Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Richard Ben Cramer died in January of this year. Cramer is considered by many insiders to have been the best student of American presidential politics. His death brought to my attention the 1992 book What It Takes, The Way To The White House. I can only express regrets for not having devoured this magnificent work sooner.
What it Takes, the detailed narrative of the 1988 presidential primary and election, is not for the casual reader. Its 1000-plus pages has been quoted as ” The ultimate insiders book on presidential politics.” Richard Ben Cramer places under a microscope the inner thinking and personalities of those who would place themselves into the 1988 race to become President of the United States. What makes the work even more provocative is the relevancy of the 1988 election, including a bitter Democratic Primary that resembled in great part the divisive Republican Primary of 2012.
Cramer details with precision the backgrounds, personalities and political aspirations of George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson and the lesser players as well. Of particular contemporary interest is the insight into the mind and ambitions of Joe Biden that may well play out again in the 2016 campaign for the White House. Cramer’s research into the Biden personality is so complete that these pages of What It Takes could well qualify as a Biden biography! More on that to follow.
The 1988 Republican primary election is a match up between Vice-President George H.W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole which results in an ultimate November face-off between Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis. While we think we know Bush better his having had What It Takes to win the presidency in 1988, Cramer’s insight into how the Bush personality and family background made certain that victory is remarkable. Bush had spent a lifetime building friendships, communicating and never burning a bridge. He maintained a big picture view of the oval office. The comparison with Dukakis is stark. The Massachusetts Governor prided himself on being a micro manager and believed right up until election night that the job of the president what that of a manager with the words “leader and vision” rarely in his campaign vocabulary.
In many ways What it Takes is a series of biographies. While the book is commendable for this reason alone, don’t look for neat compartmentalized chapters on each personality. Cramer’s prose and story telling is much more sophisticated. The reader will learn why Bob Dole, the “Bobster” became the “Hatchet Man,” why Gary Hart’s personality demanded that even after withdrawing over the Donna Rice scandal, he re-entered the race in denial that he had no chance. Joe Biden withdrew over a plagiarism scandal and re-entered the campaign only to be sidelined a second time by a nearly fatal aneurism. Richard Gephardt worked harder than any Democratic candidate but failed to find a message. There is Kitty Dukakis, Barbara Bush, Jill Biden, Lee Hart, Lee Gephardt and of course Elizabeth Dole.
Along with all of the candidates the “press” and of course the handlers, consultants and political advisors have a constant presence in the narrative bringing out the often shameless positions that candidates take to win elections. Paraphrasing Cramer, the presidential election process ” cheapens the issues or ignores them, reduces the dialogue to noise, is spendthrift, exhausting and hurtful.” Cramer leaves no doubt the attaining the presidency is a brutal obsession and leaving little left of individuality. Winning the presidency and moving into the bubble changes very little.
A most memorable reference from What it Takes concerns the first Gulf War, Desert Storm. How did President Bush manage to put together the coalition to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait? “He was the only man alive who had personal friends as the heads of states in 30 countries. ” He called in the favors.
My takeaway is that George H.W. Bush was the only candidate in 1988 who understood in totality what was required to be elected president and who was willing to make the sacrifices to attain the goal. He had learned that from a life-time in public service and from his family’s heritage. Ironically, four years later Bush 41 may not have had the willingness to repeat the same sacrifices necessary to defeat Bill Clinton in 1992. Yet, after the fray, they became good friends.
What it Takes is a big commitment of time but if you love the American political system and wish to gain a rare biographical insight into the minds of the players in 1988 your investment will be rewarding. Like all good historical research and writing the knowledge gained is relevent in the present. Listen to what Bob Dole said at a convention of Young Republicans in Seattle in 1988. ” Conservative does not mean callous. I’d like to see fifty wheelchairs in this audience, fifty black faces, fifty Hispanics, fifty Asian Americans. We have a responsibility to open up the doors of this party.” Did anyone in the 2012 GOP inner circle hear the Bobster or were his words simply lost in the cacophony of just another campaign?
Other books by Richard Ben Cramer: Ted Williams: The Seasons of the Kid (1991), Bob Dole (1994), Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (2000), What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now? A Remembrance (2002), How Israel Lost: The Four Questions (2004)