Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

What it Takes : The Way to the White House ()

Orrin's All-Time Top Ten (or twelve) List - Political

    What kind of life would lead a man (in my lifetime all have been men) to think he ought to be
    President. . . .  What in their backgrounds could give them that  huge ambition, that kind of motor,
    that will and discipline, that faith in  themselves? . . .  What happened to those lives, to their wives,
    to their families, to the lives they shared?  What happened to their ideas of themselves?  What did
    we do to them, on the way to the White House?
           -Richard Ben Cramer, What it Takes

This epic tale (over 1000 pages) of the pursuit of the 1988 Presidential nominations is the best book ever written about the unique breed of men who seek our highest office, and may well be the best nonfiction book ever written, period. The book originally came out in the middle of the 1992 campaign and the universal first reaction was : Who's going to read about the last campaign in the middle of the next one?  But the genius of the book is that Richard Ben Cramer isn't truly interested in the campaign itself; he's interested in the campaigners; and so the book is timeless.

He focuses on George Bush and Bob Dole on the Republican side and Gary Hart, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and Michael Dukakis on the Democratic side. Instead of giving us a campaign diary or obsessing over the minutiae of the candidates strategies (a form created by Theodore White and perfected by Jack Germond and Jules Witcover), he provides virtual biographies of each man and an intimate portrait of why each of them wants to be, and is in position to be, President of the United States.

It's the in thing these days to be utterly contemptuous of politicians and in truth they have done much to earn that contempt.  But in Cramer's hands, even two of our least articulate politicians--Bob Dole and George Bush--turn out to have eloquent, often heroic stories, though neither can tell them as well as Cramer.  Bob Dole in particular has never been portrayed with greater insight and generosity than he is in these pages.  In fact, the Dole sections were later excerpted and issued as a quickie Dole biography during the 1996 campaign.  That provided one of the most devastating moments of the Clinton presidency.  Tim Russert had Cramer and David Maraniss (author of the outstanding Clinton bio, First in His Class) on Meet the Press to discuss the men they'd written about.  At the end of the interview he asked Cramer : Is there anything about Bob Dole that you wish the voters knew, but don't?

    Cramer : Yes, that he is much nicer, funnier, more decent man than they perceive him to be.
    Unlike the caricature that comes across on television, Bob Dole genuinely cares about people.

    Russert : Same question to you David Maraniss, about Bill Clinton.

    Maraniss : Yes, that he's a much less decent man than they perceive him to be.  Unlike the persona
    he presents on TV, Bill Clinton does not particularly care for other people ; he cares about himself.

That's not a verbatim transcript but it really was that harsh.

It's pretty obvious that Cramer feels that only Gary Hart had a genuine vision of what he wanted to do with the Presidency if he won it, and for that reason, Hart becomes a kind of tragic figure as he self destructs.  Biden on the other hand turns out to be a non-starter, thanks to his unfortunate tendency to exaggerate, though Cramer clearly enjoyed his young-man-on-the-make antics.  Gephardt is the only candidate who really comes across as a loathsome creature.  He seems not to have any core beliefs, any personal ethics, or any internal checks on his own ambition.  Even Dukakis, who Cramer seems to respect more than like, emerges as a hard working, well intentioned, American success story.

Ultimately, of course, the book is George Bush's because he won.  In some sense he had more of "What it Takes," more of the "Right Stuff" than the others.  The George Bush of these pages is a humble, reticent, decent, staff man who is finally in line for the big job.  Delving into his WASPy background, Cramer shows how the same insistence on manners, graciousness, public service, deference, and loyalty, which had been drummed into him from youth, and had served him so well throughout his life, were ill suited to the campaign trail.  Though he manages to defeat Dukakis, it becomes clear how unlikely a President he was for the modern age.  There's a famous incident which nicely captures the dilemma of being George Bush, when his mother, who must have been in her nineties by then, assessed his campaign style by telling him he was talking about himself to much.  Such things simply aren't done in their social milieu.  As it turned out, the book was an excellent guide to the 1992 campaign--what chance did a man who was trained not to dwell on himself have against Bill Clinton and the new baby boomer politics he was creating ?

In fact, the three villains of the book are political consultants, journalists and the process itself.  As Cramer juxtaposes the varied but equally compelling life stories of these very different men against the fairly humiliating things that the campaign requires of them, you can't help but wonder what "What It Takes" to become President actually has to do with the job at hand.  The consultants seem like little more than pimps.  The media comes across as utterly unserious, interested not in substance, but in shrieking gotcha whenever someone makes a mistake, or contradicts himself however slightly, or a youthful indiscretion is exposed.  In the end, the process resembles a perp walk at a police station, rather than any kind of serious deliberation over who'll make the best President.

Cramer uses the techniques of New Journalism, often sounding exactly like Tom Wolfe, to render the story in a novelistic fashion.  This can be disconcerting when he brazenly presents someone's thoughts from forty years earlier, and some will find his use of Big Concepts as leitmotifs to be contrived or overly mannered, but if you liked The Right Stuff, you'll have no trouble dealing with these devices.

If this were a novel, there would be no doubt in my mind that it was the Great American Novel.  But, amazingly enough, it's all true.  These men really exist and they really did all put themselves through the grueling process of running for president.  We want our presidential candidates to be heroic figures, but then we put them though an oftentimes degrading process that supposedly determines whether they are fit to lead.  Before you judge either George W. or Al Gore too harshly, read this book and find out what it takes to run for president.


Grade: (A+)


Richard Cramer Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Richard Ben Cramer
    -TRIBUTE: Richard Ben Cramer: An appreciation (Bob Minzesheimer, 1/09/13, USA TODAY)
    -ESSAY ARCHIVES: Richard Ben Cramer (Stacks Reader)

Book-related and General Links:
    -AWARDS : Best American Journalism of the 20th Century : #58) What it Takes by Richard Ben Cramer (New York University School of Journalism)
    -AWARDS : Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting : Richard Ben Cramer reports from the Middle East for The Philadelphia Inquirer (1979)
    -BOOKNOTES : What it Takes: The Way to the White House  Author: Richard Ben Cramer
 Air Date: July 26, 1992 (CSPAN)
    -EXCERPT : from What it Takes : The Forbidden Chamber
    -INTERVIEW : Stories of Bob : Richard Ben Cramer, author of What It Takes, a book about Bob Dole and the other presidential candidates in the 1988 race. Cramer served as consultant for FRONTLINE's "THE CHOICE '96" (Interviewed July 9,1996, PBS Frontline)
    -INTERVIEW : Dole's War Years : Probably the most important defining moment in Bob Dole's life happened over fifty years ago on a battlefield in Italy. Dole biographer, Richard Ben Cramer, paints an emotional picture of the courageous actions that reveal much about the character of the GOP presidential hopeful. (David Gergen, Online Newshour, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW : Jumping ship :  Bob Dole clears the decks to try to save his campaign (ANDREW ROSS, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of AFTER THE LAST SKY Palestinian Lives. By Edward W. Said (Richard Ben Cramer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A PARISH OF RICH WOMEN. By James Buchan (Richard Ben Cramer, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Book Notes : What? No index? (Esther B. Fein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of WHAT IT TAKES The Way to the White House. By Richard Ben Cramer (Laurence I. Barrett, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of What it Takes (Thomas W. Benson, Postmodern Culture v.5 n.3, May, 1995)
    -REVIEW : Feb 15, 1996 Thomas Powers: The Last Hurrah, NY Review of Books
               Bob Dole by Richard Ben Cramer
               Senator for Sale: An Unauthorized Biography of Senator Bob Dole by Stanely G. Hilton
               Bob Dole: The Republicans' Man For All Seasons by Jake H. Thompson
    -REVIEW : of RICHARD BEN CRAMER: Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life (Peter Schrag, The Nation)

    -ESSAY : The Democrats in '88 (William Schneider, Atlantic Monthly, April, 1987)
    -ESSAY : A Democrat who Admits It : Richard Gephardt is unafraid to say that the government should spend money on big public programs -- things that other Democrats said before they echoed Republicans (James Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly)

    -PROFILE: The Outsider (MATT BAI, 2/02/2003, NY Times Magazine)


    -PROFILE: Joe Biden in the Crunch (Gary Smith, October 1987, Life)