Monday, July 30, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Twenty Six to Thirty Six


Hart under siege, May 1987
Things are not always what they seem in presidential politics, and the imperceptible was the theme in this week's reading, among the most pivotal portions of the book. The big unfolding story is the unmaking of Gary Hart -- the indiscretion, the stakeout and the hounding. But Cramer also pulls the curtain back on what was not seen: what it felt like behind the gates at Troublesome Gulch with Lee and Andrea Hart. What it felt like in Gary's head as he drove the jeep through the pack of reporters in New Hampshire. The journalists' pursuit of Hart's personal life is to reveal the human side, but then there's the human side of getting the human side to consider. . . .

There are the stories no one would suspect. Everybody knew Gary Hart was getting laid, just like everybody knew Kitty Dukakis was having an affair with a Massachusetts State Trooper. That's why she was never around the governor. Only she wasn't. Kitty was battling a near-lifelong pill addiction when the 1988 campaign was getting underway. Michael (soon to be the "Mike" of campaign commercials) wasn't sure she could handle the public scrutiny, but she insisted. She went to Minnesota to get clean, and in her absence a rumor took hold about her security detail indiscretion. Everybody knew, of course, except those who knew.

George Bush embarked on the noble adventure: public service, just like his father Prescott did. Only the Yankee son refused to play to type. Running in Dixie, first he is forced to put a muzzle on his dad, a member of the Republican Eastern Establishment worked up over Goldwater. It seemed every Republican was worked up in 1964: the Goldwater conservatives about the Country Club set, and the Country Club set worked up about the Goldwater conservatives. Bush tried to keep the peace in the party, unexpectedly adding some West Texas sensibilities to his Eastern image. He did a decent job, ticking off some along the way, like when he was chided for not knowing "the difference between a common man and a common common man." But in his 1964 Senate loss, he received more votes than any Republican had in Texas state history. Oh, and the teenaged George W. Bush cries at his father's loss.

Gary Hart captured all the drama of this section. The story of his Bimini jaunt with a young woman, and a private Saturday night party that just happened to have Miami Herald reporters outside, there on a tip. Hart filled with rage, indignation. He was ready to quit almost from the outset -- the process wasn't dignified.

Hart staffers Joe Trippi and Kevin Sweeney
But no one runs for president by himself, and there were a lot of people hurt. Guys who had just uprooted their lives and moved to Colorado or Iowa or New Hampshire were wondering if they had done it all for naught. Field staffer Judy Harrington sunk to the floor in tears. Hart's family members were turned into prisoners in their own home, reporters climbing the gate just to get someone to come out and yell at them again. Lee Hart ignored the advice of others (her girlfriend's old joke about Gary, "We should have cut your THING off fifteen years ago!") and went to her husband. They campaigned in New Hampshire but then word came: the Washington Post had the goods on him. Hart diverted them long enough to escape to Colorado, where he'd get out of the race. Joe Trippi went out to the Post reporter to communicate that Hart was done, and their decision to publish should consider that.

It was when answering the question, "Have you ever committed adultery?" became a qualification for the presidency.

Word of the Week

George Bush, 1964 Republican nominee for U.S. Senate
The Lime-Green Pants Crowd - proper noun

a privileged member of the Republican Party from old money and/or Eastern elite institutions (i.e. Yale or the Council on Foreign Relations). See also: Country Club Republican

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Now reading: Chapters Twenty-seven to Thirty-seven (pages 394 to 475)

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

Monday, July 23, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Twenty One to Twenty Six

From The Gospel According To The Fix, by Chris Cillizza

This week was too hectic to solicit a guest post but I did get a chance to pick up Chris Cillizza's new book, The Gospel According To The Fix. It has a chapter on What It Takes in which Cillizza interviews the author to get at what, how and why Cramer did what he did, introducing a new verb: "I wanted to Ben Cramer Ben Cramer."

Cillizza describes how Cramer came to write the book, and the common thread he found among these six men.
The thread? Their mothers. "In every household the dad was some way recessive," he said. "The moms took every bit of ambition and their focus and their will and pumped it into this kid until that little kid was running by the time he left that house."

That singular focus was not just from the candidates' mothers though. Ben Cramer said he was struck by how "their whole world bent around them. . . they were the heavy lumps of iron." That phenomenon also produced another one: the presidential candidates almost always had, in Ben Cramer's words, "a crazy brother." Why? Because the golden child "sucks up every little bit of sunshine," leaving nothing for the siblings."
You've got to buy the book for more of the insights that Cillizza ferrets out, including Cramer's top notch reporting tips. It's great fun, with profiles, forecasting and political trivia. Cillizza can drop in a quote from the 1984 Almanac of American Politics. That's all the reason you need. Here's hoping he does another one in four years.


Gary and Oletha Hartpence, 1958
This week we got the background on Gary and Oletha Hartpence (they don't become Gary and Lee Hart until later in the section). Gary was a nerd and she was a queen in their Nazarene world. Lee was the daughter of an important preacher and yet she took an interest in the heady Hart. Nicknamed "Bossy" as a kid, she subsequently played dumb or clueless all the time which let Gary talk and talk and be the sharpest, shiniest tool in the shed. One might find it hard to feel for Gary Hart. He comes across as so arrogant, almost reckless. But we come to like him because of his constant sense of discovery -- especially when the couple heads east to Yale. Everything back home got smaller or, in Cramer writes, "shrank."

And that word capsulizes the experience that all of these men have in running for the presidency. Think about where each them were in 1987: Gephardt, Bush, Biden, Dole, Hart and Dukakis were all in top form. They had had their trials but by that year, they were respectable and in command. Compare that with the 2012 cycle that saw several undistinguished or washed up candidates hold center stage.

Gephardt and Shrum's TelePrompTer from California
The 1988 candidates are the heroes of the book. Some operatives are good, some are bad. Bob Shrum, for one, looks like a jerk finishing Gephardt's announcement speech so late that the candidate doesn't have a chance to work on it. He just has to go. Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor explains that he was covering his ass by not writing about Biden in an admirable way. ("Suppose the ingrate embezzles the orphans' fund next Tuesday. Then who looks like a fool?") And even E.J. Dionne, reporting for The New York Times and depicted well by Cramer, leads his story from Hart's hometown suggesting a Muskie moment: "He nearly cried." Never mind that The Wall Street Journal had called his mother crazy.

This was the problem with the book's critical reception in 1988, as Cillizza's book gets at: the candidates aren't supposed to be the heroes. Most of them end up losers! And besides, they are transitory. Meanwhile the institutional players -- the press and the operatives -- remain the same. And so when What It Takes came out, making the candidates look big and the rest look crushingly petty, of course Washington hated it.

And we're left with the question Hart asks a friend of his mama's, "why would anybody want to run for President of the United States?"

The Duke Tells a Joke

Another fun anecdote from this week was when Michael Dukakis learns how to slow down, look up and land a zinger. For example, this one about Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard seceding from Massachusetts and a nuclear-happy Republican governor from New Hampshire.

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Seventeen to Twenty

From Lizzie O'Leary, correspondent for CNN

Ordinariness. That’s the thing here.

Cramer knows (even in the intro) “The President – was someone altogether larger, and more extraordinary, than we.” But these men are, well, not.

So you tunnel in at ground level. There is no soaring historical arc. No “first.”

Just a bunch of guys, pushed along by another bunch of guys, who are busy inventing the science of modern campaign warfare.  Often internecine. The brilliance of the book is that the drama comes from the ordinary.

Since we’re on the Biden and Gephardt introduction chapters, it’s this bit that nails it for me:
So everybody in the country who could read knew that Biden wanted to run, but he wasn’t going to run without message … and he didn’t have a message … nothing to say. 
They stay up all night, they talk about everything, but they can’t find their hook. And Biden hasn’t seen The Big Chill. He’s not a generation-definer, he’s just a guy.

And Gephardt? He “could keep that intelligent-dog look through a six-hour meeting.”


Just ordinary guys. Cramer says his goal is for you to feel the experience. And you do. Sometimes I want to cringingly turn away.


'Guru Madness' is catching in this week's reading as we meet the final two candidates: Joe Biden and Dick Gephardt. Both Democrats, both utterly screwed.

Pat Caddell, 1988
We read about the mess of Senate staffers, former Mondale aides and gurus that comprise the Biden campaign. The big idea is to make Joe Biden the healer of twenty-year-old wounds -- to give the post-war generation its second chance at changing the world. "To reawaken the dream."

But that wasn't Biden. He was a few years too old and many years too mature to get wrapped up in "this generation thing: '68. . . . He was married. He had kids. Anyway, even in college he was the guy who wore a suit jacket to class." But Pat Caddell, in his guru wisdom, sought to remake him into Bobby Kennedy, and it was all supposed to start at the 1987 California Democratic Convention.

As Biden is furiously editing the speech, tossing papers to and fro, and as Caddell is crawling around on his knees trying to save the essential sections of his Baby Boomer opus, something goes wrong. The speech is all out of order, pages go missing, and after they reassemble the Frankenstein text in Sacramento, Biden calls Jill before the speech, reads her a section and says, "I told you we had the best speechwriters."

Actually, Bobby Kennedy had the best speechwriters. Thanks to our friends at Buzzfeed, we bring you this video.

Nobody caught Biden's mistake at the time because no one was really paying attention to him: it was still Gary Hart out front. And nobody seemed to catch Cincinnati's Jerry Springer as he ran for Congress in 1969, not even when This American Life cut a profile of his political days in 2004. Young Springer, who allegedly volunteered on RFK's campaign, drew a lot of comparisons to the slain Kennedy. It's no wonder why.

Rep. Dick Gephardt, first term congressman, 1977
As for our man from Missouri, reading about Dick Gephardt's straight shot up the St. Louis political hierarchy and into Congress reminds me: had he not run for president again in 2004, it could have been Speaker Gephardt instead of Speaker Pelosi. You get the sense that he knew how to bring people together, all those bills with his name on them. It would take most members their entire careers to get their names on just one of those things, and yet Gephardt in such a short amount of time compiles so many, what else could he do but run for president?

The guy has a gift. "You could feel him listening," Cramer writes. "Gephardt could keep that intelligent-dog look through a six-hour meeting. . . . until you were weak from being listened to." And accomplished though he is, he wants to get more done than the House can offer. So he runs.

And then Guru Madness catches. Bill Carrick is brought in to remake the campaign, who brings on Bob Shrum who brings on David Doak. All of a sudden its a cluster of "the new hired killers" who don't know what to make of their listening robot. Shrum is late for his first meeting with the Gephardts by hours (he's busy talking with Andrew Cuomo about his dad). Yet when he shows up late, Dick is still pleasant and eager, ready to listen. And so, as Bill Carrick tells the other gurus, "You don't wanna let up on this guy. You can't push hard enough on this sumbitch... you let up, he'll pussy out on you."

It's a wonderful thing, running for president.

Top Tweets

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments.

Monday, July 9, 2012


There will be Biden
Now reading: Chapters Seventeen to Twenty (pages 240 to 311)

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

Sunday, July 8, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Ten to Sixteen

From Steve Kornacki, co-host of The Cycle and writer for Salon

The first time I interviewed Michael Dukakis was on the afternoon before Election Day 2000. I was a senior in college and, almost on a lark, had dialed his office number at Northeastern University in Boston, figuring I’d put in a request with his secretary and never hear back. Needless to say, I was startled by the voice that answered my call. “Dukakis here.”

Governor Michael Dukakis, 1986
The interview I proposed would be broadcast to a journalism class of about 20 students and no one else, but he readily agreed. My team and I showed up outside Meserve Hall a few minutes before the appointed hour – just in time to run into the Duke, who was finishing up the two-mile walk from Perry Street to campus. We introduced ourselves and told him what we hoped to achieve with our project (something about inspiring young people to public service, I think) and he replied with an expression straight out of What It Takes: “Terrific.”

My hope had been to get him to engage in some spontaneous personal reflecting on the experience of running for president. If you’ve read Cramer’s book, you probably know how this worked out. Dukakis had long before done his thinking about the 1988 race and had a familiar, thoroughly non-introspective answer ready for everything I asked. He’d give his stock reply, then segue to the present tense, which meant the Bush-Gore race. Occasionally, a student would pop in to ask about course selection or internships, and he’d efficiently oblige. The phone rang every few minutes, and his conversations were brisk and business-like – except one, where his mood suddenly turned affectionate and playful. Kitty, obviously.

Listening as he talked to his wife that day was (and, 12 years and six subsequent interviews with him later, still is) my one glimpse of the other Mike Dukakis – the one who we meet in Chapter 11 chasing his cousin Tiki around with a severed fish’s head. When he hung up with Kitty, he didn’t miss a beat and went right back to talking Bush, Gore and national healthcare. Like Cramer writes, with Dukakis, “there are only two types of people. There is family, and there is everyone else.”


I am always intrigued by how Cramer introduces us to candidates. Bush at the Astrodome, Dole schlepping around. Here we meet Michael Dukakis, at ease, being playful and boyish, as Steve writes above. Though we do get a good picture of his stiffness, his dislike for "Sasso-grease" on the wheels of state government, and even his top aide's effort to rebrand him as "Mike" (see the campaign commercial at left) when he preferred "Michael."

Robin Bush
We also meet Gary Hart, brilliant and burning, who doesn't talk much unless he's talking about ideas -- a trick he learned with girls in high school. The reader is shown that he is "Right From The Start" yet also 'Doomed From The Start,' with the photographs of him exiting his townhouse behind an attractive young woman. Even with all his heady interactions with Mikhail "The Soviet Gary Hart" Gorbachev and Henry Kissinger, his womanizing would become the beef of his candidacy.

But the personal does matter. How the candidates coped with adversity in their lives -- and this is one of the more controversial aspects of this book -- provides insight to how they will operate their campaigns. Experiences with three family members are explored in this selection. Hart's son, angry and demurring. Dukakis' brother, the original Duke, bitter and depressed. And Bush's daughter, taken at such an early age.

Word of the Week

diddybop ('didi-bop') - noun
an overly eager member of the news media exiting a campaign plane

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Gary Hart at the 1984 Democratic National Convention

Now reading: Chapters Ten to Sixteen (pages 161 to 239)

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

Sunday, July 1, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Four to Nine

UPDATE: Guest Post by Jonathan Martin

The first thing I think of when I consider What It Takes is the Dole voice. It's a book full of evocative imagery, but I always hear the Bobster's half-formed sentences whenever somebody mentions the Cramer opus.

And these chapters include one of the classics, best conjured in Norm Macdonald of SNL's impression "Well, agh, kinda don't . . . I mean, politics," Dole says when asked about his hobbies.

One can taste the bean soup, visualize the cloak room and picture the Leader with that crooked grin and closed right fist.

A beaut.


So, the Great Power Outage of 2012 has waylaid our first guest post, so let me just kick off this week's conversation.

Last week's reading, the last half of Book One, is the most humanizing stuff about Bush and Dole. Bush skips college to fly in the Pacific, (the nickname: "George Herbert Walker Bush," because he was so "Not Like That"). Then he gets shot down, picked up by the Finback, and we meet Barb. Then there are his Yale, packed G.I. Bill apartment house years.

Bina Dole with her son Bob, 1976.
Some of the best stuff in the entire book, though, is Dole's experience: going to war, in the war, and after the war. The eight cigarette butts stuck in his plaster cast on the train is one of those details that let you know how far the strapping, 6"2, 195 lb. athlete had fallen. When the geezer in Dawson's asks if he wished they'd just finished him off, and he says he wouldn't be alive if he thought like that. I mean, you really get why he ran for president three times. He couldn't be kept down.

Bush and Dole's experiences are incredibly humanizing, the sacrifices they made and the challenges they faced. Yet even they had to prove they could relate to everyday people. As Jonathan writes above, even Dole had to answer for his hobbies.

Top Tweets

Share more thoughts, quotes and scenes in the comments.