The New York Times Book Review
I remember exactly where I was sitting when I started reading “What It Takes,” Richard Ben Cramer’s 1,000-page, tiny-print history of the 1988 presidential campaign. It’s not a hard thing to remember, because I couldn’t sit anywhere else: I had mangled my knee in a touch football game, and all I could do was sit on the couch with my leg strapped into a motion machine. Like a lot of young journalism school graduates then and now, I had come to see political journalism as a lesser form of the craft, populated mostly by the effete and the unindustrious, while the real reporters were out there braving crack corners and foreign wars. “What It Takes” showed me something else entirely.
From the first unforgettable pages, when he described in minute detail the logistics needed to move George Bush, who was then vice president, out of his field box at a Texas Rangers game (accompanied by his hotheaded and ambitious son, George W.), Cramer told his obsessively reported campaign story not just from the inside, but from inside the heads of a half-dozen painfully human and complex candidates: Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, Gary Hart and Joseph Biden. “What It Takes” was the ultimate campaign book. And now, 20 years after Cramer rode the bus, and as a lot of us head back to Iowa to cover another campaign, I’ve found myself wondering why no one else has come close to equaling it.
At the time it was published, “What It Takes” was just the latest entry in a series of increasingly postmodern dispatches from the front lines of electoral politics. The recognized father of the genre was Theodore White, the journalist whose “Making of the President” series took a generation of readers inside the machinery of a modern presidential campaign. Joe McGinniss, in “The Selling of the President 1968,” exposed the emergence of an industry of political TV pitchmen. (McGinniss, then an unassuming young reporter, simply asked these Madison Avenue guys if he could hang around while they figured out how to package and distribute Richard Nixon like so many cans of tomato paste, and they said sure, why not.) In 1973, the journalist Timothy Crouse turned the lens on his own kind in “The Boys on the Bus,” and Hunter S. Thompson weighed in with “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” a howl of disdain for Nixonian politics that showcased Thompson’s manic, hilarious voice.
Cramer, a newspaper journalist turned magazine writer who was just 36 when he started working on “What It Takes,” didn’t think much of White’s seminal work. It had led, he told me in a recent conversation, to an unhealthy focus on process rather than the true natures of the candidates. So Cramer began researching detailed psychological profiles of the contenders, visiting their families, their college roommates, even their first-grade teachers, if he could find them. After more than a year of this, the candidates themselves began gradually letting him hang around. Cramer captured the way they moved, the way they spoke (“Hey, Bob Dohhhll!”), the personal tragedies that often drove them (Bush’s loss of a daughter to leukemia, the death of Biden’s wife and young daughter in a car crash), the wounded way they saw the world. “When a clever, vicious line occurred to him now, he’d swallow it, or maybe say it in the car, where it couldn’t come back to haunt him,” Cramer wrote of Dole. “But no one was going to convince Bob Dole he should turn the other cheek, when they were kicking him in the face.” There were unforgettably vivid moments: the young pilot Bush splashing frantically in the waves near the wreckage of his World War II plane, the enigmatic Hart struggling awkwardly to win the acceptance of his only son, who recoiled from political life. Over the years, I’ve had the chance to talk with dozens of people who worked on those campaigns and contributed to the book. Remarkably, I have never heard a single complaint about its accuracy.
Few would have predicted then that Cramer had written not just the most ambitious and riveting in a line of great American campaign books, but perhaps the last of them, too. Others would try to get as close to the core of a campaign as he had, and some would emerge with accounts worth reading, but none would achieve the same level of intimacy or leave a lasting mark. “The campaign book deserves to die,” the historian Gary Wills wrote, reviewing in these pages several new entries about the 2000 election, “and it is doing its duty.” Today, Wills argued, we’ve already heard far more than we need to about every minor incident along the trail by the time the books come out.
Cramer himself may have been partly to blame. Though “What It Takes” met with unimpressive sales and skeptical reviews (The Boston Globe called it “What It Weighs,” while the Book Review complained about the “grandiose” verbal effects “that would make the early Tom Wolfe blush”), Cramer’s style spawned legions of imitators, all of whom wanted to do their own fly-on-the-wall reporting and italicized riffs, but most of whom weren’t nearly as scrupulously accurate or as keenly attuned to the human psyche. Often, their pieces left their subjects feeling exploited, to the point where candidates and their handlers quickly became wary of being psychoanalyzed by amateurs or having their ugliest private moments played up for maximum effect.
This breakdown of trust between politicians and reporters, however, probably had less to do with Cramer’s influence than with the moment in American politics he just happened to capture. The cold war was ending, the age of the satellite truck and the 24-hour news cycle was just beginning, and politics, like everything else in the society at large, was becoming more trivialized and more celebrity-driven. A new generation of political journalists was taking over, one reared in the era after Watergate, when taking down a politician, any politician, was considered the pinnacle of a career.
It was Hart, perhaps the greatest political talent of the time, who first found himself caught in this vortex. He had sardonically challenged reporters to prove he was having an affair, but could he have imagined that they were, at that very moment, trying to do just that? The clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination that year, Hart was still living in the last media world, where such things were considered off limits. The Hart scandal wasn’t just a climactic moment in Cramer’s book; it turned out to be a turning point for the country, one that changed the nature of politics and demolished the walls between private lives and public service. By declaring “character” (now understood to refer to sex and personal hypocrisy rather than the more complex inner self Cramer had tried to capture) as a crucial element of any campaign, the press had lit a fuse in American politics — one that would explode, with disastrous consequences, during the last years of the Clinton presidency.
In the two decades that followed Hart’s aborted campaign, candidates would seal themselves off behind phalanxes of consultants and aides, and reporters would keep trying to scale the fortress like an army of hostile invaders, rather than strolling through the front gate the way Cramer had. The kind of candid, almost tactile reporting that made “What It Takes” so remarkable would recede from our mainstream political journalism, replaced by canned interviews and forensic studies of voting records and public remarks. Cramer, who is now working on a book about the baseball star Alex Rodriguez, never returned to writing about politics, and he was probably better off. “What It Takes” was a book that could be written only once, at the tail end of another moment. Journalists will write books about the current presidential campaign, to be sure, but probably none will give us a deeper understanding of who these people are and why we’re supposed to believe in them. And not one of the books will be criticized for its weight.
Matt Bai writes on national politics for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.”