Oh man, there are not enough superlatives in the English language to properly praise Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way To The White House (BOOK•KINDLE) as strong as it deserves to be praised, so I’ll put it very simply and extraordinarily bluntly: What It Takes is a fucking masterpiece.
Yes, deciding to read What It Takes requires a commitment because it is over 1,000 pages long and Cramer filled up every bit of that 1,000+ pages. But it is not only a commitment; it’s an investment. You will get so much out of the book and learn so much more about the intricacies, the eccentricities, the difficulties, and the constant grind of Presidential politics than you ever imagined that reading it leaves you feeling as if you are on the campaign trail, as well. There are few books that pull you so deeply into the story as What It Takes. You said it sounds like an amazing read, but it’s more than that — it is a genuine experience.
For those who aren’t totally familiar with it, What It Takes is often described as the story of the 1988 Presidential campaign, but that sells the book short because it is so much more than that. Author Richard Ben Cramer (who sadly passed in January) doesn’t just tell the story of a campaign, but he somehow weaves the biographies of six of 1988’s leading Presidential contenders into the book and introduces us to these half-dozen men better than any other biographer’s attempt to capture just one of the candidates. The 1988 Presidential campaign was wide-open because incumbent President Ronald Reagan was term-limited and a host of qualified leaders stepped forward to take their shot at the White House.
Cramer somehow embedded himself in alongside six of the top candidates and the we bounce back-and-forth as we get to know them on a deeper, more personal level than any other campaign book has introduced us to candidates. And, again, the crazy thing is that Cramer isn’t just focusing on one candidate — he gives us six of them. Six unique stories of dedicated Americans who each have built successful lives, started wonderful families, and committed themselves to serving their country. One of the more remarkable aspects of the book is that it is about a Presidential campaign — first for the respective party nominations and then the general election for the Presidency itself — where there are winners and losers and, in most cases, it would seem easy to choose the candidate you like best or who matches as closely as possible the political belief system that you have. Yet, Cramer somehow gives us reasons to root for each of the six men he spotlights. As you go from chapter-to-chapter, it’s easy to get lost and tell yourself, “This is my guy”, before moving to the next chapter and deciding, “No, I’m with this candidate”, over-and-over again. That’s a credit to the decent men who seek the Presidency in What It Takes, but a lot of credit should go to Richard Ben Cramer for making us feel good things about these men, about what they’ve done, and about their outlook on the world they want to lead.
Cramer began the book in 1986 — two years before any voting started — and had a difficult time deciding which potential 1988 candidates he wanted to cover. As thorough and talented of a journalist as Cramer was, it would have been impossible to do what he did in What It Takes with more than the six candidates he focused on. Quite frankly, I’m stunned he was able to do the mounds of research and make the personal connections he did during this book on more than ONE candidate, let alone a half-dozen.
Cramer ended up with two Republicans and four Democrats as his focus. On the Republican side was the frontrunner, Vice President George H.W. Bush, who had spent eight years in the White House as President Reagan’s VP and was branching out on his own (and would, of course, eventually win). The other Republican was Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, a disabled hero of World War II who had been Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976 and had emerged as a GOP primary challenge for Vice President Bush in 1988, especially when Senator Dole won the Iowa Caucuses. After the stunning results in Iowa where Bush had finished third (behind not only Dole but also Reverend Pat Robertson, a television evangelist), the campaign began to change and the title of the book, What It Takes, acquired a new meaning. By the time the general election heated up, Cramer probably could have called the book WhatEVER It Takes as the campaign got nastier and nastier.
The Democratic nomination for President was far more wide-open than the Republicans, making it even more difficult for Cramer to limit his focus on a handful of candidates. The eventual Democratic nominee was the unassuming, hard-working, humble son of Greek immigrants — Governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis. Dukakis became the frontrunner by default when bigger names in the Democratic Party like New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Senator Edward Kennedy declined to jump in the race. Three other Democrats rounded out the roster of candidates chronicled by Cramer in the book.
Senator Gary Hart of Colorado was becoming a big start in national politics. In 1984, he had made a solid showing with a dark horse campaign for the Democratic nomination but eventually ran out of money to compete with well-financed former Vice President Walter Mondale. As the 1988 campaign, Senator Hart seemed like a man who could very well be the next President, but his campaign was derailed by a sex scandal. A strong start by Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt — a victory in the Iowa Caucuses and a second-place finish in the New Hampshire Primary — led Cramer to follow his campaign. The last Democrat that Cramer focused on would, 20 years later, become one of the most powerful men in the world but in 1988 he was an outspoken Senator from one of the nation’s smallest states whose positive outlook and good humor masked the tragic death of his young wife and baby daughter in a car accident shortly before he was sworn in as a Senator. The Senator’s touching story and his tendency to be a gold mine when it came to quotes and quips led Cramer to follow the doomed 1988 Presidential campaign of the 47th Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.
With those six personalities — George Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Biden — Richard Ben Cramer wrote six separate biographies weaved together within a journalistic narrative that was part political science lesson and part travelogue, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at what the candidates saw and heard as they genuinely hustled for votes all over the country. There are a lot of ways that a writer could tackle a subject like Cramer did in What It Takes, but I don’t know that anybody else could have done it successfully. With the observant eye of a newspaper reporter who catches every minute detail, perhaps the most amazing thing that Richard Ben Cramer was able to pull off was that he gained the trust of six of the top contenders for the Presidency of the United States in the midst of the most important campaigns that any of them had ever run up to that time.
Just because Richard Ben Cramer was able to write an incredibly readable book that clocks in at over 1,000+ pages doesn’t mean that I should try to emulate it with my praise of What It Takes, so I’ll bring this to an end. I meant what I said at the beginning, however. What It Takes is a masterpiece that might require a commitment of your time, but it is an investment in the rich history of American Presidential politics that is unparalleled in any other book, movie, article, or documentary. If you are studying Presidential politics or American Presidential campaign history, What It Takes should be your textbook because you can start and end with it.
I just finished this book and I was about to write a thing about it, but I agree with Mr Bergen here on everything, so just go read the book already it’s summer