I’m feeling wistful as the 2012 campaign draws to a close. It’s been more than six years since I left the day-to-day life of politics and campaigns. And Election Day is always the day that makes me pine for those grueling and exhilarating days on the campaign trail. Eight years ago, I worked on the Ohio campaign for John Kerry. It remains one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Four years later, wanting some connection to presidential campaigns, I taught classes about them at Xavier University. This year, I opted to lead a discussion group about the best campaign books (which is the focus of this entry). Both the 2008 and 2012 experiences were therapeutic—filling my void but not requiring that I uproot my life. Yet there is no substitute for being out there and I’ll always be in awe of those of you who do it day in and day out, year after year. Good luck tomorrow.
With that longish introduction, I’ll now shift to my entry about the longest book I’ve ever read. Twice. “What It Takes,” by Richard Ben Cramer, has been mentioned here before. It was the capstone book in our discussion group, and it remains one of my favorite political books; indeed, one of my favorite books, period.
Cramer’s epic book about the 1988 presidential campaign took him six years to write. It nearly killed him. The result is the most thorough piece of political reporting that I’ve ever read. Cramer gives us 1,047 fascinating pages on Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush. Each man ran for President, and at one point or another, each man had a clear shot at the nation’s highest office. “What It Takes” doesn’t set out to judge which of the six had what it takes. Instead the book is an answer to the question of “what it takes” from a person to run for president. And the answer, quite clearly, is that it takes everything. So that’s what Cramer shows us. Everything.
A book like this will never be written again. Instead of giving us a recap of the behind-the-scenes drama of a campaign, as “Game Change” did so perfectly, “What It Takes” gives us intense insight into the individuals and what makes them tick. He’s taking the long view here, arguing that the tactics of a campaign are far less important than the personalities and personal histories of those that run.
Nearly twenty-five years after this election, we still grade our candidates on how they survive gaffes, how they perform in debates, how they navigate the inevitable scandals, and how they run their campaign operation. Today, we monitor their progress every day through 538, RealClearPolitics, Intrade, and other addicting, but really kind of absurd, metrics. We watch news channels that focus on who won the day. When this book was published in 1992, it attempted to show readers how little we understood the men who ran for president in 1988. Yet today’s journalists who profess to love this book haven’t done much to honor Cramer in their reporting. We still get tweets and snark, gaffes and GIFs, and nothing even close to what Cramer accomplished in his reporting. Some would say it’s no way to choose a president.
Remember the GOP convention when they showed that glossy and emotional video of Mitt Romney? It moved even hardened journalists. (The video was part of a colossal screw-up because the campaign didn’t run it in prime time, where more voters would see it.) The video stood out because it gave a deeper insight into Mr. Romney as a person, rather than a candidate. And maybe journalists were so surprised because they were too busy covering a campaign, and not covering Mitt Romney. That’s Cramer’s ongoing complaint about the media—that they don’t take the time to know the candidate. (And yes, I know, it was a campaign produced wet kiss of a video. But still, it was a side of the candidate that seemed surprising to those who saw it.)
I don’t mean to harp on the media–there are some damn fine reporters out there who covered the hell out of these two individuals. But one day before the election, does anyone out there feel like America knows the real Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? And I’m not just putting the onus the media. Does the average voter really take the time to learn about these individuals?
There is way too much in the book to recap–it’s full of very human and very American stories. Bob Dole’s divorce. George Bush’s rise to power in oil-rich Texas. Gary Hart’s unusual personal life. Mike Dukakis’s strange lack of emotion. Joe Biden’s terrible campaign team and near-death experience. Dick Gephardt lobbying his son about the campaign. The words Cramer employs are so perfectly descriptive; at times he even writes the sounds that the candidates make. Cramer shows us loss and growth and success and ego and fear and pride. It is partially why so many who read this book end up having empathy and a new-found respect for those that they might ordinarily disagree with politically.
Both times I finished this book, I felt like I do when a great TV show goes off the air. I am actually going to miss spending time with these individuals. And these six guys were hardly the stuff of American political legend! Imagine had he chosen to write about the candidates in 1992 or 2008 or even 2000. The book is so good that maybe I’ll read it again someday.
One more thing: This is my 100th entry on “So Much To Read.” “What it Takes” is a fitting book for that distinction because it’s one of my favorites. The blog has been going strong for a little more than two and a half years, and I’m not quitting any time soon. This year, because of the discussion group and because there have been so many great political books released, my reading list hasn’t been as extensive or as diverse. We’ll fix that in the coming months, so please keep checking back or sign up to receive email updates. A special thank you to all my readers for your comments and encouragement.
Thanks for reading.