Tuesday, January 8, 2013

In memory of Richard Ben Cramer

Richard Ben Cramer passed away yesterday. If you'd like share your memories of discovering and reading WHAT IT TAKES, have at it in the comments. And thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapter One Hundred Twenty to Epilogue

From Matt Bai, author and New York Times Magazine correspondent

Hart's "Hell no."
Now and then, it's true, you can get a glimpse of real character in the way a candidate handles defeat in the moment. The most striking example, of course, is probably Richard Nixon's defeat in California in 1962, with the whole "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" riff. (Lesson: never elect a guy who refers to himself in the third person. It hints at psychoses.) In 1988, specifically, I think of Gary Hart's defiant withdrawal speech, which is largely forgotten now but which presaged everything that was to come in American politics. Even in defeat, Hart was clear-eyed and visionary and willful.

I can vividly remember sitting alone with Bill Bradley after his withdrawal in 2000, as he prepared to leave his campaign office for the last time and as the Secret Service detail packed up the car for the last escorted ride home. Bradley seemed almost relieved to me as we talked that day, the burden of public scrutiny and brutal itineraries lifted at last, and I think that probably said a lot about the way he ran for president and why he didn't succeed in beating Al Gore.

The Joy of Pepsi
That said, I'd say you learn a lot more about candidates in the months and years that follow defeat. Think of how John Kerry, whatever his flaws as a candidate, went back to the Senate and worked even harder on leaving some kind of legacy, to the point where he is now on an inside track for the State Department. That took real determination. Contrast it with John McCain, who four years later returned to the Senate feeling embittered and victimized, and who squandered a chance to become a genuine elder statesman and force for cooperation. It makes you wonder what kind of president he might have been, internalizing every slight and holding onto every grudge.

Of the 1988 crowd, Bob Dole is probably the most universally admired (even though he lost the general election in 1996), probably because he handled both defeats with grace and humor and never seemed to personalize it. By remaining constructive and engaged after losing for a second time, Jesse Jackson probably did a lot to dispel the 1960s stereotypes about reactionary black men in America, and in this way, I would credit him with making possible Barack Obama's election 20 years later.

Hart spent most of the next two decades in his Colorado cabin, waiting for someone to bestow redemption; he was entitled to it, but his refusal to seek some kind of public rehabilitation also said something about his considerable pride and obstinance. (That Hart never reentered public office was a deep loss for the country, and the legacy of that scandal is the subject of my next book.)

The Majority Leader, 1991.
Perhaps the most confounding story from 1988 involved Dick Gephardt, who served another 16 years in the House (several of them as minority leader) before running for president and losing again. Then this hero of the populist left started his own lobbying firm and took on clients like the pharmaceutical industry and the Chinese telecom company. He bought a giant house in California's wine country and stopped giving interviews.

What this tells you, perhaps, is that losing politicians often feel they're owed something for their years of service. And who knows, maybe they are.


It's actually his fault.
It is the end. The Bobster's "The Other Thing" is gone. Dick Gephardt is weeping in Jesse Jackson's arms like Matt Damon to Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Hart is drifting, waiting. Joey Biden is working on his house again. Michael Dukakis is on the right and just path. And Poppy Bush does what it takes.

In the last paragraph of a book with many, many paragraphs, Bush says he will do whatever it takes to win reelection. "People wondered . . . why would he say a thing like that?" That's what the previous one thousand forty-six pages were meant to explain.

Bob Dole's "People of Earth" speech is just one of many disasters in the making in this book, only the disasters at the end have a sense of finality -- the latest chapter, closing. Dole's Klingons spent all his money, running the New Hampshire 'Footprints-in-the-Snow' ad in Florida, where they never saw snow. Elizabeth insists Bob's half-hour on WGN broadcast live from the Lincoln Room in Galesburg, and Mike Murphy and Alex Castellanos are scrambling and ready to boost a satellite truck if they have to. The lights go out, the signal is lost, Bob is forced to ad-lib his way through the end. It was wretched, yet they had to do it again, clean, for rebroadcast. That's just how it goes in the campaign. You get your head kicked in, then you get up and say, 'OK, how about we try that again?'

Like how Dick was getting pummeled and his campaign team had given up on him, but he threw it all into the Michigan primary anyway. You get so far into these things, it becomes impossible to stop.

Michael and Estrich
Michael -- famous for his campaign's policy of 'Don't Tell Michael' . . . well, it turned out, he couldn't be told anything. He showed Massachusetts how wrong they were for kicking him out, that by 1982, he was a message machine. He thought he knew all there was to hardball and bridge-building. So when he started to slide in '88, you couldn't tell Michael anything. Lord knows Susan Estrich tried. He would listen to others' advice -- after he'd been proven correct, of course. And no, he didn't need Sasso's help. "Look," Michael told him, "I'm gonna beat this guy. This may be a blowout. You start thinking about the first hundred days. I'll take care of this guy."

Bar and George
On the other side of the coin was George Bush. Reagan was aloof, the polls were slipping and Bush could feel it, the Mercury in retrograde. Atwater went into a panic, wondering if this was his end, how he could avoid embarrassment. Then the three-by-five card to the research director: get him the stuff to beat Dukakis and put it on the card. Then he sold it to Bush . . . Atwater wanted Bush to let him loose. But Bush insisted he would do it himself. And so he trotted out the "vows and threats" he would take all the way to November.

That was who Bush was, as Roger Ailes sussed out in an interview about his near-deadly bombing run in World War II. There were flames on the wing and smoke in his cockpit, but Bush stayed the course. "Why didn't you bail out?" Ailes asked.
Bush didn't pause, didn't think, didn't blink. "I hadn't completed my mission," he said.
People once wondered about George Bush. Thanks to Cramer, we don't have to wonder anymore.

The First Person

The author is present.
In the Epilogue, Richard Ben Cramer puts the readers in his shoes for the longest chapter in the book, as he pans the national locker room to show the fighters, bruised and bloody, after the bout.

Cramer begins the book telling us how the people who became president seemed like no one he ever knew. And by the end, he knows. He looks into Bush's eyes on the bus, as the Beach Boys' Mike Love is telling him about a double-girl rubdown, and Cramer can see that nobody's home. Bush was on autopilot, doing what it took to get through to the end. By election day, friend-to-all Poppy is so thoroughly drained that he's not even Poppy anymore. He's not inviting friends back to jaw; he's going home.

Presidents: they're not like us.

Biden starts taking his time
Cramer pays his respects to the dearly departed. He talks to Hart about his woes, the constant disrespect visited upon him, treated like a professional scandal assessor. Gary is wary toward all, even Cramer, telling him he's got "a Washington answer" to a question.

Dick's already thinking about what's next -- not governor or senator but president. Majority Leader simply falls into his lap, so, he sees something to do, something to get him back to where he needs to be to do it again. Bob Dole, well, he always thought about the future. He gets himself set for the vice presidency (just in case) and keeps moving forward. Joe Biden's got his house, and he's not thinking about '92 or any other time soon. He hadn't lost his motor, it was just running at a slower speed.

And Michael. He's too busy beating up on himself for blowing it. The chapter in which he says he had the campaign in his pocket is the shortest of the book. The epilogue, its longest section, explains all the ways Michael did not have it, nor would he find it again once he got home. The Massachusetts Miracle wasn't so miraculous once the paperwork was sorted. Back on Perry Street, Kitty had lost herself to the campaign and, sadly, drink.

It took Bush some time before he became President, a real president who had busted skulls and gotten his man. Meanwhile, the boys who built his bubble left in bubbles of their own, and the reader can sense that it's all about to pop, even though the book was completed long before the '92 election.

Because the end exudes the folly in it all. Yes, there is the great power that Bush possesses. It's the getting there that matters, the powerlessness over so much in it that reminds us what they had, what they gave and what it took.

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Flyin' around . . .

Now reading: Chapter One Hundred Twenty to Epilogue (pages 954 to 1047).

Check back on Sunday for a running discussion. Until then, tweet thoughts and quotes with the hashtag #wit2012.

DISCUSSION: Chapters One Hundred Six to One Hundred Twenty


Dole and Bush with Nancy Kassebaum
It has come to this. Dole has seen another presidential race lost to disorganization and disarray. Still, Bob thought he could do it. He saw Bush as a bleacher-seater in the sport of politics -- too much of a tennis-talkin' friend-to-all to earn respect. On the other hand, Bush didn't think Bob could keep it together. He thought Dole lacked "family" and "values." And tasteless, too, with no sensibilities about how a man should act with another man. (Gonna need a lil' decency, a lil' respect.)

What Dole failed to realize -- perhaps deluded himself from realizing -- is that Bush didn't need to earn respect the same way he did: he had the money, the organization and the trappings of the vice presidency. While Elizabeth and Al Haig were nearly killed when a coil blew in their plane, Bush was still "flyin' around" on Air Force Two, with a crisp backup jet waiting on the runway . . . just in case. No one would be kicking open a cockpit full of smoke on his campaign team.

But the trappings of the vice presidency also became a trap. Bush had to get out of "the bubble" -- and give the people some of the see-me-feel-me-touch-me. So he ran around, tooling on forklifts, helping guys get their cars out of snowbanks . . .  and Bob Dole watched in despair. These were things he could not do. If only he had been "whole." The loss that kept him devastated and hidden in Bina and Dorian's living room for so much time.

Hunter, Beau, Ashley, Jill and Joe
This book is constantly going into what pursuing the White House takes from these men. In one special instance, it reveals what it gives. Joe Biden miraculously cheated death thanks to the decisive action of his brother Jimmy. Even with nothing to do, Joe Biden was hesitant about making a big deal over a headache and going to the hospital. And if he were on the campaign trail, there would have been no way to get him to go. Had he stayed in the race, Biden would have been in New Hampshire that week. He wouldn't have been close to a good hospital. He would have dropped dead on the trail, an Also-Ran who would have never gotten to run again.

And in a few short sentences, we see what Joe Biden learned from it all, as he says what he fears are his last goodbyes with his kids, his wife, his friends and family. He tells them something he had learned fifteen years earlier, when he lost so much more than a presidential race. He tells them: you'll go on.

Lee and Gary in New Hampshire
Gary Hart finds no way forward for his new ideas, for his "reform" candidacy to which there was no other alternative in the race. In Dukakis' march to the nomination, Hart saw "the same stupid inevitability" of Mondale '84. Dukakis never got more than 35, 40 percent anywhere -- "he had a ceiling, he couldn't win -- why didn't anybody write that?" Simply put, nobody liked Dukakis. As Jesse Jackson whispered to Hart in one of the debates, "I don't like that guy . . . he's mean."

Gephardt's killers warned their candidate that if he put even the daintiest hit on Michael's correctness, Dukakis would never forget or forgive. In Dick's flailing campaign, it would mean forgoing the vice presidency and heading back to the House to raise the money for the debt his campaign had amassed -- $100,000 on Dick and Jane's credit card alone. (What It Takes? American Express.) Gephardt openly laments that if they had told him he would have to raise $10 million to run for president, he wouldn't have done it.

Gary against The World
As for Gary, Hart could speak but he could not be heard. When he tried to rouse a room of South Carolina Democrats, there was a moment when it seemed the crowd had caught on. Yet they were only paying respects to former Governor Terry Sanford, who was there to champion the constantly reinvented Al Gore. When Sanford moved to the head table to raise Gore's right arm with his, Hart sought to join in the celebration, and raised Gore's left arm, but Gore pulled jerked his hand down and away. Gary was not wanted.

Gore was not the only one. The press was shoulder-to-shoulder against Gary Hart's return to politics and policy ideas, succinctly put by the Los Angeles Times: "Sit down, Gary. You have nothing to say. You have no place in public life in this country."

What may be the most telling paragraph in the book, Hart concedes:
I'm in a struggle to the death over who I am. And I feel my opponent is the press, who cannot allow me to define myself--they have a stake in this. They're all on record, and they can't bear to see me reemerge as a serious person in this country, because they went so far out and said such terrible things. They can't allow me to succeed.
He drops out of the race days later.

1988 Like It's 2012

Doesn't apologize
There are always similarities between presidential races. It is an event unto itself in American life. And there are more than most in Chapter One Hundred Sixteen.

George Bush's campaign was geared toward the people he had been working on since his earliest days in Texas. They were all Democrats in the 1940s, when the schools, hospitals and electric lines came. But years of wealth and development in the '50s, and then the social changes in the '60s had turned them Republicans. These were "the got mines" that Joe Biden talked about. As Cramer writes, they now wanted the government to do . . . well, not much . . . save to stand tall for America, God bless her." And that's where Bush's Super Tuesday rhetoric came in: "I'll never apologize for her." Ahem.

Meanwhile Bush was doing six-minute events with six months of advance. While he was starving the political press corps to death, his handlers would find time for local TV "interviews" -- very necessarily in quotes. "It was just the VP and a single blow-dry in matching armchairs -- very intimate -- they could really get to know one another . . . you know, for four minutes and thirty seconds." Ahem.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Week Twelve: "WON'T HE DIE?"

Now reading: Chapters One Hundred Six to One Hundred Twenty (pages 872 to 953).

Check back on Sunday for a running discussion. Until then, tweet thoughts and quotes with the hashtag #wit2012.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Ninety One to One Hundred Five

From Sasha Issenberg, Slate columnist and author of The Victory Lab

Michael at a press conference, 1988
Has What It Takes ever been fully appreciated as a book about one of the great folkways of campaign journalism, the dance between newspapers and hometown candidates?  As a former political reporter for The Boston Globe, I was was taken by the great account of the paper’s protective stance towards Dukakis.  That Hub-centric parochialism seems wildly out of date given the far less friendly relationships it’s had in intervening cycles with John Kerry and Mitt Romney. (I recall asking colleagues and old-timers what the Globe’s rapport was like with Paul Tsongas in 1992, and no one had an feel for it.)

What we see later in the section from two other ’88 candidates is more like it.  There’s Gephardt wishing that the St. Louis paper would just ignore him: “Could we—just once!—get one decent story from the Post-Dispatch ... so we could raise a little money?”  And Dole getting dogged by The Hutchinson News, which — as we learn in an aside that tells us more about the Senate Minority Leader than the little daily — is his “old nemesis—the Prairie Pravda,’ he called it.”

But Richard Ben Cramer takes us quickly from the umbrage that the Globe felt upon Hart’s reentry into the campaign to the “spark of life” Dukakis felt on that occasion.  With Hart available, Dukakis found self-definition:

With Hart in the race, Michael Dukakis could be obviously cleaner, more moral, more rational, more disciplined: here was a foil for the Dukakis morality play.

Gary Hart, back in New Hampshire
This makes me think how much What It Takes is a book about primary campaigns — in fact, a novel approach to political narrative that could only have come out of a primary campaign.  Journalists and pundits tend to underestimate how fundamentally different primaries are from general elections: calling it “an intra-squad game,” as some professionals do, seems to overlook the extent that the rules of the game are entirely different.  The big rule of American politics is party.  Political parties offer our structure: intellectual and ideological coherence, an available pool of manpower and an electioneering apparatus, and and an organizing principle for people who require shortcuts to navigate a complex mix of policy and leadership options.

People may say they vote the man, not the party, but most research we have says they’re wrong. In a presidential general election, most voters’ decisions are effectively predetermined.  Sometimes it is direct, as is the case among straight-ticket voters, and sometimes an indirect decision-making maze, but it almost involves the candidates’ parties.  We are basically choosing not between two men, but between a Democrat and a Republican, with all other information — about their records, biographies, agendas, ability to have a beer with — surfacing only to complicate the choice.  (A small fraction of the electorate, far smaller than one would believe from cable news, are actual independents with no partisan predisposition.)  From the moment two candidates each win a nomination, the terms of their battle is more or less set.
In Iowa '88, Dick never got a good pack. (Here in 1994)

But primaries have no such readymade architecture. Public opinion can be unusually volatile because there isn’t much cost to a voter of changing her mind from one Democrat to another.  The big institutional contrast we rely on for guidance doesn’t exist.  The lazy voter can’t shortcut his or her way to a choice among three Republicans or five Democrats, and the seriously civic-minded will probably struggle to find many serious issues where the candidates disagree.  Without parties to hem them in, candidates in presidential primaries have to do the difficult work of self-definition — magnifying policy, character and biographical distinctions to represent broad differences of direction — and usually in a multi-sided field that turns self-mythology into a game-theoretical conundrum.

And so we have Dukakis, newly energized because his most formidable rival has reentered the race. Only in a multi-candidate primary field could a candidate feel to script “a foil in [his] morality play”; it is hard to imagine Dukakis thinking of “cleaner, more moral, more rational, more disciplined” as meaningful contrasts in an ideologically polarized general election.

There’s a reason What It Takes basically ends by the time we get to the conventions. Having the good fortune to report What It Takes in an election year with two wide open nominating contests not only gave Cramer more than a dozen protagonists from among whom to choose.  It is in primaries that candidates have a strategic imperative to indulge what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.”  Without that self-regard — and the reflection and self-examination it demands — Cramer would have had a much harder time entering the psyches of the people who want to be president.

The Victory Lab

Richard Ben Cramer on The Victory Lab

"Sasha Issenberg is our most acute observer of the modern political campaign. With vivid portraiture and crystal-clear prose, he takes us beyond the charge-and-counter-charge, the rallies and stump speeches, to show us the hidden persuaders."

The Victory Lab reaches bookstores on September 11. Pre-order today.


This is perhaps the most uneventful week of the reading, simply for very little happening that moves the story forward. Dole and Bush are duking it out in the early stages of the primaries, Dukakis is energized by the returned, resurgent Gary Hart, and Dick Gephardt is pouring it all into Iowa, which he then wins.

The section is essentially a critique of the reporters, consultants and shapers of conventional wisdom looking for the patterns -- real or imagined -- that make or break the candidate. The most indelible image is that of Bob Shrum in his Italian scarf and shoes, freezing in an Iowa barn full of ticked off farmers, too cold to think. There's also the examples Sasha mentioned above, as well as Gephardt's realization that he would never get the press to like him, and Bush getting sandbagged by his tennis pal, Dan Rather -- not to mention what Broder was writing about Hart. The press' animosity was the price of admission. All of these men paid.

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments.

Monday, August 27, 2012


"I have respect for you, but I don't have respect for you tonight"

Now reading: Chapters Ninety One to One Hundred Five (pages 790 to 871).

Check back on Sunday for a running discussion. Until then, tweet thoughts and quotes with the hashtag #wit2012.