by Richard Ben Cramer
We know running for President isn’t easy. We know it’s not fun. The whole process is rough on the candidates, their family, and their staff. We have to assume, though, that it’s the best way- or at least, it’s the fairest way- to pick a President. But what does a two-year campaign for the White House really amount to? What does it accomplish? What do we learn about the candidates that’s actually relevant to the job?
What It Takes is Cramer’s way of trying to figure that out. The book follows six presidential hopefuls (Republicans George Bush and Bob Dole as well as Democrats Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Joe Biden, and Gary Hart) during the 1988 election, from before they’ve publicly announced their candidacies through the end of primary season. We also get a history of who these people are: where they come from, how they got into politics, and what makes them think they’re ready for the Big Job.
As a political junkie, I found it interesting just to learn about the candidates, all of whom I’d heard of but several of whom I’d known next to nothing about. Cramer jumps back and forth between the current campaign and the early lives of the candidates, connecting their personal qualities with their runs for President. Whether it’s Dole’s long and painful recover from injuries sustained in World War II, or Dukakis’ immigrant roots and lifelong struggle against corruption in Massachusetts, the candidates awed and fascinated me.
But while the book is ostensibly about the candidates and their campaigns, Cramer also focuses on the other half of the process- the media. And man, he does not like the media. In his view, each individual reporter is only out for himself, trying to become a respected journalist by ‘breaking’ a story that will change the race or even force one of the candidates out. When the media scents a ‘scandal,’ next to nothing will stop them from hounding the people involved, regardless of the harm they may cause to individuals and to our body politic itself.
Joe Biden’s campaign ran into trouble with the media when he alluded to speech by a contemporary British Labor politician. While Biden was running all over the country, using this borrowed section in his own stump speech, he forgot to attribute it at least once. When the video of this omission leaked, he had a plagiarism scandal on his hands, which led to a more thorough look into his past, which dug up an incident of improper citation at Syracuse Law, which eventually forced Biden from the race. You might think- Biden certainly thought- that a small mistake in law school and a one-time slip-up on the campaign trail shouldn’t disqualify a politician from being President, but in 1988, to Joe Biden, it did.
Biden was taken down by a group in the media that Cramer refers to as the ‘Karacter Kops.’ These journalists, and the interested public that they supposedly represent, look for any character flaw that they can find in a candidate that would disqualify him being President. Cramer views this as an unfair and dishonest practice, and openly disdains the Kops. He seems particularly sympathetic to Gary Hart, who had been the Democratic frontrunner until his own scandal blew up.
The immediate cause of Hart’s problems was a photograph of him with a woman, on a boat. The woman wasn’t his wife. Hart, who thought that his ideas for the country should be all that mattered, who thought that his private life was not the public’s business, was forced out of the race. Of course, the media had preconceived notions of Gary Hart; he was a risk-taker, he was a womanizer. So when they finally had proof of both, they wrote their stories with glee. When he quit the race, they wore his exit as a badge of honor.
But Hart wasn’t the only candidate who was unable to break free from his own reputation. Throughout What It Takes, sinking campaigns do their best to show that they’re adapting, either superficially or substantively; in the end, only the media tells the story. (It’s sort of a tree falling in the forest situation; if the media doesn’t report on it, is it real?) Hart’s campaign couldn’t get anyone to see past his rumored character flaws, and his whole candidacy blew up with a single picture. Bob Dole, who’d worked harder than anyone to get where he was, had become a ‘hatchet man’ to the media, partially due to his time as Richard Nixon’s Republican Chairman and Gerald Ford’s running mate. Dole was presented as a spiteful, partisan hack, though he’d always tried to imbue all of his campaigns with a single attitude: Don’t be mean.
In running for President, the media attention makes the person almost inseparable from the politician. But every candidate has their own line that they refuse to cross. Having a limit, just one, makes it easier to cope. For Hart, the limit was way, way too far out there; he didn’t think anyone should know anything about his personal life. (Good luck with that one, bud.) Dukakis wanted to be able to campaign while still running the government of Massachusetts at least three days a week. Bush wanted to avoid sacrificing what he considered his greatest strength and asset- his friendships. When the Reagan Administration appeared to be on its last legs, Bush refused to put any distance between himself and the President, out of pure loyalty. All of the candidates wanted to hold on to something; Cramer argues that the process picks as a winner the candidate who finally accepts that he has to give up everything.
In a way, What It Takes serves as a defense of the candidates themselves against the unfairness of the process. While many people feel that everything wrong with our politics is reflected in our politicians, and vice versa, Cramer tries to separate the blatant cynicism of the electoral process from the genuinely good people who run for office. Each of the candidates in the book had a mix of ability and ambition that landed him in the national spotlight and propelled his run for President, though each would come up short at some point. (Dukakis lost to Bush in the general election; Bush lost to Bill Clinton four years later.) But the candidates’ ambition doesn’t mean they’re not human, or that they can handle the process any better than we can. One of the most emotional moments of the book came near the end, as primary season was winding down. Dick Gephardt, on the night of the Michigan primary, is waiting with his family and staff for the inevitable news that he’s just lost another one, when Jesse Jackson, another contender for the nomination, enters the room. They hug, and Gephardt cries on his rival’s shoulder. He’d found one of the few people in the world who understands what the process has done to him.
Gephardt loses the nomination. But just a few months later, he makes an important decision.
He’s going to run again.
What It Takes reads like an exceptionally long Rolling Stone article; it’s a detailed, entertaining, emotional saga. Cramer helps one identify with the hard-working and optimistic candidates, and then provides a visceral understanding of the process that will destroy almost all of them.