Home > Biography, Books, Politics > What It Takes, 2

What It Takes, 2

January 29, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments


Two weeks ago, I unveiled my New Year’s resolution: read fewer books. A few days later, I described one of my techniques for achieving this: read a 1050-page book. Namely, Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

I quoted a brief description of What It Takes from the NYT obituary of Cramer: “The book uses exhaustive research and vigorous, detailed reporting to delve into the passions, idiosyncrasies and flaws of George Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Joseph Biden and other candidates as they fought for the presidency in 1988.” I was 150 pages in when I wrote the post, just 5 pages short of the end of the first part, which is devoted to Bush and Dole. I wrote at the time:

You might think you don’t care about Bush and Dole. … But read the 50 pages that Amazon offers for free and you’ll care. Cramer is that compelling a storyteller. Bush and Dole are that compelling as people.

Twelve days later, I’m on page 544, just past the halfway point. Only 500 pages to go! We’ve moved on from Bush and Dole to Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, Biden, and Dukakis.

It turns out that the book’s real hero (well, for now anyway) is Biden. Two days ago, the NYT had a loving portrait of Biden. “In a few short months, the motor-tongued, muscle-car-loving heartbeat-away hell raiser has been transformed from gaffe-prone amusement to someone whose star shines as brightly as his teeth.” If you really want to understand Biden’s appeal, read what Cramer has to say about him. Yes, it was written twenty years ago. Much has changed. But Biden’s magic hasn’t. Whatever you think of his politics, or his gaffes, you’ll love him.

Cramer interweaves tales of the 1988 campaign with the family backgrounds and biographies of his six subjects. The campaign portions jerk ahead in fits and starts. The book starts in October 1986 with Cramer’s brilliant treatment of Bush’s appearance at the opening of the National League Championship Series between the Astros and Mets in Houston. Now, I’m into August 1987, the Bork nomination to the Supreme Court, and Biden’s preparation for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Bork. In the chapter I just read, Biden has delivered the speech to the ABA convention in San Francisco in which he quoted from British Labor leader Neil Kinnock’s speech a few months earlier, but forgot to credit Kinnock. Poor Joe. He would pay a huge price for this. But as you read along with Cramer, you are swept up in Biden’s excitement and can see how he might forget.

Indeed, Cramer succeeds in viewing each character as sympathetic. His treatment of Gary Hart’s fall from grace, when Miami Herald reporters found him together with Donna Rice in DC while Lee Hart was back in Colorado, is especially complex. However one may view Hart’s behavior—and listening to Lee, one thinks maybe he wasn’t so bad after all—Cramer tells the tale in a way that places national political reporters in a poor light.

Back to Biden. What a family story! His father’s rise in business, the collapse of it all, moving back to Scranton and into the home of Joe’s mother’s family, breaking free at last (Joe’s father, this is), moving the wife and kids to Delaware to get away and try to make it on his own, only to have his wife’s family come join him one by one in the years to come, as well as the business partner of years past who had brought him down. This alone would be the basis of a riveting book. And speaking of riveting family stories, there’s that of Dukakis’s parents, coming separately from Greece and finding their ways.

As Cramer alternates between the past and the present (circa 1987), he has so far taken the early Biden story up through Biden’s courtship of his first wife Neilia, their marriage, their starting of a family, and the beginning of his political career. The 1987 passages take second wife Jill’s presence for granted, as if she were always there. Neilia is front and center in some chapters, Jill in others, with no mention of what changes. I don’t think I can bear what lies ahead, Cramer recounting of the death of Neilia and their daughter.

And then there’s Bush, only an occasional figure since the first part, but front and center when Cramer turns to the story of his attempt to unseat incumbent Democrat Ralph Yarborough as one of the two US senators from Texas. Cramer has a way of treating Bush with sympathy while revealing Bush’s utter lack of any sort of political principle. Befriend every Republican leader in the state, try to bring them together, win. Bush begins as chairman of the Republican Party in Harris County, having moved to Houston from Midland a few years earlier. He decides it’s time to put business aside in favor of politics and public service. But what faces him is a weak and divided party, with right wing John Birchers on one side of the fault line, mainstream Republicans on the other, each contemptuous of the other. Or, as Cramer tells it:

The GOP was growing in Houston—in fact, it was on the rise all over Texas. …

But the problem was how the Party was growing. The GOP had papered the state with its new slogan, “Conservatives Unite!” Of course, no one dreamed what that might mean. They had pried the right wing loose from the Democrats. The Party meetings were bigger than ever, but those new Republican voters—they were extreme, on the fringe, they were … well, they were Birchers!

These … these nuts! The were coming out of the woodwork! (Actually, they came out of a couple of fringy churches in the working-class suburb of Pasadena.) These people talked about blowing up the UN, about armed revolt against the income tax. They had their guns loaded at home, in case commies should appear in the night. … Well, you can imagine how upsetting it was to decent Republicans—that is, to the lime-green pants crowd, who’d organized the GOP in Texas about the same time they’d founded their country clubs.

Almost fifty years later, we know exactly what happened to the party, and not just in Texas. Those nuts did more than come out of the woodwork. They took the party over altogether. Why? Vast books have been written on that. I have nothing to add. But Cramer shows us a younger George Bush moving right to accommodate them, as he would twenty-four years later in his race against Dukakis. Nice guy though he is, he helped lead the way to the disintegration of a once meaningful party.

Well, enough said on that. Let me conclude by entreating you to read the book. I know, it’s 1050 pages. It will take a while. And there are other books to read, other things to do. But this book is worth it.

Categories: Biography, Books, Politics
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