Review of Richard Ben Cramer's "What it Takes"

What It Takes: The Way to the White HouseWhat It Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A tour de force by Richard Ben Cramer. At over a thousand pages this look at the 1988 Presidential campaign may seem daunting but if you are a fan of politics it is a must read. Even though the book was written some time ago I had not run across it until I started to look at the new Matt Bai book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”. Bai heaped high praise on Cramer and the book, and highlighted a visit he had made to Cramer (now deceased) to talk about the subject matter for his prospective new book, which would focus on Gary Hart, and how his imploded candidacy changed the way politics is reported in this country. Bai called the Cramer book “…arguably the greatest and most ambitious work of political journalism in American history.” Bai was not wrong. When I looked it up on Amazon the Cramer book was selling for $3.99. I bought the Cramer book, and saved the Bai book for later.

Cramer looks at the 1988 Presidential race from the perspective of six candidates: Republicans Bob Dole and George HW Bush, and Democrats Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden, Gary Hart, and Michael Dukakis. The book offers so much more than reporting on the ins and outs of the campaigns. He gives readable and insightful biographical information on each candidate, carefully weaving his narrative together while dealing with six complex individuals and what had come to make them into the candidates they were. I was fascinated by all, but the Bob Dole story, with the horrific injuries he suffered serving in the military, and his ferocious will to overcome, was especially compelling. Cramer’s candidate backgrounds include some of each man’s electoral history, and how that political history had contributed to how they handled the race for the big prize. Being from Massachusetts I have to say that Cramer’s description of Michael Dukakis is spot on. The Dukakis “clean Mike” persona could not have been more accurate. Cramer’s insights on the Dukakis personality, and how that personality ultimately doomed his candidacy, from my perspective, is some of the best writing on Dukakis that I have ever read. Without being judgemental Cramer shows us the strengths, and flaws, of the individual candidates. Of course Cramer covers the Gary Hart candidacy, but not in the way that everyone else did. Like the Dukakis writing Cramer gives us so much more than a standard slash and burn on a flawed candidate. We have family perspective, and from that family perspective we get a real sense of what it was like to be under the media crush that the Hart revelations brought. It is truly extraordinary writing.

The 1988 election brought us President George H.W. Bush, and although the Bush name is still very much alive in American politics I see the 1988 election as the last one of an older era. Waiting right around the corner was Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush,ready to usher in a new era of politics. Without having read the Bai book I get the sense that he may feel that way too. I do not give five stars to very many books. This one, in my opinion, is right in there with the Caro masterpiece “The Power Broker” and his LBJ series. That is high praise, and richly deserved. Matt Bai had it right. if you love politics pick this book up and get a real sense of what it takes to run for President.

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