Monday, August 20, 2012

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.


  1. Maybe it's the Gephardt quote, or Biden going down in a shark attack (blood in the water, get it?) but this week's reading made me realize that What It Takes is like the SAW movies for politics.

  2. Also found it very fitting that Gephardt's 'won't quit' backstory is about is son getting cancer, and Dukakis's is . . . a deficit.