yea man, I taught swimming too. I remember going over, we used to play at the other pools and we played basketball at lunchtime. Remember? Went over to Riverside, we played. And someone on the other team threw the ball to me by accident. And they look at me and said, ‘Oh god, I thought you were on my team.’ I thought, ‘I’m the only white boy within 20 miles.’ Remember that? Get invited down at the baby grand. I walk in and they’d say, ‘Who’s this guy?’ And they’d say, ‘He’s ours. He’s ours.’ You’ve always had my back. The neighborhood’s always had my back. And God willing, I’ve always had your back. And I’ll always have it as long as I’m around. I love you. It’s a great honor, thank you very much, and if I were still a lifeguard I’d say, ‘Time to get in the pool.’ Thanks everybody. 


KIRK: Biden's interpersonal skills were what brought him to the fore in Delaware, the first time he ran for the Senate when he was 29 years old. It was the Black vote that allowed him to beat a very powerful incumbent. And each step of the way, it's been Biden's personality that got him through. His willingness to persevere through it when his wife and daughter were killed and the two sons tragically hurt, Biden persevered, right? Moved on, but dealt with the grief and at the edge of one moment he writes of considering suicide. This is a man who was often called upon, as Vice President, to attend funerals and deliver the message and in the death of his own son and in the delivery of these messages of grief counseling, Joe Biden unwittingly became a kind of grief counselor-in-chief for America during the Obama administration. And I think it has carried him to this moment right here, where it's not about policy with Joe Biden. And if it was, he wouldn't have a chance. It seems to be about his ability to promise that he will attend to the grief and tragedy and wounds that Americans have at this time.


ARONSON: And what can you tell us about Trump's childhood and how we can see that mirrored in and reflected in how he is as president now but also running to be reelected?


KIRK: Trump on the other hand, he has lots of wealth and privilege, but his mom gets very ill and he is not attached to her. He’s two and a half years old and his mom basically goes away and he, and it's been hard for him to form attachments. He also has a father who is extremely stern, extremely driven to: there are winners and losers. He's a very zero sum game kind of a guy and he insists on the boys in the family being that way.


DONALD TRUMP: My father was great. Good salesman. Good builder, he loved to build houses. He was a builder. I learned so much from him and he was a great guy, lovely guy, I loved my father. 


KIRK: Donald witnesses his older brother fail and be banished essentially by his father. Donald learns the lessons in a very tough and intense military school about how to survive there by being tougher and stronger and in fact, some say bullying there. Picks up from his father lessons about being harsh, tough. By the time he hits New York, gathers from Roy Cohn and others a playbook that makes him strong, feisty, fight back, never apologize. And you watch Donald, as you watched Biden, you watch Donald pick up these traits. 


ARCHIVE (excerpt from The Choice)


REPORTER 1: Would you like to be President of the United States?


DONALD TRUMP: I really don’t believe I would really but I would like to see somebody as the president who could do the job. 


REPORTER 2: This sounds like political, presidential talk to me and I know people have talked to you about whether or not you want to run. Would you ever?


DONALD TRUMP: Probably not. But I do get tired of seeing the country ripped off.


REPORTER 3: Indicating that you could do it better and you do intend to run for president at some point? 


DONALD TRUMP: No. I’m not going to run for president.


REPORTER 3: Yeah, but if you want something done right…


DONALD TRUMP: Do it yourself.


KIRK: And you watch him use them and practice them for 14 years in the living rooms of Americans on “The Apprentice,” and that is the man that decides finally to run for the presidency, brings all of those dimensions to his candidacy, and to the first four years of his presidency.


FUNDER: Support for The FRONTLINE Dispatch comes from Mass General Cancer Center. When facing the unknown, it is often the small acts of courage that we experience in our daily lives that power us to face another day. We’re all in this together.


ARONSON: Mike, I want to talk about race. I think it's really important that we do and some of the most powerful sequences in your film really do deal with race directly, with both candidates. And one of the biggest moments that really strikes, will strike our audience I think, is how, you know, Donald Trump has really built his career both as a businessman and as a politician, by as we've seen now, embracing, and at times even stoking, racial tensions. Of course, we saw that in the Central Park five incident, but of course, Biden's record on race isn’t perfect either. And you look in the film at the Anita Hill moment and those hearings and comments that he made about Obama, when he was running for president in 2008. Can you talk about both candidates? Both do have these moments, and how they both do handle them quite differently.


KIRK: Well, yeah, I mean, like so many things about Trump and Biden, as we've discussed, the differences on the issue of race are just profound as you say, Raney, the first public moment for Trump with race is the Central Park Five. 


ARCHIVE: Trump took out full page ads in four city newspapers…. Millionaire businessman Donald Trump calls for the reinstatement of the state’s death penalty… People say Trump’s newspaper ads contribute to the city’s racial polarization.


KIRK: He is obviously looking for an issue that will help him get into sort of politics, I guess it's like an early, early venture to test the waters and he finds that by coming out so strongly against those innocent young men, eventually they'll be proven innocent, and saying they should be executed, sparks a tremendous interest among people in the city of New York where racial tensions were running very high.


DONALD TRUMP: The basically ads are very strong and vocal, they are saying bring back law and order to the city… You better believe that I hate the people that took this girl and raped her brutally. You better believe it, and it’s more than anger. It’s hatred… I’ve never done anything that’s caused a more positive stir. I’ve had 15,000 letters in the last week and a half. I don’t know of…


ARCHIVE: More than a decade later, new information has blown the case… There were cheers in a New York City courtroom today. Turns out they apparently got the wrong guys… The Central Park Five were released from prison.


KIRK: I think he learns something from that, that this is an issue that divides and that can, he can get some political mileage out of it. He carries it with him all the way through his campaign. We even became used to, you know, ‘Mexicans are rapists,’ the racially driven travel ban, the immigration policies, his remarks about the protests this year. They all connect up and have deep roots in his personal life. Back to Biden, in 1972 when he runs, he cashes in on long standing relationships he's had for 10 years in the Black community in Wilmington, many of them not about issues, but about the kind of personal relationships he's formed. But he's obviously in some way, to be sort of crass about it, he's putting them in the bank for, you know, a future political run because he's thinking politics for a long time in his life. And the Black vote does come out for him and gets him elected to the United States Senate in a surprise victory.


ARCHIVE: In the Senate, contrary to all predictions in Delaware, two-term Republican Caleb Boggs, whipped by 29-year-old Joseph Biden…


JOE BIDEN: [cheering] All of you have done something that the political pundits said there was no way in the world it could be done.


KIRK: Through the next decades, despite his relationships with many Black people, and his belief that he's somehow connected to them, when he got to the Senate as a young man destroyed and devastated personally by the death of his wife, he is folded into the heart of the Senate by segregationist Strom Thurmond and others. White racists who Biden is in concert with, a lot of the time. He learns to work with them. He's on the wrong side of the Crime Bill and a lot of Black people are the victims of that Crime Bill and find themselves in prison in much larger numbers than others expected. You do have what happens with Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.


ARCHIVE: In the U.S. Supreme Court… Thomas will try to persuade the Senate that he has no position at all… For political explosion on Capitol Hill… Clarence Thomas ran into trouble today… Questions are growing over charges of a second woman who once worked for Thomas… 


JOE BIDEN: The hearing will come to order. Welcome Professor Hill. Can you tell the committee, what was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you have alleged?  


ANITA HILL: I think the one that was the most embarrassing was his discussion of pornography…


KIRK: Where he tries to sort of straddle, be in the middle, be okay with Thomas even though he doesn't vote for him and be okay with Anita Hill and in the balance, as a white man in the Senate, plays to type. He issues that gaffe about Barack Obama and has to apologize and seek forgiveness.


JOE BIDEN: You’ve got the first sort of mainstream African American. Who is articulate and bright and clean and nice looking guy…


KIRK: In the end, Joe receives what's known as the Obama Halo, which is a kind of pass on Anita Hill and the gaff and other things, the Crime Bill. It allows Joe to rely upon the Black vote in South Carolina during the primary and win and eventually win the nomination in short order. So both men have different relationships to what is probably the single most important issue America faces now which is this racial reckoning. Both men stand in very different places about that, on that issue, and that is something that when people vote, it's a strong indicator of what these men will do. It will be a different thing on the dimension of race, Biden versus Trump.


ARONSON: You know, one of the most striking parts of the film is just this idea of course both of these candidates have framed this election as a turning point in our country, rightly so.


JOE BIDEN: And folks, as I said, it’s bigger than any candidate, bigger than any party. We’re in a battle for the soul of the nation.


DONALD TRUMP: This is worse than anything anyone’s ever seen. And you know what, if Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. 


ARONSON: You asked almost all of your interviewees: what is the choice between these two men and what's really on the ballot this time around? And what's the sort of range of what you heard?


KIRK: I really think everybody thinks this is the election of the century. Never been starker and never been more important in terms of the choices of the men. And I think it's not about policy, per se, it's really about personality. And if you believe, as I've come to believe over making five “Choices” the film, and therefore watching how the presidents act that I've gathered, all the bits and pieces of their lives together and made a kind of composite figure. This really to me, I now believe, personality is destiny. A lot of people we talked to say they want to elect a president so that they don't have to think about it and read the newspaper every morning and wince. They think Biden will settle everything down. In the case of Trump, a whole different group of people really believe that we need a wrecking ball to come to Washington and destroy the federal government that they’re very angry about. And they believe the way the President acts is appropriate for what they elected him to do. And the people who are really in play the sort of seven to 11% of the population that haven't made their minds up. What are they looking for? If you ask all the people we've interviewed, they say those are the people they are watching for, those are the people that are going to make a decision between these two men, two very different men, as I say, couldn't be a starker choice. I believe these two men and the difference between them, and where they came from and how they are and what they offer is fundamentally the thing that makes the film both interesting and really important. 


ARONSON: Mike, I can't thank you enough. I mean for the work, of course, but also for coming on The Dispatch. I know you're really busy today and I really appreciate the time with you.


KIRK: It's always, always good to talk to you, Raney and thank you for letting us do this work.


ARONSON: Always, thanks Mike.


ARONSON: “The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden”, a two-hour documentary special, airs on PBS and online Tuesday, September 22nd. 


As part of FRONTLINE’s Transparency Project, you can read and watch interviews conducted for the film at frontline-dot-org.  


Our podcast producers are Max Green and James Edwards. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan. 


Additional production help from Alana Schwartz and Elliott Choi. 


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Additional editing and production from Lauren Prestileo. 


Our senior editors are Lauren Ezell and Sarah Childress.


Our special projects editor is Phil Bennett. 


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Original music in this episode by Stellwagen Symphonette. 


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX.

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