‘The Choice 2016’ Tracks the Secret Histories of Clinton and Trump

PBS Frontline special digs into the past of the White House candidates in this year’s most unusual election

hillary clinton, donald trump
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If past really is prologue, there’s much yet to learn about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that comes from examining their respective histories. Stepping up for that task is “The Choice 2016,” the latest of PBS’ Frontline pre-election specials.

If you want to know more about Clinton’s penchant for control and secrecy — reflected in the private email server controversy dogging her current campaign — you might find illumination, as Frontline does, from considering her conservative childhood in a home with an emotionally abusive father.

If you want to get at the source of Trump’s brash, confrontational style of politics, remember that one of his mentors was a take-no-prisoners attorney who advised Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950’s.

“The Choice 2016” continues Frontline’s 28-year record of looking deeply at the candidates’ personalities and life stories. In this case, it’s an exhaustive, revealing survey of two consequential lives, one of whom will lead a nation the most powerful nation on earth.

Many of the program’s revelations are not necessarily new, but are nonetheless worth remembering:

  • Trump hired a woman, Barbara Res, to oversee the construction of Trump Tower, his entree into the high-profile world of Manhattan real estate — a side of Trump at odds with his more adversarial, even misogynistic persona. “I think he believed that women had to prove themselves more than men, so a good woman would work harder,” Res says.
  • The public career of Hillary Clinton, so often tied to the fortunes of husband Bill, properly started when she rebutted comments by Edward Brooke, the Massachusetts Republican senator, upstaging Brooke at a May 1969 commencement at Wellesley College — an event that got her into the pages of Life magazine.
  • One of Trump’s friends and mentors was Roy Cohn, the attorney who was chief counsel working alongside Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings.
  • Clinton’s penchant for secrecy has its deepest origins in a childhood with an emotionally abusive father. Clinton — the captain of the crossing guards in elementary school, one classmate recalls — was something of a chameleon throughout her life, changing her persona and wardrobe to suit the circumstance.

Over its two hours, “The Choice 2016” tells the story of two supremely confident, ravenously ambitious, self-made political animals, each driven as much by doubt and the fear of humiliation or defeat as by political aspiration.

One interview subject thinks Trump was directly moved to run for president in April 2011 at the White House Correspondents Dinner. That night, Trump was the target of barbs from President Obama over the birther controversy Trump helped to cultivate. It may have been the genesis of the current campaign. “I think that was the night he resolved to run for president,” says Roger Stone, a Trump political adviser. “He was motivated.”

clinton-trump-photo-frontlineTrump biographer D’Antonio agrees. “Donald dreads humiliation, dreads shame… This is a personal burning need that he has to redeem himself from being humiliated by the first black president.”

But the seeds for Trump’s pursuit of recognition go back even further. Growing up in the shadow of Fred Trump, a tough, demanding, unemotional father, Trump came to revel in authority himself. His father shipped him off to New York Military Academy after a long period of Donald’s acting out as a spoiled, impetuous youth. Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio said, “Donald told me that he is essentially the person he was in the first grade, and that he hasn’t really changed.”

But something probably intended as punishment was actually a gift; Trump thrived in the tough academy environment — a precursor to an unpredictable personal life, three marriages, a single-minded pursuit of the bottom line, and a lavish style of consumption that “The Donald” enjoys today.

Clinton’s combative spirit found expression during early campaigns for husband Bill in Arkansas. Bill Clinton was elected governor, was later defeated, and then won the statehouse again, in no small part due to Hillary’s personal tenacity and her role as de facto campaign manager.

That toughness under fire continued up to her weathering eight congressional investigations into her role in the 2012 Benghazi embassy attacks. “The embattled Hillary is the essence of Hillary,” Clinton biographer Carl Bernstein observes. “She’s comfortable in battle.” What early Clinton supporter Dick Morris calls “a wonderful instinct for the jugular” dovetails with a desire for control that, many say, remains with her to this day.

Now as in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, veteran doc director Michael Kirk nimbly navigates the dueling-biography format, giving more or less equal time to each of these two most galvanizing political figures in recent American history. With the input of authors, business associates, friends, acquaintances and even a former landlord, Kirk and the “Choice” team have focused on the histories that don’t show up on the campaign trail, but which inform every aspect of the candidates’ public selves.

Sometimes interview subjects offer unintended revelations. Roger Stone, the Trump adviser, says he thinks Trump’s being on TV was “the greatest single asset to his presidential campaign.” That’s likely to be a surprise to those in the Trump camp working overtime to play up his business skills or his tough negotiating style.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have taken two very different paths to the same pursuit; on Jan. 20th, one of them takes the oath of office as the next president. “The Choice 2016” offers the backstory of both candidates, with timely political perspective on an everyday truth: If you want to know where someone’s going, see where they’ve already been.

“The Choice” airs on PBS stations Tuesday, from 9-11 p.m. ET / 8-10 p.m. CT.