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. 


  1. We saw several candidates snap at reporters this cycle, but when Hart gets up in Dan Balz's face and says, "Your reporting is so shallow, it's ... it's ... You always ... miss ... the point." Well ... it had so much more character.

  2. I also love when Cramer writes about the cornball stuff that Lee Hart and her college boyfriend used to get into with simply:

    "That kind of thing."