What It Takes (1992), by Richard Ben Cramer

Is there such a thing as being too definitive?

The late Richard Ben Cramer’s titanic deep dive into the 1987-88 presidential primary season is rightly regarded as the last word on the crazy-making rigors of electoral politics in this country. Hard to argue: books like Game Change, which purport to tell us what the candidates are really thinking, are but superficial imitators to the throne in comparison.

 

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The level of commitment from Cramer here is awe-inspiring, likely rivaled only by Robert A. Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in the category of total immersion. But at least Caro has been writing for nearly 40 years about one man; Cramer somehow managed to follow six different campaigns around in real time over a two-year stretch, apparently leaving no stone unturned and unpacking each candidate’s life story in indelible detail (at great cost to his own health, it turns out).

The depth of reportage isn’t the only thing that distinguishes What It Takes. Cramer, a disciple of the New Journalism school of writing, gets so deep inside the heads of his six candidates and their families and their handlers that the narrative voice goes somewhere beyond omniscience. You can actually hear these people speaking (you’ll never listen to a clip of Bob Dole the same way again). If you, like me, are under 40, you may have a hard time recalling much about Dick Gephardt or Dole (not counting his weird turn as a Viagra pitch-man), but George Bush and Joe Biden are very much still with us, and Cramer absolutely nails them. The only way he could have done this is by spending hundreds upon hundreds of hours alongside them, listening and listening hard.

Nor does Cramer even feign objectivity. He clearly loves his characters and eschews the kneejerk, smart-ass cynicism that characterizes most political books post-Watergate (Cramer reportedly spent a lot of time chewing the fat with George Bush’s eldest son, the future president himself). In an age when most presidential campaigns are treated like game shows more than a serious vetting of potentially important people, Cramer’s reverent treatment of his subjects feels almost revolutionary.

What cynicism there is gets leveled at his fellow journalists (the diddybops), who clearly don’t have the dedication he has to really understand these Men Who Would Be President, preferring instead the drive-by, salacious exposes of the kind that ended Hart’s campaign.

For the most part, I greatly enjoyed my week-long experience reading this book. Once you get acclimated to Cramer’s amphetaminic writing style, filled with ellipses and colloquialisms and whatever else he could throw into the hopper, it becomes compulsively readable. That he was able to make Michael Dukakis seem like the most compelling person in the world for a while is reason enough to exalt him.

Ultimately, what holds What It Takes back are the candidates themselves. Perhaps the head-down, drama-free governance of Gephardt and Dukakis are admirable qualities in a president, but as fodder for a thousand-page, small-font book, well, there are only so many layers to uncover. By the time I headed for the final quarter of the book, right when things should have been at their most dramatic, I was really starting to get fatigued by the whole project. I get it: Mike Dukakis thinks he’s above down-and-dirty politics. George Bush will never say anything to hurt the president. I don’t need 150 more pages on this.

Plus, the two most fascinating men of the six, Joe Biden and Gary Hart, are forced to end their campaigns earlier than expected, and you better believe their loss in the overall narrative is felt over the last 300 pages. Even Cramer, with all his razzle-dazzle prose, can’t bring up the energy level to compensate. And the MOST fascinating man in the entire race, Jesse Jackson, isn’t covered at all.

Then, after 950 pages of exhaustive primary-campaign play-by-play, the general election gets only a chapter, touching only briefly on the things that people actually remember about the otherwise bland 1988 election cycle: Willie Horton, “Read my lips,” Dukakis’ wonky strikeout on the capital punishment question. And there’s no mention at all of Lloyd Bentsen’s extraordinary takedown of Dan Quayle, nor any mention of the Tank. Oh Lord, THE TANK.*

But what this book does well it does better than just about anything else you’ll ever read about what running for national office actually entails, the real cost it exacts on these all-to0-human people. Small wonder that a new generation of political writers now take it as a point of departure, bestowing on it the lofty reputation it didn’t get when it came out in 1992.

*No doubt Cramer would say that the point of the book wasn’t to get into the nitty-gritty of a political campaign, it was about the PEOPLE, and that’s why you have to wait 800 pages before a single vote is even cast, but even still, I wasn’t prepared for how quickly Cramer dispensed with the Bush-Dukakis campaign. Or else he was as bored with it as everyone else.

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Comments

  1. Frederick P. says:

    Heck of a a Review!

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