The Invisible Bridge

by Rick Perlstein

 

This chapter in Rick Perlstein’s chronicle of the modern conservative movement picks up where Nixonland left off, after the infamous Watergate break-in but before the Nixon administration’s crimes were revealed publicly. While Perlstein continues that story, through Congressional investigation and Nixon’s eventual resignation, The Invisible Bridge isn’t really about Nixon. Rather, it’s about the transition in conservative leadership from Nixon to future President Ronald Reagan.

When I read Nixonland a few years ago, I thought it was probably one of the most interesting non-fiction books I’d ever read. Perlstein’s narrative tells the parallel stories of Nixon’s rise to power and the nation’s ever-growing cultural divide in a way that makes his point clear: these two stories are one story. Nixon was adept at using social change for his own purposes, and he contributed in large part to our perception of the 1960’s to this day. (This, pretty much.) Reading Nixonland as a young gun who never lived through that decade, I figure it’s the closest I can get to understanding the feel of the era without having been there. Perlstein’s writing has this visceral quality that can take you back in time without making it seem like you’re travelling to a completely foreign land. His Nixon-era America is striking and familiar at the same time.

Perlstein paints an amazing portrait of Nixon, as well. Even through all the sliminess, Nixon comes across as a great intellect and a strong-willed leader. While he might not exactly be persevering- more than once, he quits politics after losing an election- he’s a man of energy and passion. These attractive qualities helped him to inspire the kind of loyalty that led his underlings to carry out undemocratic and criminal acts, and to subsequently go to jail for them. We tend to remember the Richard Nixon who looked sweaty and unshaven on TV, who seemed out of touch with his era, and who seemed to disdain American democracy, but Perlstein makes Nixon into a very impressive figure.

This leads me to the first difference I noticed between Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge: Perlstein’s utter contempt for Ronald Reagan. Reading Nixonland, you can tell that he has a grudging sort of respect for Richard Nixon, both as a man and as a leader. He respects Reagan as neither. The Invisible BridgeAs a Democrat myself, I’m sympathetic to the idea that Reagan was not the superhero that he’s made out to be in the media, and that his brand of conservatism has darker foundations than we typically like to think about, but even I found myself wondering whether he’s being given a fair shake in this book. Perlstein’s Reagan is a born charlatan, lying to himself and to others because a better story was always more true than the facts could ever be.

I do think that character matters in politics, but it doesn’t seem accurate to try to paint a picture of Reagan, or anyone for that matter, using cherry-picked examples from every stage of his life. I don’t mean to imply that Perlstein uses anything out of context, since he’s generally very careful to provide as much context as possible, but I think he might be conveniently leaving a few things out. For example, I think it’s highly suspect that Perlstein’s Reagan never acts altruistically. Are we expected to believe that  Reagan’s never done anything with pure motives? Do anecdotes from his youth really reveal anything about his character? Does tweaking a story for different audiences make him a pathological liar? According to Perlstein, yes, yes, and yes.

Another thing that bothered me this time around was Perlstein’s use of real events as snapshots or microcosms of the contemporary national mood. Reading Invisible Bridge earlier this summer, I couldn’t help but do try to do this myself, and it turned out something like this:

“Meanwhile, America was tearing itself up over identity issues. A simmering activist movement known as Black Lives Matter, formed to protest violence and police brutality in minority communities, was courting controversy and causing white people to wonder whether their lives were valued in America anymore. A woman named Rachel Dolezal, a Spokane-based leader of the NAACP, was revealed to be a white woman passing as black. Sexuality and gender, too, all of a sudden seemed fluid. Bruce Jenner, celebrated Olympian, reality TV star, head of the infamous Kardashian clan, came out as a woman named Caitlin. And on June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage across the land. Whether you were looking at the New York Times or the New York Post, all you could see was a society that was becoming less recognizable by the day. You were afraid that you might wake up tomorrow and not recognize yourself in the mirror.”

See what I mean? It’s easy to start with some facts, mix in some commentary, and produce an anecdote presenting opinion as absolute truth. Were those things going on this past summer? Well, yea. Are the issues related? Some of them, sure. Does it really represent our time period? Maybe, maybe not. If you’re reading a passage like that fifty years from now, who are you to say? Nothing in that passage is inaccurate.

This writing style a bit sketchy to begin with, but Perlstein goes back to this particular well constantly. And maybe it’s because I wasn’t on board from the start, but these passages just got more and more tedious. Hell, one of his sky-is-falling incidents had to do with bees in a baseball dugout. Another related to Doc Ellis getting ejected from a game after trying to bean every batter he faced. I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t use the MLB as a marker for American political culture. Perlstein’s repeated use of this style seems intended to mask the absence of a real immersive experience.

As a follow-up to Nixonland, I was personally disappointed with The Invisible Bridge. Nixonland portrayed a perfect alignment between a man and his time period, as well as between the author and his subject matter. Not only does Perlstein know his stuff, but his portrayal of America in the 50’s and 60’s feels effortless. Everything seemed so real and tangible, almost as if I was actually watching a documentary, or even living the experience. The Invisible Bridge shattered that illusion for me. Instead of easily immersing readers in the subject matter, Perlstein felt like a museum tour guide who really wanted to convince me that his perspective on the exhibit was all-important. So sure, he knows what he’s talking about, and he’s probably right, but it really detracts from the experience a bit.

Compared with Nixonland, The Invisible Bridge feels like a step backward for Perlstein. The split focus on his two major subjects- Nixon and Reagan- doesn’t help, nor does Perlstein’s obvious contempt for the latter. The half of the book concerned with Reagan seemed like a chore compared to everything that came before it, which was generally fantastic.

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American Nations

by Colin Woodard

 

We Americans carry a bunch of different identities: ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, race, political affiliation, and so on. Depending on your values, some of these identities may be important to you, or not at all. Colin Woodard argues, however, that there is another identity that is both impossible to ignore and virtually unknown: that of our respective “nations.”

These unseen nations strongly influence our values and help to sort our other identities. American Nations MapSome nations are individualistic, others communitarian; some diverse, others intolerant; some authoritarian, others egalitarian. The values of each nation derive from those of the original European settlers of the territory, as indicated in the names of New France, New Netherland, and El Norte. Other nations are founded by religious minorities, Caribbean slavers, or Scots-Irish immigrants, and others derive their values from settlement patterns in the western half of the continent.

This paradigm seems refreshing to me. I know the concept of regional differences isn’t new, but Woodard backs up most of his claims with historical evidence, and he explains historical events in ways that seem to fit his interpretation. For example, his account of the Civil War demonstrates how the so-called “border states” came into being, and why “conservative” Appalachian areas such as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee largely opposed the breakup of the Union. Going further back, Woodard views the Revolutionary War not as a unified continental effort, but more akin to a series of “national” wars of liberation. Instead of, “The war in the north meets the war in the south at the decisive Battle of Yorktown,” Woodard describes each nation’s reaction to the war, and puts regional opinions and activities into greater context to explain why the war happened the way it did.

An obvious criticism of this model struck me pretty early on. How can the most important identity in American culture be something that 99% of people have never heard of? We know about regional differences, but Woodard defines these differences in very specific, distinct ways. Would most Americans understand how a Bostonian was different from a New Yorker or a Philadelphian? Do eastern Marylanders understand themselves to be part of a culture that’s centered in Virginia? Do Montanans align with Georgians politically because they consider themselves to have the same values, or is it a looser, “lesser of two evils” coalition? Woodard has well-defined nations, and I think that’s a plus, but culture isn’t always clearcut. Every state and locality in America has a slightly different feel, which makes me wonder when it’s appropriate to identify one nation, and not another.

There are other questions I have as well. Woodard calls southern elites “slave-lords,” and that works for most of his historical account; I’ll forgive him the use of that term for the hundred years after the Civil War, for even though slavery had been defeated, southern blacks were not full citizens in any sense. After the civil rights era, though, I question Woodard’s assessment of Deep Southern culture. For one thing, it seems like he excludes black Americans from his monolithic “Deep South.” They’re an identifiable ethnic minority with a different set of values, so I question why this never becomes one of Woodard’s nations.

Secondly, Woodard seems to believe that while southern culture has changed with the times, it’s still a culture based on traditional values including racial inequality, just as it was at the time of the Civil War. Is he really trying to say that the federal government hasn’t, at the very least, dragged the Deep South, kicking and screaming, into a modern, tolerant America? The Deep South described in American Nations would abhor, even in 2015, a nation that allows minorities of all types the same political rights as anyone else. American NationsThe lack of an ideological alignment between Woodard’s Deep South and modern American society and politics, and the lack of a real neo-secessionist moviement, present a problem to Woodard’s thesis. Perhaps Americans are loyal to the idea of the United States, or they’re just afraid of the federal government; whichever it is, Woodard doesn’t address this dilemma.

If I can get in one more challenge to American Nations, it’s to Woodard’s prognostications about our future. Throughout our history, Woodard says, we’ve held our federation together, sometimes by a bare thread, often through sheer luck. The inference that one might draw from this is obvious: the United States of America is an unstable coalition that will fall way easier than we’d like to think. He reminds us that only a couple of decades before the fall of the USSR, a prediction of that collapse would seem equally outlandish. In comparing the longevity of the US to that of the USSR, Woodard’s implying that we might only have decades left as a single country before we splinter. While he doesn’t actually predict a timeframe for this dissolution, he quotes academics who believe that El Norte (stretches of the southwest that had been colonized by Spain) will cease to be part of the US within a hundred years.

Obviously, I don’t believe that. I think there’s more to being an American than living in a region with a defined cultural history. Americans clearly have different values in different places, values that often conflict with one another. We fight for our values tooth and nail. But values can change. Woodard’s assessment of Yankeedom (New England and large swaths of the midwest) changes over time, from intolerant utopianism to a more inclusive communitarianism. Woodard traces these cultural changes among the nations, and then bafflingly concludes that our nations are perpetually incapable of finding common cultural ground; in his view, we’re just a collection of nations with diametrically opposed views, similar to Huntingon’s Clash of Civilizations, but on a smaller scale. I disagree with this assessment; I think there’s more that brings us together than pulls us apart. But only time will tell who’s right.

Anyways, I thought American Nations was really great. Woodard assembles our shared cultural history into a completely new model, and backs it up with solid evidence. I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, but  Woodard’s created a fascinating account and a concise, readable narrative. I’d recommend this book to any student of American history.

A More Perfect Constitution

by Larry J. Sabato

 

I picked up A More Perfect Constitution at the campus book store when I was taking a summer class at community college. The book wasn’t on the curriculum for whatever class I was enrolled in, but I thought it looked interesting, so I went for it anyway. I know, it’s weird to buy a book for a class you’re not taking. But that’s how it went down, and here we are.

Sabato, a political science professor at UVA, argues that we need a Constitutional Convention to address several major problems with American democracy. While we could amend the Constitution the traditional way- with two thirds majorities in the House and Senate, followed by three quarters of state legislatures- Sabato believes the Convention would be an easier way to effect the major changes we need, and would foster a renewed interest in our democracy. I’m a bit skeptical; I think Sabato downplays the hurdles that would need to be overcome in order to even get to the Convention. Then again, he’s on TV regularly and I’m not; judge our opinions accordingly.

As to what Sabato actually wants to change, it’s kind of a lot. He puts forth proposals to reform all three branches of the federal government, along with many aspects of our social and political life. These ideas, as Sabato himself is eager to point out, are not exclusively ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ in ideology, and most simply aren’t part of our political debate at all. A More Perfect ConstitutionFor example, one proposal would enshrine in our Constitution the duty of every American to perform some amount of service, whether military or civilian, public sector or private. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but it’s pretty far out there in terms of policy that’s on the table right now. Likewise, Sabato would like to tinker with term lengths for the President and members of Congress, an idea that doesn’t exactly have a grassroots movement behind it.

On the liberal side, Sabato wants two things: to get the money out of politics, and to make voting easier, with a national voter database. Both of these concepts, you may be aware, have only gotten more attention (and become more controversial) since A More Perfect Constitution was published in 2007. On the conservative side, Sabato proposes enacting term limits and requiring that the federal government balance its budget, an especially strange inclusion given that the majority of that section of his book seems to argue against the balanced budget amendment. I’m taking a wild guess- not casting aspersions- that Sabato feels the need to include ideas from opposing ideologies to bolster his own nonpartisan image. (Again, the view from fucking nowhere.) It’s a shame, because all of his other ideas seem earnest and well-conceived, the intricacies of when Presidential and Congressional elections happen being a good example. But, God forbid anyone would dare compare him to a Democrat, so we end up with a wishy-washy endorsement of a couple mediocre ideas.

Sabato didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his book, but I, for one, enjoyed reading about his proposals. His views on the shortcomings of the Constitution are meant to stir his audience’s mindgrapes and get us thinking about how we view the Constitution: what still works, what should be tweaked, and what long-overdue changes we need to make. Disagreeing with Sabato’s ideas is just step one towards coming up with your own solutions. As a patriotic American and a political junkie, I love this stuff.

I understand that not everyone feels that way, but I still think it’s important for all of us to think critically about our Constitution. As unlikely as it seems that one of these amendments (or any, for that matter) will gain momentum anytime soon, it never hurts to try to learn more about the way our government works. Why do Congress and the President always bicker over who has the authority to conduct war? How come the Supreme Court seems to make so many important decisions? And, most importantly, why does our government generally suck? You can’t answer these questions without understanding the Constitution, its origins, and its limitations.

The Constitution is not just a symbol, like our flag or our anthem; it is the foundation of our government and our way of life. Everyone in this country should have some basic understanding of what that means, and Sabato’s book is as good a place to start as any.

Duty

by Robert M. Gates

 

Yes, the title reminds you of poo. Moving on.

Duty is Gates’ memoir about his time serving as Secretary of Defense, under Presidents Bush (fils) and Obama. Appointed by the former to fix the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was asked to stay on by the latter, presumably to add a bipartisan flavor to Obama’s cabinet and Department of Defense. Duty describes Gates’ time at the Pentagon and provides his perspective on each administration.

If you’ve read about the book, you’ve probably heard the gossipy accounts of the successive administrations: who got along with whom, etc. I think one question everyone wanted answered was, “Who do you think made better decisions as President?” DutyWell, Gates knows enough to steer clear of that one, though he’s less comfortable with the Obama team than he is around Republicans or the military. On the other hand, he shit-talks Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden about equally, thinking that both were too political and too vocal in foreign policy meetings, while just about professing his undying love for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So he at least keeps an open mind.

But most of what Gates talks about is actually bureaucratic intransigence within Defense. His biggest problem at the Pentagon was that most of the top brass were focused on potential future wars, to the point of obsession. While this focus on upcoming problems and conflicts isn’t necessarily a bad thing- I’m glad that they think about tomorrow- Gates found that this attention came at the expense of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he felt he was brought in to fix. His mandate, as he saw it, was to realign the massive bureaucracy with the goal of winning our current wars. I find it hard to believe that the military paid as little attention to the wars it was fighting as Gates indicates, but he’s quite proud of his accomplishments in this area, especially the accelerated procurement of the life-saving MRAP, which I’ll get into in just a minute.

Though his book was interesting, by and large, I would get kind of annoyed when I felt that Gates was using his bipartisan label to elevate himself above decisions he didn’t like. In addition to disagreeing with and arguing against these decisions on their merits- which, to his credit, he does- he tends to adopt the posture of a neutral observer. The implication of this is that if you disagree with him, you’re behaving like a partisan hack. Gates consistently tells us that everything he did, by contrast, was for our country and our troops on the front line. While I don’t doubt that he’s telling the truth, I can see how it would get frustrating dealing with a man who believes his motives to be purer than anyone else’s in the room.

A couple months ago, while I was reading DutyNew York magazine came out with a cover story about race in the Obama era. In case you missed it, Jonathon Chait basically said, “Sure, Republican policies and politics can be racist, but Democrats are just as bad when they call Republicans racist. Everyone’s at fault.” What bothered me about this line of reasoning was best articulated by Elias Isquith on Salon as “the view from nowhere.” Essentially, Chait needs to retain his credibility as a neutral journalist, meaning that he can neither fully endorse either side’s actions or fully impugn either side’s motives. If he did so, he would immediately cease to be ‘neutral.’ The result? A piece pretty much devoid of actual content, all in the name of fairness.

I don’t think it would be fair to put Gates on the same level as Chait, but his tone sometimes bothered me. There are a few people in government that he would respect, even when he disagreed with them, but there were many whom he would often accuse of being hacks. The Obama White House, and particularly Joe Biden, are singled out as making foreign policy decisions based almost purely on politics. This is an especially strange charge given that during the Bush Administration, by Gates’ own account, national politics had a very strong influence on war policy in Iraq. Motives are not called into question in this case, but because Gates has taken the stance of an impartial observer, we’re supposed to trust that he knows the difference between a ‘political decision’ and an ‘informed’ decision.

Similarly, Gates likes to claim that he’s not a politician, and moreover that he has weak political instincts. A closer look reveals that the opposite is the case. In the aforementioned example of Iraq, Secretary Gates, the civilian team at the Pentagon, the military, and the White House were very adept at setting timetables for the surge, knowing how far away a deadline would have to be to avoid immediate accountability, while dodging a situation in which they could be criticized for setting a ridiculously distant (and therefore nearly irrelevant) date. This is not me calling them out for trying to outmaneuver Congress and the nation without us noticing. Go read the book. Gates is pretty open about politics driving aspects of decision-making in his time at Defense before the 2008 election.

A more subtle example of Gates’ political instincts is the MRAP program, which is credited with saving many, many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates writes that he had to fight the Pentagon for the procurement of these vehicles, which were better-suited than any other to withstand IEDs, and therefore protected soldiers on patrol. If his account is accurate, this means that a) top officials at the Pentagon didn’t place the highest priority on protecting their soldiers, at least not to the extent that they would go around the normal procurement process to do so, and b) the Pentagon and the White House failed to recognize that American casualties were driving opposition to the war in Iraq. I think it’s fair to say that American opposition to wars largely develops when we see our fellow Americans fighting and dying for reasons we don’t understand. A good way to keep opposition from spiraling out of control, therefore, would be to place the highest priority on protecting American lives. Hence, the MRAP. If Gates was as integral to the MRAP procurement as he tells us, either the Bush Administration and the military were incredibly obtuse about the impact of casualties on American war fatigue, or Gates is much more politically savvy than he lets on.

I feel a little bit bad, because it must seem like I’m criticizing a high-level government official for acting like a politician. I often find myself in the position of defending politicians, even those that I disagree with, when people write them off as self-interested blowhards. I think it’s rare that anyone gets into public service, politics included, without a real desire to see people’s lives improve. From Bob Gates to George Bush to Barack Obama to Stanley McChrystal, I don’t think there’s anyone in Duty that I wouldn’t assume to be a patriot, and it saddens me that Gates is so adamant about certain individuals not always having the public interest at heart. But of course, it’s his book, and he’s entitled to his opinions. It’s likely that Gates is just trying to be honest about his experiences, and I can’t fault him for that.

I’ve kind of gotten bogged down in the political crap, which I really tried not to do, but it is simply amazing to me how openly Gates disdains political theater while just as openly engaging in it. Regardless, most of the book isn’t really about that. Gates talks about the Defense budget, our relationships with Russia and China, changes in military culture (including the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), and other challenges that we’re facing or that we will face in the near future. He makes his opinions known, and tells it like he sees it. I’m guessing that Gates’ tenure at the Pentagon will turn out to be an important one, and it’s pretty interesting watching the changes at the Pentagon from the perspective of a man who clearly wasn’t always comfortable with the way things went down.

Duty is a fascinating memoir for what Gates says- the great anecdotes from his relationship with Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc- as well as what he doesn’t say. There’s probably no better vantage point on the foreign policy pivot between the Bush and Obama Administrations.

What It Takes

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. What It TakesWe 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.

Gary Hart and Donna Rice: the picture that ended Hart's campaign

Gary Hart and Donna Rice: the picture that ended Hart’s campaign

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.