Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes: The Way to the White House (Random House, 1992)
Reissued by Vintage in paperback in 1993.
Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes is a Homeric re-creation of the 1988 presidential election. Cramer follows six candidates – the first President Bush, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden, and Dick Gephardt – as they set out to claim the White House, delving into the minutiae and the majesty of their political and personal lives. The book, begun in 1986 and finally published in 1992, is widely recognized as a touchstone text in modern political reporting.
In his attempt to find out what it takes to pursue the White House, Cramer introduces us to the parents and even the grandparents of the six candidates. These mini-biographies are the highlight of the book, and some of Cramer's finest work. He takes us through the candidates' childhoods and their personal tragedies. We see these men in the first moments of their campaigns, hiring and firing and visiting speech coaches and crafting The Message; we also see them as they meet their campaign albatrosses – Biden's rhetorical borrowing, Hart's rumored infidelities, Gephardt's indefinable "weirdness." Current political buffs will appreciate cameos by, among others, Joe Trippi – whose revolutionary campaign strategy actually debuted with Gary Hart – and Al Gore. Cramer manages to refrain from building heroes out of these extraordinary narratives, though so many of the candidates' lives play on beloved "immigrant story" or "crippled soldier overcoming all odds"-type themes. If anything, Cramer's portraits lean towards caricature.
Perhaps it's understandable: the wit and lyricism that characterize Cramer at his best may be simply unsustainable over 1097 pages. Reaction to the book criticized the length, and the almost numbing trivialities Cramer reports (do we care that Dukakis served turkey tetrazzini to 25 staffers?). At some indefinable point, Cramer's telling details simply become details. The lack of an index and the interweaving of all the candidates into each chapter both negate the book's usefulness; readers will have a hard time trying to find a specific event or candidate. Cramer was also criticized for omitting Democratic candidate Jesse Jackson, with whom he says he did not attain the "necessary level of candor," and for ignoring the campaign in favor of the candidates. Though in this last he deviates from the Theodore White and Norman Mailer model of political reporting, Cramer asserts from the very beginning that coming to know the campaigners is his goal.
By far the most distracting flaw of the book is Cramer's affection of a Wolfian New-Journalism style. His candidates grunt and sigh, reporters "know the poop" and "hatch a big turd," and everyone speaks in ellipses and exclamations and run-on sentences. By the end, readers get more bogged down in Cramer's wild rhetorical flourishes than in the story. Yet, despite these weaknesses, the book remains an exhaustively reported and engaging narrative. Ultimately, Cramer creates a thousand-page portrait not of the candidates, but of the high-stakes farce we call a modern election. He lambastes the television ethic that favors soundbites over substance, and reporters whose only job seems to be not to understand, but to weed out candidates. To be president, Cramer states, is to be nothing more: a man has to live in "the bubble," to give up the narrative of his own life and insert himself into the narrative of Commander in Chief. In What It Takes, Cramer has created a true portrait of our modern presidential system.
Biography of Cramer and Reviews
Short Biography of Cramer
Excerpt from What It Takes
The Atlantic's write-up of the 1988 Democratic Candidates
Interview with Cramer about Bob Dole
More Cramer on Dole