The coronavirus lockdown coincided with my six-week rehab period after a hip replacement. (I got the new hip just a few days before the hospital indefinitely postponed all elective surgery.) So I can’t go out to a restaurant or a movie or a concert or a play or a game or a museum or anything else. But I knew I’d be housebound. I just didn’t expect all of you to be in the same boat with me.
When I survey such a chasm of time one good thing remains, an opportunity like poor old Burgess Meredith thought he had in that postapocalyptic TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Books. Lots of books. Especially big fat ones that had formerly intimidated me with sheer spine size. Thus it was that I plucked a honker off the shelf that had been sitting there for nearly thirty years: WHAT IT TAKES by Richard Ben Cramer.
Everybody had told me over the years that this was the single best book about a Presidential campaign ever written, better than Teddy White’s, better than all the op-edders whose tomes come out like clockwork these days. I always said, yada yada yada. I trust you all, don’t get me wrong, but this sumbitch is a thousand pages long! Now, newly hipped, I had no excuse, just a truckful of hours in front of me — so what the hell; I cracked it expecting to snooze though about a hundred pages.
Friends, this is the single best book about a Presidential campaign ever written.
It covers the 1988 race, in which you may remember that George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis to become the 41st POTUS. But that two-man general election battle appears only in a modest epilogue at the end. The overwhelming majority of the book deals with the primary competitions, on both the Democratic and Republican sides, in which the prize is the party’s nomination in an election without an incumbent on the ballot. What distinguishes Mr. Cramer’s work from Theodore H. White’s masterful MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT volumes isn’t the accuracy of the journalism, but its deeply personal nature. White appears to be everywhere, sifting through mountains of third-party research as well as his own field work, to produce a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of an almost unimaginably grueling journey. Mr. Cramer digs deeper, so that the reader isn’t on the wall but inside his subject’s psyche. The level of empathy he thus achieves is far beyond anything I’ve ever seen before.
Mr. Cramer fulfills the promise of his title in two ways. We follow along on a physically and emotionally debilitating slog, which wreaks a tremendous toll not only on the aspirant himself but also his wife (the candidates are all men) and children. That’s what it literally takes to seize a major party’s nomination for president. But there’s a second meaning: we reach into the personal histories of each of Mr. Cramer’s subjects deeply enough to find out what it takes to seriously imagine yourself in the nation’s highest office. In other words, what kind of guy runs for president in the first place — and how does he then go about it?
The author intended to profile six main subjects divided equally between parties, but campaign events dictated a different combination. So we follow Vice President George H. W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole on the Republican side, and four Democrats: former Senator Gary Hart, Congressman Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis — and Senator Joe Biden, whose candidacy in 2020 makes this report unexpectedly timely. Other abiding figures also make their appearances, including a pugnacious George W. Bush (“Junior”), the pre-Fox News Roger Ailes, and of course Ronald Reagan, whose relationship to his veep’s effort to succeed him was fraught with unwanted drama.
The first commonality you notice is that all six of the candidates are alpha males who demonstrated leadership skills and a competitive spirit early in life. You could have picked each one out of a grade-school class and said, that kid could be President one day. Our most recent two Republican Presidents were born to privilege and used that status as leverage throughout their lives, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Only one of these guys — Bush — was descended from money, and he made up for it by flying daring combat missions over the Pacific (he was such an obvious preppy that his nickname aboard the aircraft carrier wasn’t “Butch” or “Curly,” but “George Herbert Walker Bush”) and trudging around in the west Texas dust trying to start an oil business on his own in the early Fifties. The rest of them were classic hardscrabble overachievers, each with something to prove. And when they all compete against each other, sparks fly, but there can only be one winner.
Mr. Cramer’s reporting is legit. He interviewed more than a thousand people. Every depicted scene comes either from eyewitnesses or from independently published reports verified by eyewitnesses. The author read back every section to “the candidate, to a family member, or to closest aides — whoever seemed likeliest to know about the events described.” In other words, this is exactly what really happened.
The book flies — it took me less than a week to gulp it down, and I invariably couldn’t wait to get back to it — for two main reasons. One, after a more legato opening section where we calmly get to know each of the distinctive personalities, Mr. Cramer juggles six intertwining narrative arcs at increasing speed over 130 chapters (the book moves fastest when whirling through the scandal that quickly derailed Gary Hart’s campaign; the chapters are “Saturday Night I,” “Saturday Night II,” “Sunday, “Monday,” “Tuesday” and “Wednesday”). Two, Mr. Cramer’s writing style is informal and thrillingly compelling, a kind of cross between a slightly calmer Tom Wolfe and a slightly medicated Hunter S. Thompson. Here he is, inside the mind of Lee Atwater, Bush’s blues-guitar-playing Southern hatchet man:
This was part of Atwater’s southern fire-wall strategy, Lee’s determination to erect an unassailable, insurmountable Super Tuesday bulwark, so that even if Bush lost Iowa…even if he fell on his face big-time and pissed away his lead (and Governor Sununu’s help) in New Hampshire…even if Bob Dole got hot and swept the lesser early contests in Minnesota and South Dakota…even if Jack Kemp convinced the tax-cut-and-Star-Wars crowd that he was the Real and Rightful Reagan Heir…even if Pat Robertson’s eye-in-the-middle-of-the-forehead charismatics crawled out by thousands from under church pews…still, even so!…one way or another, George Bush was going to look like a winner on March 8. This was defense by suffocation — you look to see where the other guy’s breathing, then mash down the pillow of Bush, Inc.’s superior resources.
Man, that’s how I want my campaign journalism to read! The whole book is that colorful, even when representing family and friends in moments of jagged agony or tearful tenderness, and there are plenty of each. The level of access is nothing short of phenomenal. The reader has a backstage pass that gets through any imaginable door.
With a sole flukeish exception — his own son in 2004, when Dick Cheney’s terror-tinged slogan was basically Vote for us or die! — George H. W. Bush was the only Republican to win the popular vote over the last 32 years. Absent a candidate with Reagan-like charisma (and that would be exactly who?), the GOP may never win the popular again. They’re outnumbered, and it gets worse every cycle. (Which of course is very different from saying they won’t continue to occupy the White House.) The main takeaway from this magnificent book is not how little personalities have changed over the years, but that the seeds of Republican national electoral dominance were carefully tilled in fertile soil for more than a generation. In our republic, determination is truly what it takes.