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.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Seventy Nine to Ninety


So much of this section is about who and what Bob Dole is. It's something of a familiar pattern in What It Takes: we see a person struggle to control his public image, fail, and then wallow in the popular perception before he washes out. Some go out with a bang (Hart, Biden). Others, a whimper.

Bob Dole is from Russell, the Dust Bowl town that nurtured Bob after birth and near-death. When he becomes the vice presidential nominee, he and Ford go to Russell, where Bina is overwhelmed and Bob gets choked up. He fights for Gerald Ford, with the responsibility of winning 130,000 votes a day. And in the end, had less than 10,000 votes in Ohio and Hawaii been different, they would have done it. Though not according to Barbara Walters, who had the nerve to ask Bob, sick and worn with exhaustion, didn't he think that he had lost the election for Jerry Ford?

This cigar box . . .
So Bob went back to work, and twelve years later, Bub Dawson opened the 1988 Dole campaign with a story of how Russell brought Bob back from the war. "There was a cigar box on the counter with Bob Dole's name on it." The citizens pitched in to help Bob get back on his feet. Now, the cigar box was back, and the citizens of Russell had packed it once more, this time with $135,000 for Bob's campaign.

It was a different Bob Dole by '88. In 1974, he'd been in a fight for his life -- his first Senate re-election, his first campaign since his divorce from Phyllis, and with Watergate hanging over his head (metaphorically and literally: he lived there!) It was a vicious campaign, and Bob proved to be the most vicious. And when he returns too the Senate and works with George McGovern(!) on feeding the hungry(!) . . .  people went looking for why Bob Dole was Nice.

"Whah, yes!"
They found the answer in the Southern spark plug from Salisbury, Elizabeth. Washington loved a neat explanation. She was the "Nice coach" teaching Bob "how to Be Nice!" (The mystery woman who Bob's Kansas friends watched, wide-eyed, as she packed away the chicken noodle butterball and cherry pie and still kept her figure.) Elizabeth was a force of nature who scared most Capitol Hill men to death. But not Bob Dole. They were going places together.

George Bush was always going places. That's why Bar liked China so much: George had nothing to do at night, few appointments in the afternoon. They had lived so many places, but at the consulate, they actually lived together.

George's career of public service had taken on a pattern -- a holding pattern. George waited patiently for his turn as he was passed over or screwed by three successive presidents. Nixon considered him for VP, then took his trust, sullied his standing. Ford took him as CIA director and ruled him out for the '76 ticket. Carter wouldn't keep Bush on as "Head Spook" to make an agency-above-politics statement. (That burned George up.) Then it was seven years with Reagan's consolation prize, and by the time Bush announced in '87, the writing was on the wall: "WIMP." George Bush was -- as George Bush might say -- a 'weenie.' Newsweek had screwed him on the day of his announcement with that cover.

And so he put his foot down and made a speech that said, "I Am A Man." Albeit, "I am a man who . . ." but a man nonetheless. It was a message Bush carried all the way to his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

As the Democrats go, Duke was running sans message. Michael deserved to be president, he believed, by the content of his gubernatorial conduct and not the color of his personality. He was running for "National Governor." And when Susan Estrich came in and saw how Michael and Sasso had done things, well, she had thoughts. "I don't understand how you ran this thing for six months without a fucking thing to say!"

Dick Gephardt now had too much to say: so much attack in him that his killers were worried he was too aggressive. Dick had to knock off Paul Simon ("Bambi" in Joe Trippi's estimation) Bruce Babbitt ("Son of Bambi"), and Al Gore. Gephardt sparred with $2,000-an-hour-worth of Washington lawyers to practice. And then he killed too hard. Shrum and the others were taken aback. "They wanted him to kill, but be himself, but show some balls, but Presidential . . . and there were no answers." This was the most expensive advice a guy could buy.

How wonderful to be running for president. 

The Best of The Bobster's Burns

Bob yukking, 1971
Before he learned to "Be Nice," Bob Dole had a rep as the toughest campaign hatchet man there was. Here's a sample of his zingers (some were doozies) from this section.

"Go home and ask your parents if they know how many abortions Bill Roy has performed."

"used to call him southern-fried McGovern . . . but I have a lot of respect for Senator McGovern."

"I figured up, the other day: if we added up the killed and wounded in the Democrat wars, in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans . . . enough to fill the city of Detroit!"

"Carter's got three positions on everything. That's why he wants three debates."

"I thought I was very friendly. I called him 'Fritz' a couple of times. He called me 'hatchet man.'"

Monday, August 20, 2012


"I smell VICTORYYYY! . . ."

Now reading: Chapters Seventy Nine to Ninety (pages 715 to 789)

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

DISCUSSION: Chapters Sixty Four to Seventy Eight

From Josh Benson, co-editor of Capital


Joe Biden needs context. All politicians do, but as the ongoing "chains" controversy indicates, the need in Biden's case is particularly acute.

He talks a lot, and with a supreme confidence in his ability to do so extemporaneously. And contrary to the crazy-uncle caricature of him as vice president, that confidence is usually justified. He's an ambitious speaker, and good on his feet, and he can give a speech, in plain English.

Out of context, it's Biden's moments of rhetorical excess—the ones so outrageously at odds with approved campaign language that they go viral the moment the words are out of his mouth;that define him as a public figure. He becomes the sum of his gaffes.

The re-elect
Never has Biden been as sympathetically, and brilliantly, contextualized as he was in What It Takes. The end of Biden's campaign in 1988, after his most famous blunder ever, is the culmination one of the book's two great tragic narratives (the other being the end of Gary Hart's campaign).

The Biden portions of What It Takes say much about him, and about how presidential campaigns work, that is perfectly relevant today, as the Obama campaign once again finds itself answering viewership-boosting questions about whether they might not swap him out for Hillary Clinton. Biden will never be a boring speaker, or a disciplined one; the first draft of history will always be less kind to him than the ones that are written later, when the author has had time to determine what's important and what isn't.


It's the end of the line for Joe Biden, chased out of the race -- "blackmailed" in the press, some would feel -- by accusations of plagiarism in a mysterious "attack tape" and similar misconduct in law school. They were doing what Biden abhorred, labeling him "a cheat." Initially, Joe decides to make a stand, hold a press conference to talk this problem down. And he holds forth, as we see a page-and-a-half of Biden verbatim, totally in his element, explaining who and what he was and is.

And . . . it all gets digested into a three-word headline: "BIDEN ADMITS PLAGIARISM." In hindsight, these were things that could have been manageable were Biden not chairing the hearings to defeat President Reagan's Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork. That was more important than anything to him -- "twenty years." So Joe had to do the right thing and quell the spectacle around him. Perhaps they were just not that "ruthless," as Jill Biden would put it. Joe seemed to agree: they were not as ruthless as Michael and Kitty Dukakis.

But Joe is surprisingly calm and collected about the whole thing. And because he had gone down so nobly, the press feels bad. All of a sudden, they were full of indignation: who could have done this to Joe Biden? (Never mind that they were sniffing around Jimmy Biden's bankruptcy, and Joe couldn't tell his anxious congressional backers how many other shoes would drop -- it all depended on what the press considered a 'shoe.')

Gephardt finds out what losing feels like
The press settles on Gephardt as the culprit, and they go at him hard. CBS News makes the link -- Gephardt was dirty! Lesley Stahl! Dan Rather! At Dick's throat! Gephardt got in the race thinking he couldn't lose. Even if he didn't win, he was still young and would come away with national exposure. Yet here he was, losing. His campaign an embarrassment, completely stuck in the mud. And now he was being pegged as the guy who did Biden dirty?

"This just shows . . . you can do nothin' wrong . . . and they'll STILL . . . FUCK . . . YOU . . . TO DEATH!" he told a stunned senior staff meeting. Dick's becoming one of the killers, and he likes it. Too bad he has to throw over guys who'd been with him for eighteen years for killer-approved hacks.

Speaking of replacing people, Dukakis is dismayed at having to -- simply having to -- fire John Sasso for making the "attack tape." Everything was going so well for Michael. He was raising money, building stature, talking to world leaders, coming off like a real president. And he was doing it the right way, meeting his lifelong need to be more righteous than humanly possible, to be, as Cramer repeats over and over, "correct."

Sasso, always slightly offstage, where Michael needed him
What Sasso had done was not "correct," and Sasso felt no need to explain why. This was how it was with them -- the "Don't tell Michael" ethos. Out of sight, like Billy Bulger traipsing the balcony of the statehouse past Michael into John's office all those years! What did Michael think he was up to? And now it was a question of loyalty. Well, that wasn't why they were in politics. Michael had been telling friends about the "common weal" thing ever since they got into power. He wouldn't even do the smallest of favors for people. No jobs. No low-number license plates that cost nothing. Michael would have a dinner for them, a small group. But no caterer. That'd be too rich. The governor himself would make turkey tetrazzini for twenty five. So John had to go.

"... this was hate."
And the would-be first ladies shone a lot of light in this section. Jane Gephardt tells Dick that he doesn't know what his killers are up to, that he no longer has control. Kitty Dukakis struggles to console Michael as the "attack tape" is pinned on him. And Jill Biden truly shines here. We see her enter the world of Joe, Beau, Hunter, Val, Jimmy and Mom-Mom. (Two dates, and Joe is ready to settle down!) Jill learns how the Bidens are, and shares in the plans, shares in Joe's dream. And so when it crashes down, she feels it worse than Joe does. As Cramer writes:

"She stared straight ahead at a wall of cameras, the pack . . .  but she met no one's eyes. She hated them. First time in her life . . . but it was true: this was hate. They were destroying what Joe worked for, twenty years. It was just another story for them."

What It Bakes: Turkey tetrazzini for twenty-five

Chef Michael Du-cook-is
In case you are one day elected Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and need to thank your closest supporters while on a budget and suffering from sanctimonious self-delusion, you're going to need to know how to make turkey tetrazzini for twenty five like the Duke.


  • 3 (16 ounce) packages uncooked spaghetti
  • 1-1/2 cups and 1 tablespoon butter 
  • 1-1/2 cups and 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour 
  • 9-1/3 cups chicken broth
  • 6-1/4 cups milk
  • 5-1/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese
  • 12-1/2 cups chopped cooked turkey


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a very, very big baking dish.
  2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add spaghetti, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente. Drain, and place in the prepared baking dish.
  3. Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour. Mix in chicken broth and milk. Cook and stir until the mixture comes to a boil. Stir in about 5 1/4 cups Parmesan cheese, and remove from heat.
  4. Mix chicken broth mixture and turkey with spaghetti. Top with remaining cheese. Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes in the preheated oven, until surface is lightly browned.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


"What does John think?"

Now reading: Chapters Sixty Four to Seventy Eight  (pages 642 to 714)

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

Monday, August 13, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Fifty to Sixty Three

From James Hohmann, reporter and editor of Politico's "Morning Score"

Lawrence E. Spivak and RNC Chairman Dole, 1972
Strong backstory helps make What It Takes a masterpiece. In chapters fifty to sixty, Richard Ben Cramer shows how Bob Dole came to loathe and resent George H.W. Bush in the two decades before they clashed in the 1988 campaign. This helps us understand why he behaved the way he did that fall.

The product of Russell felt like he earned his position on the national stage. A series of experiences deepened his sense that Bush got it handed to him: Dole had been in the House for the better part of a decade when Bush showed up in the late 1960s and nabs a coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee because the freshman had family connections. Dole is bothered by Bush’s continued rise even after he lost his 1970 Texas Senate race. (Bob had won his in Kansas against the odds, after all.)

Then Dole gets pushed out as chairman of the Republican National Committee after the 1972 election, and goes to gauge Bush’s interest in the job at Nixon behest. Bush doesn’t reveal during their meeting that he’s already talked with the president. Richard tells us that Dole kept “an unfading memory of Bush’s blank, friendly smile.”

Chuck Grassley at Ames, 1987
The author so ably links these experiences to Dole’s sense that he understood the voters in a way that Bush did not. As Chuck Grassley said at the Ames straw poll, Dole was “one of us.”

“In the Bush-mind,” meanwhile, “Dole was a Beltway Bandito, an inside player, the kind you watch out for…Bush had known Bob Dole for 20 years – and never known him.”  Richard also ties all this to Dole’s continuing insecurity, an important theme which drives the senator to bring Bill Brock on board and replace some of his longtime loyalists.

It’s all part of an ever-present sense of grievance that drives Dole. It’s the little details that make readers understand. He liked his bean-counter at headquarters, an old Kansas friend named Kirk Clinkenbeard, because he had a vision disability, for example.

Four fun pieces of color

  • Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills nicknamed Bush “Rubbers” because he introduced a birth control bill soon after winning his House seat
  • Dole fell in love with Nixon because he was the only one in Washington who stuck out his left hand to shake.
  • Dole gave Washington the CREEP nickname for Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President.
  • Bush allowed Roger Ailes, now the Fox News chief then Bush's image consultant, once chastised Bush after a speech in which he took off his suit coat to reveal his tie and a short-sleeve dress shirt. “Don’t ever wear that shirt again,” he told him after. “You looked  like a fucking CLERK!”


After hundreds of pages of Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Dick Gephardt breaking their necks, getting pulled under by their campaigns, George Bush returns in this section... on vacation.

In the harried summer of 1987, George Bush spent twenty-five nights "reck-reating" with Bar and the "grands." The Bush consultants -- "the white men," as Cramer calls them -- were content with him in repose. They didn't need any unforced errors. And indeed, their strategy at that point was all about capitalizing the relationship with his "Big Friend," RR, Ronald Reagan. Bush was a loyal guy who treated Reagan with the deferential respect the presidency deserved -- the deferential respect all presidents deserved.

Bush and his Big Friend
This is a key point of the section: the perks and the pitfalls of serving the President. With his "Big Friend," it meant that Bush could be "flyin' around," as Dole put it in an early chapter, on Air Force 2 free of the usual trappings of travel. It meant Bush didn't have to sweat the way Dole did through the '86 elections. It meant he could run as a junior partner, no matter how much Dole saw himself as Reagan's true partner, the guy the White House called in the Senate when it needed things done.

And then there is the case study of Bush and Richard Nixon. Bush, chairman of the RNC, served with unfailing loyalty in the most troubled years of the Republican Party's existence. And it came at a steep price to his personal integrity. The letters he sent and signed "Very Truly Yours," the speeches he gave and meetings he had, reassuring nervous Republicans that Nixon was unfairly accused, would be exonerated, that he had the President's word.... Well, loyalty had turned George Bush from the respectable U.N. ambassador to the party shill. It was terribly difficult.

Of course, Bush and Dole, from their different stations in birth and life, have wildly varying definitions of 'difficult.' Bush's years at the RNC stole some personal integrity; Bob Dole's years took his personal life.

Brock'n'Dole (Bill Brock and Bob Dole), 1987
Dole wanted to challenge Hugh Scott for Leader in the Senate, and had to build the profile to do it. So his friends in the Nixon administration barely -- just barely -- give him the chairman's job. So Bob takes on the job in full, sleeps in the basement four hours every night before he's back in the car again, misses out on raising his daughter, and eventually sacrifices his marriage to move up in the party. And Nixon barely appreciates it, tossing him out for George Bush after the '72 elections before Dole even got a chance to plead his case.

So Bob needed a Big Guy to match Bush's Big Friend, and found one in former Senator Bill Brock. Brock was surrounded by a bunch of smart guys, so naturally Dole turns over the campaign to them. As the 'Klingons' slowly mow down Dole's Kansas friends-turned-staff, Bob does his best to stomach it, to play in the big leagues. But he has to put his foot down somewhere: when the Klingons can one too many of Bob's farmboys. One might call them the 'little friends.'

Bush edits on the spot, Ames, 1987
And then Bush, fighting the 'wimp' factor, trying to be more like his Big Friend, has a speech at the Iowa Republican straw poll. The idea is "tough Boy Scout." He'd open with substance, saying he served alongside a great president, "And I'm damned proud of it." Well, he looked out at a crowd, couldn't find his people (the white men hadn't organized so well) and all he could see were a bunch of Pat Robertson t-shirt-wearing, no cussing Christians sitting in front of him. And all of a sudden "damned proud" became "very very proud." He finished third that day.

Inside the Chapter: "White Men"

There's a lot about Bush's "white men" in this section, Cramer's term for Bush's consultants. Barbara Bush took great offense to this, as Cramer later said in the C-SPAN "Booknotes" interview:

The February 1992 issue
After I had sent her the pages, she wrote me a note that she had to stop reading it because she found it hurtful. I subsequently heard that what really bothered her was when I started talking about all of Bush's advisers as "the white men in suits." She thought I was trying to make Bush look like some kind of racist when, in fact, it had nothing to do with race. I was talking about class or, better yet, American substitute for class, which is power and money. So I think her unhappiness was based on a misreading, but there you have it. 

The whiff of racism was heightened, no doubt, by the attention the Willie Horton ad gained -- one of the most enduring images of the 1988 election. It may have had something to do with the title of the 1992 excerpt published in Esquire magazine: "George Bush's White Men." But that was simply the name Cramer had for Bush's boys, as Biden had his "gurus," Gephardt his "killers," Dole his Bill Brock-bred "Klingons," and, most importantly, Gary Hart's "white boys." It was an affectation at best, an uncomfortable statement of fact at worst, but not an indictment of Bush and his court as racist.

And as for the whitest of the white boys, Lee Atwater, Cramer portrays him here as a lovable, mumblin' rascal. In the "Booknotes" interview, after Atwater's untimely death, Cramer said he felt he was "a man quite a bit misunderstood" by those who covered him.

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Week Eight: "Heyy! Nice digs!"

Dole, celebrating, Nov. 5, 1968

Now reading: Chapters Fifty to Sixty Three (pages 561 to 641)

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

Sunday, August 5, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Thirty Eight to Forty Nine


With Gary Hart depleted, the book really lives up to its title again this week with the taking of the 'what' from Biden and Gephardt. Feeling the strain, not seeing the progress and wondering if it's worth it... the 'what' has been taken, folks.

Biden at the August 1987 Democratic candidates forum
Joe Biden is getting doubts. The gurus dismiss it as nerves (Bill Russell, pukin' in the basket before every game) though something's off for Joe, and he can't put his finger on what it is. He always had eyes bigger than his stomach, and yet when he's got a house full of smart guys telling him how to eat the biggest thing of all, he doesn't feel hungry.

So there's that problem, and then the other thing that happens when you're running for president is that other things happen. Like Supreme Court nominations that mess up your tidy campaign calendar. Reagan nominates Robert Bork to the Court, and Joe fumbles his reaction. It's around this time that Tom Shales writes that Biden "comes across on TV as someone whose fuse is always lit," and he's right: the propensity to explode. When he screwed up the Bork thing, he tells the gurus, it's not just his presidential campaign that's ruined -- it's his entire Senate career!

First Ladies Forum, 1987
We also see a slight inferiority complex with Biden and "the river of power" that runs through the Ivy Leagues and lets those who swim in it go where they desire. Biden really liked the words of British Labour minister Neil Kinnock, someone else who hadn't swam in the river, asking why he was the first one in his family to go to college. Biden would repeat that line and attribute it to Kinnock several times. But then, with so much on his mind at the candidates forum, he didn't.

The Gephardts were also overwhelmed. "It was like camping without the woods. Without the privacy. And with lots more stuff." That's how Iowa was for Jane Gephardt. Try doing laundry and running a presidential campaign at the same time. It's no fun. Jane is exhausted, to the point where it manifests in her humor at the start of her speech to the First Ladies Forum. Meanwhile, the consultants, Shrum and Carrick and Reilly, had to get Dick to kill, kill KILL Dukakis at the forum, and... Gephardt didn't get in a single dig. It was just as the consultants expected: he was too nice, would back down first chance he got. So they sent him back out and nothing again. Rich Gephardt, the high school actor, was in a "zombie-zone," trying to remember too many lines, too many stage directions all at once. They wiped his makeup off. This was a role he could not perform.

Even Gephardt's son would tower over Dukakis, Dick's consultants giggled.
The person not losing his 'what,' but actually showing what it takes in this section is Dukakis. Michael is focused, and attempting to go through sans mistakes. He knows what to say and he drives his conversations in Iowa just like he had in Brookline all those years earlier. See, it wasn't about human feelings or friendships, it was about doing business. It was just like the time he destroyed a fellow Democratic reformer -- a friend going back to high school -- to win the 1970 lieutenant governor nomination. It was what he had to do. Michael (he would never be Mike Dukakis) was a serious man. Michael Dukakis should be governor, they said, and soon they would say it about him being president.

Kitty, though, that was a different story. Presenting herself perfectly at a first ladies forum, really nailing it. And then, on a commercial flight stuck on the tarmac, she blows up with a 'DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?' in front of a Boston Herald reporter.

A President Biden/President Bartlet Moment

Biden was done playing to the 1960's culture. "I don't want this crap. This is your story, not my story!" Biden shouts at Pat Caddell, the maddest guru in the guru madness. Luckily for Caddell, he later got the opportunity to craft the president he wanted: Josiah Barlet of The West Wing, where he served as a consultant.

This week, there was the particularly hilarious scene in which the Biden household is scrambling to get to the announcement in Wilmington (I picture the opening scene of Home Alone) and Caddell stops everyone in their tracks, shouting, "LISTEN TO THIS NOW" and proceeds to play the finale to Les Misérables.

You just know that this scene from the West Wing's season three finale came from the inspired mind of Caddell.

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Gephardt goes in

Now reading: Chapters Thirty Eight to Forty Nine (pages 479 to 560)

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