So you think you know these guys.

PBS’ “The Choice: 2004” again proves otherwise. It’s the fifth in a series of insightful election-year looks at the principal presidential candidates.

Premiering on Tuesday at 9 p.m. EDT and repeated at the same time Thursday, the two-hour program will bookend Wednesday’s final debate between President Bush and John Kerry.

“The Choice,” recipient of prestigious Peabody Awards in its past, is far more filmic and nuanced than some of the clip-job bios you may have seen on cable news networks. Much of the archival footage is revelatory. In the opening minutes, a young coat-and-tied Kerry is caught in the act of being prototypically earnest during a discussion at Yale University, circa 1962.

“Commitment, you know, simply by the implication of the word commitment, is not something which someone can hand out,” he tells his professor. “You know, just by the meaning of it is something that comes from within the individual when he is ready.”

Yale roommate Harvey Bundy describes Kerry as a deeply driven mystery man: “It’s hard to explain John other than as someone who really had a vision for himself and didn’t want to slow down at all in life.”

Bush’s early years were considerably less cerebral. Enrolling at Yale two years after Kerry, he seemed to major in making nice. His first position of power was the presidency of Delta Kappa Epsilon, described as “the hardest partying, rowdiest frat house on campus” by narrator Will Lyman.

“I don’t think he applied himself academically at Yale,” says classmate Roland Betts. “I think he applied himself to friendships and just meeting and knowing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people, many more than anybody else in our class knew.”

In 1970, Bush began learning “the family business” by joining his father’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. Included in this segment is footage of future U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, as an intrepid TV reporter aboard the Bush campaign plane.

“The Choice” has many choice moments during its evocative journey toward the homestretch of a contentious presidential campaign.

The program’s principal reporter is Nicholas Lemann, political correspondent for The New Yorker and dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Lemann interviews intimates of both candidates but also spends a lot of time as an interview subject.

That may not have been the best way to ensure maximum objectivity. Lemann’s assessments of Bush, whom he has covered for The New Yorker, are markedly more judgmental and extensive than his comparatively minimal thoughts on Kerry.

“I believed that Bush would be a more moderate president than he has turned out to be,” Lemann says. “I see President Bush as somebody who has an enormous and sort of slumbering ambition and self-confidence. And the more he lets out who he really is, the more conservative he gets.”

Kerry, meanwhile has tended to ride merry-go-rounds to his issue positions, confusing “even his best friends,” says narrator Lyman.

“He is always tempted to give you the nuances that he knows, and to tell you that the problem is much more complicated than you think it is, and to worry about the complexity,” says Jack Blum, who worked with Kerry as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And maybe that is his biggest single weakness as a candidate.”

We’ll soon have a verdict. Follow the evidence in “The Choice: 2004” for an uncommonly rich understanding of these two disparate politicians.

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