What It Takes, 3
I’ve been reading What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer’s brilliant, 1050-page treatment of the 1988 presidential election, the last few weeks. As noted in my two earlier posts (here and here) on the book, I turned to it on reading repeated praise of it by a host of writers after Cramer’s death a month ago. For instance, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza:
I first encountered “What It Takes,” Cramer’s magisterial account of the 1988 campaign, as a college student. It was a dangerous book to read so early in one’s career—like falling in love with the idea of becoming a novelist after reading “Finnegans Wake.” Cramer did not really write about politics. He wrote about people who happened to be involved in politics. It was a revelation to learn that campaigns could be covered through deeply reported studies of the characters who inhabited the campaign trail. Though no campaign book has come close to accomplishing what Cramer’s did, he taught a generation of political writers that the two pillars of great nonfiction—immersive reporting and expert storytelling—could turn even a mediocre campaign into high drama.
In my second post on the book, at which point I was about halfway through, I observed that the book’s hero turns out to be Joe Biden. “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.”
Recall that Biden ran for the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29. The Constitution sets 30 as the minimum age for Senate membership, an age Biden would reach two weeks after election day. A month after that, Neilia and the three children were out Christmas shopping when their car was hit by a tractor trailer, killing Neilia and the one-year-old.
In the most powerful section of the book, Cramer alternates the accident and subsequent hospitalization of the boys with the collapse of Biden’s presidential campaign in August/September 1987 and his simultaneous leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Robert Bork. Biden’s devotion to family was already established earlier, but the reader’s admiration for him deepens in the post-accident passages. Yet, in Cramer’s contrapuntal weaving, one is left stunned and dismayed by the willful ignorance of the press as they move in for the kill when he fails to cite British Labor leader Neil Kinnock as the source of the climactic remarks in his Iowa state fair speech of August 1987.
Plagiarism! The hunt is on. He also plagiarized Robert Kennedy! And what about that paper he wrote in law school at Syracuse? Well, he had cited Kinnock many times before. In the excitement of the moment, he just forgot that one time. And he did cite the appropriate reference in the Syracuse paper, though perhaps he borrowed too much. And so on. No matter. There was blood in the water. Within days, he quit the campaign. The press had done its job. The truth was out. But Cramer gets at a deeper truth, revealing that a man of the highest character had been besmirched.
This is just one small portion of Cramer’s rich work. I had been reading the book piecemeal until today, when I knocked off the final 175 pages in one sitting. There’s so much to comment on, so much that is revealing of character. Let me quote a few passages that I marked in the last week.
1. On Michael Dukakis, just after his 1974 election as governor of Massachusetts.
He set out to make a government unlike anything the citizens of the Commonwealth had every seen. “The best government,” he had promised, “this state has ever had.”
This would be a government of principle not patronage. That was the first order of business: a radical patronage-ectomy, a professional personnel operation. No one would have a job because he was a friend of Dukakis. …
And Michael didn’t stop with jobs—all favors had to cease! The Governor had at his privy command the power to dispense low-number license plates. This was a harmless, much-coveted sign of standing, something like the Order of the British Empire, or a Lenin Medal for Valiant Factory Production. Best of all, it cost the Commonwealth … nothing.
“Nope. No special plates. That’s not the way we’re gonna do business.”
“But Michael, somehow you gotta thank your friends.”
So Michael told Kitty to schedule a dinner—not too big, maybe twenty-five people.
“Good. I’ll hire a caterer.”
“The way they charge?”
“Michael, I can’t do it!”
So … the Governor-elect made turkey tetrazzini for twenty-five.
Then he cleaned up.
Then, thanking was over.
2. On George Bush, during the 1988 primaries:
Jim Baker and Teeter told him he had to define himself. He had to start giving people a clearer idea of what Bush believed in … what President Bush would do.
“I don’t know,” Bush said. “I don’t get the feeling people want that.”
They argued … but Bush just wouldn’t believe it. Personal quality was his “thing.” He thought people would see it … once they took a look at him.
The fact was, he hadn’t a clue how to define himself. Some people saw him as moderate … some, conservative—that was fine! He didn’t want to rope himself into … positions.
Why should he?
The fact was, he wanted to be President. He didn’t want to be President to do this or that. He’d do … what was sound.
When people would ask—reporters, usually—why did he want to be President, he’d talk about Big Pres: “My father inculcated the idea of service.”
True enough. But one could serve by raising money for United Way? Why President?
One time, a reporter kept asking. Bush said: “Well, you know … doesn’t everybody grow up wanting to be President?”
Maybe where he grew up.
3. In my first post on What It Takes, I wrote, “Dole was severely wounded in Italy in 1945. Cramer’s depiction of these events is utterly gripping. Dole’s slow and unexpected recovery is a wonder. You find yourself caring … deeply.” As the book continues and Dole becomes a more remote figure, one’s sympathy for him lessens. Then this, after Dole was badly beaten by Bush in the Super Tuesday primaries of 1988:
This was his time. And they took it away! … He’d lost before. He wasn’t going to whine. But this time was different. This time, he couldn’t sleep at all, couldn’t stop his head: things that could have been different … all the things he’d done … probably wrong—half the things, anyway.
But the worst part wasn’t the things he’d done. It was the pictures of Bush—that’s what he couldn’t stop—pictures of Bush! In his head! Bush throwing snowballs, driving trucks, forklifts … unwrapping his Big Mac. Dole never wanted to see that in his head. And he never wanted to say—even in his head …
It would not leave him alone … five in the morning! Had to come down to the lobby … but he couldn’t get away from it. For the first time in his career—first time in thirty years anyway—Bob Dole said to himself:
“Maybe I could have done that … if I was whole.”
4. And speaking of Bush’s campaign for southern states on Super Tuesday:
Bush was appealing to Republicans across the South. He knew who they were—how they came to be Republicans.
They were Democrats all, when he first moved among them, in the forties … when the Democrats brought to the South the schools, hospitals, the electric lines that it so desperately needed. And he lived among them in the fifties, while the region caught up in development and wealth … and into the sixties, when the Democratic Party identified itself with the struggle for civil rights … For four decades, Bush had watched these people as they moved in from the countryside—or the cities moved out to meet them—where they now had roads, schools, hospitals, country clubs … and homes in suburbs, attained and established, they insisted, by their labor … and the last goddam thing they wanted was the government to come in and get in their way … to take more taxes, for example … or, worse still, to erode, to take away, any measure of the security and comfort they had attained … those schools, houses, neighborhoods, jobs, … in any effort to bring along the have-nots—blacks, for instance, or the poor in those rotting cities, the workers in rust-belt factories … bailouts, affirmative action, Congressional mandates, federal court orders … no!
These were the got-mines that Joe Biden used to talk about.
“Got mine … go get yours!”
These were people who thought they wanted government to do … well, not much .. save to stand tall for America, God bless her.
“I’ll never apologize for her,” Bush vowed, in Super Tuesday speeches.
As it turned out, George Bush was perfect for Super Tuesday.
What a book!