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Frontline: The Choice 2016 is a two-hour, dual biography of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, airing Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. (PBS)
Frontline: The Choice 2016 is a two-hour, dual biography of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, airing Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. (PBS)

John Doyle: Who are Clinton and Trump? The answer’s a bottomless pit Add to ...

We have gotten used to them, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. His attacks that once provoked shock and now provoke mild dismay. Her penchant for reticence and curious inability to sell her achievements as authentic, which just draws shrugs.

The narrative twists and turns of a spate of eruptions on Twitter. Her pneumonia, his verbal excretions. The race tightens and on Monday night the first, fraught debate; the event that might give one of them the ascendancy. It will be laden, heavy with tension as both seek some leverage.

Still, through it all, through the mess of saturation but superficial media coverage, some people are, rightly, wondering, “Who are these people?” and, “Why do they want to be president?”

Frontline: The Choice 2016 (Tuesday, PBS, 9 p.m.) is Frontline’s epic, two-hour dual biography of the two candidates. It’s sweeping, gripping and forceful in its assertions of who these people are, in their souls, and what is driving them to run for U.S. president. The PBS program has done this type of lengthy, heavily researched biography for years during the U.S. election cycle, but never has it had two characters so acutely complex and fascinating.

It offers pointed answers to two key questions – who are they and why are they running?

In Trump’s case, it is suggested from the get-go that he is running because Barack Obama humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. It is baldly contended that Trump was stung and with every core of his being he’s still fighting back.

In 2011, Trump was at the height of his “birtherism” campaign. We see him on TV claiming that something was being hidden, that Obama “might be a Muslim.” Then we see Obama’s relentless, caustic mockery of Trump, who was in the audience. One of his biographers says, “Trump was very uncomfortable,” and that he was “steaming.” Another student of Trump says, “Trump cannot tolerate humiliation,” and that Trump has “a burning need to redeem himself from being humiliated by the country’s first black president.” And another way to put that is, simply, “revenge.” Oh yes, that most potent aspect of male rage. Meanwhile, the key to Hillary Clinton’s “burning need,” it is suggested, can be anchored in her experience as the wife of the governor of Arkansas, when Bill Clinton was first elected to that position. First, she had to endure scrutiny that amounted to the accusatory query, “Why aren’t you a traditional wife?” Then, after Bill was defeated at the end of his first two-year term, she had to change gears to get him back in office. To do this, an old friend suggests, she “forfeited her own identity.” She changed her appearance, demeanour and name. And, it is proposed to us, she has been trying to retrieve her own identity ever since.

That early segment of the dual biography posits answers to the question, “Why are they running for president?” Then the program begins to probe childhood and adolescence to find the origins of key character traits.

We are given a picture of Clinton’s unhappy childhood home, with a demanding, aggressive father who belittled her and her mother. A childhood friend says there were many bitter fights in the household and Hillary almost never invited friends to her home. She dealt with unhappiness by hiding it and, really, her penchant for secrecy started there.

Of Trump’s childhood and adolescence there is more material provided about a life of heady wealth than the experience of unhappiness. Trump’s dad, Fred, was demanding but there was considerable comfort. Young Trump was obliged to have a paper route. But, a biographer says, “When it rained and he had to deliver his papers, the chauffeur would drive him around.” That’s a vignette many viewers will find hard to erase.

The program tells us that the character key is, however, to be found in Fred Trump drumming it into his boys that life was a horse race and only winners in business mattered in the world. There is also a suggestion of the strong influence of Norman Vincent Peale, who was pastor at a church the Trump family attended. Peale’s philosophy of “positive thinking” had enormous influence but, of course, Peale essentially suggested that human suffering is not real and that everything can be overcome by the egotism of a positive philosophy.

This Frontline finds Trump harder to pin down than Clinton. Which leads the viewer to infer that there is much less there. One comes away with the impression that Trump’s most formative influence was the Playboy philosophy of Hugh Hefner.

So, while we think we know these two candidates, we know less than we think. After Monday’s debate, many might feel they know more. But this American presidential race is something that demands more and more explanation, and as the epic dual biography shows, that explanation is a near-bottomless pit.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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