Hillary vs. Trump: The "Striking" Differences in Their Reactions to Terrorist Bombings
Showtime's Emmy-hopeful docuseries 'The Circus' captures the presidential candidates at their most unguarded as the co-host and executive producer recounts how each candidate responded to the Belgium attacks.
Before we started this project, we had no idea how appropriate the name of our real-time documentary on the 2016 presidential election would prove to be. Our initial suggestion, The Show, did not amuse Showtime president David Nevins. He pressed for The Circus, and, boy, was he right.
Having worked in and covered presidential campaigns most of our adult lives, my partners Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and I have witnessed countless moments of human drama. John captured one of those when he found himself with Bernie Sanders in his hotel room the night of the Iowa caucuses as the returns came in and it became clear the Vermont senator would contest Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. As John said in episode four, "I was ready to walk out, and he said, 'John, you stay here.' And he looked at me and said, 'What am I supposed to think about this? I've just given this speech basically declaring victory. But I'm not 100 percent sure how to interpret this; please tell me.' It was just a moment of candidate vulnerability, wanting some exterior validation because it was clear he hadn't spoken to anyone outside his own bubble." All presidential elections are fascinating, but the public never sees all the characters and drama.
One of the advantages of deploying lots of personnel and resources on this show is we're there when real-time events happen that affect the campaign. That was the case with the March terrorist bombing in Belgium, exactly the kind of crisis either candidate would have to face if president. It was striking to see how differently they responded both in style and substance.
Halperin asked Donald Trump if, before responding on the morning TV shows, he consulted with anyone. And Trump said: "I don't have to consult. I say it from my heart and my brain. It's not just heart; it's brain. That's what I do." Clinton, on the other hand, was briefed by a team of advisers who stressed the importance of a measured reaction. She quickly rearranged her schedule to give a major foreign policy speech at Stanford, and I asked her, in light of events, "Is it possible to make this campaign about hope rather than fear?" And she responded: "Wouldn't that be good? I think that is so important." But then she acknowledged, "It is a circus."
Indeed. One week we attended a Republican debate in Florida on Thursday night. Then on Friday, we covered the Ben Carson endorsement of Trump in Mar-a-Lago; the crazy Marco Rubio news conference when he told supporters to vote for John Kasich in Ohio; the Trump rally in St. Louis, where 32 people were arrested; the Nancy Reagan funeral near Santa Barbara; the Kasich rally in Ohio; and the violent Trump rally in Chicago. The next day, a Saturday, we intercut our footage at the Trump rally outside Dayton, where protesters rushed the stage, with footage of Clinton, Sanders, Ted Cruz, Rubio and Kasich responding to the violence of the night before.
We usually finish a first cut of the first third or half of the episode on Thursday night. Showtime turns around notes right away. We post a fuller cut late Friday and have a notes call with Showtime on Saturday morning at 8:30 ET (that's 5:30 a.m. for the Showtime execs). We then edit all day Saturday — adding breaking news as needed — until Sunday morning. All the producers are present through the long night, working closely with editors, story and tech/post teams. Lawyers and rights clearance managers are there as well. We begin the online and sound mix at about 4 or 5 a.m., have a final review at noon and then feed the show to the network at 3 p.m. ET. Our closest call was posting the show at 5 p.m. ET, three hours before air. Some crew were working 90-plus hours a week, and we were burning out people left and right. Including me. I crawled from the last edit session with what felt like triple pneumonia.
But now we are rested and ready to go for the next set of episodes, which begin July 10. The circus continues.
McKinnon, a longtime political consultant, is a co-host and executive producer of Showtime's The Circus.
This story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.