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.

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Share more thoughts, quotes and scenes in the comments.


  1. I agree that the WWII battle scenes are compelling. It does remind us that most of the presidents (Ike, JFK, Nixon, Bush) from that generation actually fought in WWII while the presidents from the next generation (Clinton, W.) didn't fight in Vietnam and the candidates that did fight in Vietnam (Gore, John Kerry, McCain and Bob Kerrey) all lost.

    I do recommend a visit to the library at the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas. I have been lucky enough to get a tour of the archives there and it is fun to see all of the items that Bob Dole and staff had collected over the years. While the book mentions on p.155 Bob Dole giving his staff "all of the gifts that pile up under Betty's desk," there are plenty of gifts that have ended up at the Dole archives.

    The other passage that seemed even more relevant in retrospect was the part about the Bushes' Christmas card list. On p.154 when it notes "thirty thousand Christmas cards. to FRIENDS" it struck me that Barbara Bush's Christmas card list was really the first example of a "social network" contributing to the election of a president - two decades before Facebook.

    1. It used to be a big deal for a governor or former candidate to share his files on county leaders and party kingfishers. It was one of the most valuable things in politics, practically impossible to assemble any other way.

  2. About that late '86 Bush speech where he goes off text to say "Mistakes were made" about Iran-Contra, and he got a lot of good feedback (p. 125). That phrase ended up being what Reagan said in the '87 State of the Union. According to Bill Safire, it was its first modern use. And it goes to show where the Veep can be the shaper of White House messaging, even when he's cut out of the picture (as Bush was on the issue).

    1. I also liked when Dole outflanked him, or as Cramer writes, "danced his spectacular tarantella on the White Housen the Congress, his fellow candidates," and called the all inquiries to Iran-Contra as "just plain stupid." The Manchester Union-Leader ate it up, and later ran the anti-GHWB headline: "MORE MUSH FROM THE WIMP."

    2. MORE MUSH FROM THE WIMP was a Boston Globe mistake. A copy editor put it in as the internal slug for an editorial about a Presidential Address to the Nation...and somehow it slipped all the way through to print.

  3. Anybody notice the part about Bush having to express himself by telling stories about the war? It was mentioned that Prescott Bush didn't like to talk about his experiences in WWI, and then when Poppy got back, he barely ever wanted to talk about it. If you check out pages 94-5:

    "He'd done his part. That was all he'd say. He didn't even pick up any cheap points with Bar, saying he'd thought of her when he thought he was a goner, in the ocean. And she, being Bar, didn't ask if he did."

    But then politics came calling, and he had to use his experiences to convey a sentiment in times of war, in times of peace, and even to impress evangelicals.

    Running for president is, in so many ways, having to tell one's life story in a way that people can relate to. Once you consider that, you see why Maraniss writing about Obama's storytelling is so important, and why Mitt Romney's struggle to relate is not as frivolous as many might think. This has always been a part of voters' decision.