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. 

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