Modern journalists love What It Takes!


But should modern journalists do that: What kind of book is What It Takes?

We have no real idea. We’re fairly sure we’ve never read it, except perhaps in part.

But in the wake of Richard Ben Cramer’s untimely death, his book is being treated as a classic. In this morning’s Washington Post, Matt Schudel offers a fairly standard assessment:
SCHUDEL (1/9/13): "What It Takes," all 1,047 pages of it, was seen, then and now, as more than an insider's account of a campaign. Overwhelming in its detail, scope, ambition and hubris, the book stands as a classic nonfiction epic, and Mr. Cramer as the writer who broke all the old rules of journalism to make us see politicians in a fresh new light.

It is "arguably the finest book on campaign politics of all time," author and Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said Tuesday in an interview. "His book is the new standard for anyone wanting to write about politics."

It also stands as a monument of reportorial access—and excess—that may never be duplicated. Mr. Cramer portrayed, with almost obsessive detail, the inner worlds of no fewer than six presidential aspirants, flying on their campaign planes, living in their home towns, talking to their families and childhood teachers, trying to get at the complex truth of why anyone would want to be president in the first place.

"These cardboard cutouts became human beings, with virtues and vices obvious to all," said Larry J. Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. "You felt some sympathy and affection even for the ones you didn't like."

In our age of instant opinion and 24-hour suspicion, it's unlikely that anyone will ever get inside the mind of a presidential contender the way Richard Ben Cramer did.
Elsewhere, you will read overstated claims about the book’s alleged bad reviews. In fact, the book got many good reviews when it appeared in 1992, serving as a chronicle of the 1988 White House campaign.

The book was extremely long and seems to have been quite unusual. That said, is the current standard claim true? Is it “unlikely that anyone will ever get inside the mind of a presidential contender the way Richard Ben Cramer did?”

Let’s ask that a slightly different way: Did Cramer actually get us inside the minds of those contenders at all?

We can’t answer that question, but we’re skeptical about the idea that this should be the journalist’s goal. In our view, our political journalists have tended to fail very badly in their character assessments. These failures have been so vast that they raise a basic question:

Should political journalists try to provide such assessments at all?

For once, we find ourselves inclined to agree with some of Maureen Dowd’s reactions. Back in 1992, Dowd reviewed What It Takes for the Washington Monthly. She was underwhelmed by the overwrought prose—and she offered this deflating observation:
DOWD (7/92): Cramer has lovingly laid on brush stroke after brush stroke—the gathering storm of the perfect Gephardt, the high school exploits of the brash Biden. The author reveals that it was a young Gary Hartpence who first employed the “didn’t inhale” defense. Hart was running for student council president at his strict religious college when he and some buddies were spotted passing a beer around the table at Ned’s Pizza in Oklahoma City. Hart said he didn’t sip, but lost the election anyway.

Certainly, Cramer has accumulated some wonderful tidbits in his five years of reporting. But after reading every nuance, every shading, every interior monologue in this monster book, I can’t say I’ve learned anything fundamentally new about any of the candidates.
Did Cramer tell us anything new about any of the six candidates he covered? Reading the many remembrances of Cramer, we can’t say that anyone identified any such service. Modern journalists seem to be thrilled-as-a-group by this book, but it isn’t clear why.

(In real time, some reviews said that Cramer’s main discovery involved his judgment that Gary Hart really didn’t have sex with Donna Rice. Does anyone still think that now?)

Should a journalist try to get inside a major politician’s head? As she continued, Dowd made a somewhat surprising criticism:
DOWD: While I’ve occasionally used the gimmick of getting inside George Bush’s head for a humor piece, the notion of using it for an entire book is disquieting. It’s not possible to really know what’s in anyone’s head, no matter how close you are to him, how much he tells you, or how much research you do. Attempting to recreate the streams of consciousness of Bush and Dole when they thought they might die in World War I1 is a bit of a stretch. And it’s hard to imagine that the ultra-straight Gephardt really thought his suit’s sliding shoulder pads made him feel like “he was growing tits.”
Hmmm. Dowd would go on to spend plenty of time pretending to be inside pols’ heads. That said, it seems hard to reject her critique of Cramer’s exotic prose style, which almost all reviewers mentioned:
DOWD: With a prose style more irritating than entertaining, the author takes Wolfe’s faded New Journalism technique and sends it into fifth Gear—VRO-O-O-OM! VRO-O-O-OM!— dousing each page with italics, ellipses, exclamation points, sound effects, dashes, hyphens, capital letters, and cute spellings. It’s never “character cops” when it can be “Karacter Kops.” Bob Dole rarely starts a sentence without an “Aghh” or “Gggaahh.” He even hums with a lot of consonants: “Hnnghhhh gnngh hnnnnnnnggh. Dut dug duunnnnnnghh dghndughnnnnnnn! Yut dut dut dunggghhhh. . . .” He never smells victory when he can smell “VICTORYYYY !”

After the election, Dukakis looks not just tired, but “weary, punch-rumpled, hard-cheese-beat- up.” After Gephardt places third in Michigan, his press conference is portrayed as a cacophony of the heartless hyenas of the press: “Areyagonnaquit? WHYD’YATHINKYOULOST? . . . Wouldn’alossbe CONGRESSMAN! Wouldn’t you say a loss in Michi-DICK!WHY’DYATHINK YA LOST?” And here is the press as Gary Hart gets back in the race:

“GARYGARYLEEwhaddyMRS.HART! thinkaDONNARIy’gonna WIN think ya WINPOSTgonna print a LEE storygotta RICE Gary MONEYLEEEEHEYY!”
Dowd spends too much time reading Austen. We’ll guess she simply failed to recognize Cramer’s adaptation of Joyce’s “thunder words.”

Back to the Washington Post: Will other journalists ever “get inside the mind of a presidential contender the way Cramer did?” In some ways, we have to say we hope not. Different reviewers had different ideas about which contenders Cramer most liked, but many thought that he admired the World War II tandem, Bush and Dole. That said, his most negative judgment wasn’t unloosed until many years later. During Campaign 2000, right on time, Cramer voiced the same destructive assessment of character everyone else in his clique did.

Cramer spent six years on the road assessing a group of candidates. What follows represents one of the things he came up with. In October 2000, Chicago Sun Times columnist Steve Neal was writing perhaps the three millionth piece about what a big liar Candidate Gore was.

As it turned out, that was the judgment Cramer had reached way back when:
NEAL (10/11/00): In tonight's second presidential debate, Gore's staff and the news media will be searching for the truth whenever he talks about himself. From the beginning of his political career, he hasn't let facts get in the way of his campaign rhetoric. About the only things that Gore hasn't added to his resume are the Heisman Trophy or an Academy Award. He is to the tall tale what John Cheever was to the short story.

Former Rolling Stone contributing editor Richard Ben Cramer, whose What It Takes was the definitive account of the '88 presidential campaign, had an early interview with Gore during his first White House bid. Cramer was offended by Gore's tendency to embellish. "He said there were thousands of people—that was the honest-to-God number he used, thousands—writing to him, telling him he ought to be president, that he ought to run, so that made his decision to run easier, that he wouldn't have done it without that kind of public chorus."

Cramer told Gore's biographer David Maraniss: "I sensed that probably didn't happen. I had never seen someone trying to pull that line off. I said, 'OK, senator, thanks much. What were the issues for Mrs. Gore? What did she have to settle? He said she had no problems at all. No issues. Now, I wasn't married then, but I knew that wasn't so. So I thought to myself, life's too short to talk to this guy anymore. It wasn't the fact that he wasn't telling me the truth; it was the pallid bankruptcy of the lies, all in service of a picture of himself that wasn't even interesting. He wasn't even an interesting liar."
Cramer’s belated destructive assessment appeared all over the press corps that fall. When he visited Delaware, he named the candidate he did like:
MULLINAX (11/6/00): With Election Day coming up Tuesday, what better author to have in Delaware for a visit than Richard Ben Cramer?

Cramer wrote the 1992 book "What It Takes," which looks at the 1988 presidential campaign through the lives of George Bush, Robert Dole, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Richard Gephardt.

As you might expect, he has opinions about this year's campaign.

For instance, he likes George W. Bush because "he saved my bacon" when he was trying to get access to George W.'s father.

"Junior was the guy in the family who took me under his wing," Cramer said. "He took me up to Kennebunkport [Maine] and made me play golf with the old man. He showed me what I needed to know."

Cramer sees more of W.'s mother Barbara in the current presidential candidate than he does of the father.

"He has the old man's gift of being able to make friends, and the personal confidence of the Bushes, but the way he looks at things, the way he calls a spade a spade, he's more like Bar. Bar was always the tough one in the family."

On the other hand, Cramer has little use for Al Gore. He thought about including Gore in his book, but was discouraged after a couple of meetings.
Cramer also omitted Jesse Jackson from his famous campaign book. As such, he omitted two of the three Democrats who went down to the wire with Dukakis in that 1988 primary race.

In the past thirty years, your press corps has made one thing crystal clear—they are terrible judges of character. That doesn’t make them bad people; it makes them bad judges of people.

Cramer tried to tease out the character of the candidates in a way no one else ever had. In the end, he ended up stating the same destructive assessments that everyone else in the guild did.

Journalists should stop playing shrink—should stop playing God. That’s the preliminary judgment we would reach from what we know of this famous book.

Meanwhile, why do modern “journalists” praise the book so? Because it encourages them to exercise all that license?

Observation on method: From yesterday’s New York Times:
SCHWIRTZ (1/8/13): ''He made no bones about the fact that he became friendly with the people he reported on,'' said his longtime friend Stuart Seidel, an editor at National Public Radio. ''He liked Joe Biden and Bob Dole and both Bushes. He did not feel compromised by allowing himself to get close to them. He did not see himself in a confrontational reportorial role—he was telling a story.''
Modern scribes enjoy telling stories. Our view?

Let them write novels—the kinds of novels that are acknowledged as same.


  1. "We have no real idea. We’re fairly sure we’ve never read it, except perhaps in part."

    [end post here]

  2. Funny you should say that. When I tried to read the masterwork I was so put off by the writing that I decided the book wasn't worth the slogging. I got it into my head Cramer had read some stuff by the New Journalist turned latter-day Dickens Tom Wolfe and decided he could do that, too. I remember as a youngster reading some Modernist stream-of-consciousness stuff (The Sound and the Fury, e.g.)and thinking, "This is great writing? Hey, I can do this, too." I'll leave others to imagine the results.

    But perhaps Howler has nailed Dowd without knowing it. She admits to writing a "humor piece." Did she mean it was a deliberately intended humor piece as appeared in The New Yorker of the 20's and 30's, or did she mean 1 in 3 of her regular columns is in fact an attempted humor piece. I've always said there is a place in great American newspapers for Dowd's approach, just not necessarily the Op-Ed page.

  3. I think is of course a legitimate exercise to ask if what we want out of political journalists is what is described in this book that is declared pantheon, and also to note that the descriptions of this book and its author's method appear eerily similar to the press that we currently have. Topped of course with the irony of young MoDo critiquing her older self without knowing. I haven't seen Looper yet, so I hope I am not remiss in saying that it could be like that! Or maybe the other way around.

  4. I read that book when it came out because I was a political book junkie at the time. I do not recall it enough to quote it or make specific references, but my sense of it at the time was that it was like a approved biography of a band like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. Not filled with bullshit rumors and crazy stuff, but all about personalities, tour stories, and the like. Nothing about the music or why people listen to the music.

    I am not going to say that Cramer bears any responsibility for anything because I do not think he was influence, but rather part of a movement to strip all policy discussion from political reporting. Candidate A favors X, his opponent says X is bad! Whose commericals are better? What is X and how will it affect peoples' lives? Who cares about that?