What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer

I first read What It Takes in the early 1990s when its subject — the 1988 US presidential election — was, if not exactly fresh in mind, then at least not consigned to the oblivion of an election held decades ago and deemed mostly inconsequential. Cramer’s book made the election not just interesting, but riveting. With a cast of candidates that included George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Richard Gebhardt, Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis, that was no small achievement.

What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer

In 1986 Cramer set out to write a book about men (a woman as a major-party candidate was a long way off in 1988) who had led lives that brought them to the point where they thought not only that they could be President, but that they ought to be. Men who, as Cramer puts it, “made that final turn in the road, who got to the point where they could say, ‘Not only should I be President … I am going to be President.'” (p. viii) It’s quite a book, more than a thousand pages about a mostly forgotten campaign, a book that lives on in journalistic and political circles for the six detailed portraits of men discovering what it takes to be President. One of the blurbs on the back calls Cramer’s approach a mix of Teddy White, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer — dated references by now, but signs that his writing will be up close and personal, with an attempt to capture each candidate’s tenor and voice in the chapters that describe his journey, a journey that for all but one of them will end in a potentially life-defining defeat.

Cramer had extraordinary access to the candidates and campaigns, and the people around them. He notes that “The narratives are based on interviews with more than a thousand people. Every scene in the book has come from firsthand sources, or from published sources that were verified by participants before my writing began.” (p. ix) I am sure that getting in early helped; the interest of a potential presidential biographer was probably also flattering. His Pulitzer didn’t hurt either. What were his aims?

I have tried to tell their stories in two ways—as fairly as I could from the outside, and as empathetically as I could from behind their eyes. In doing so, I have tried not only to show them, but to show what our politics is like—what it feels like to run for President; what it requires from them; what it builds in them; what it strips, or rips, from them. (p. ix)

Cramer keeps his chapters short — there are 130 in the book — so the book moves along briskly. The scenes add up quickly, and they soon gave me a sense of these men’s extraordinary stories as well as the continuous dramas within all of the campaigns, even at their earliest stages. Some bits from the book stuck with me across the nearly 30 years since I read it for the first time, such as his characterization of the Massachusetts press covering Dukakis as “the diddybop Bostons” for their blithe assumption that their city was the hub of the universe, or Cramer’s masterful disquisition of what it means to know something in Washington and how George H.W. Bush, a man known above all for being in the know, managed not to know about the illegal Iran-Contra scheme. But I didn’t pick up What It Takes again for some late 1980s nostalgia, or to marvel at Cramer’s journalistic and storytelling skills. I picked up What It Takes again because of the fourth Democrat whose life and campaign Cramer chronicles: Joe Biden.

In 1988, Biden was young for a presidential candidate. If he had won, he would have taken Bill Clinton’s place as the second-youngest person elected President. Biden is also the second-youngest person to have been popularly elected to the US Senate. (The person ahead of him on that list served but one term representing West Virginia during FDR’s presidency. Biden served 36 years in the Senate.) He was a hard charger: he leapt into the Senate after two years as a county councilman, his first public office. At the time of his election, he had not yet reached the constitutionally mandated age of 30 for service in the Senate; he turned 30 between the election and his swearing in. (Four men, including John Crittenden and Henry Clay, have been Senators before reaching the age of 30. All entered the Senate before 1820. I don’t know what’s up with that.)

Instead, he won the presidency 32 years later as by far the oldest person ever to hold the office. I found looking back at Biden’s first campaign, as detailed in What It Takes, rewarding and complex. Comparing how he’s shown today with the person Cramer describes, I see the continuities and the changes. I was struck most strongly by a sense of the vast experience and institutional memory that Biden must have. The Senate’s current youngest member, John Ossoff of Georgia, was just learning to walk as Biden was beginning the campaign chronicled in this book. He has outlasted and outlived practically every other politico mentioned. (I can’t do much more than a spot check because What It Takes rather famously does not have an index. Cramer is alleged to have hated how Washington people would look for themselves in books’ indexes just to feed their egos, so he determined that What It Takes would not have one. Of course searches in electronic versions have obviated his choice.)

George H.W. Bush eventually won in 1988; he served his one term and lived to see his son serve two terms as President. The elder Bush died in 2018, the younger has retired to Texas, Biden is still going. Bob Dole eventually won a Republican nomination as his party’s presidential candidate; he lost to Bill Clinton in 1996 and died in 2021. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in 1988, left public office in 1991 and is living in retirement. Gary Hart had foregone another term in the Senate to pursue his presidential campaign in 1988. He held special commissions under Barack Obama, but he never returned to electoral politics and is now retired. Richard Gephardt, who is about a year older than Biden, returned to the US House of Representatives after losing in 1988. He served until 2005, and is working as a lobbyist. Biden is still in public service. He entered Congress five years before Gephardt, stayed four years longer, served two terms as Vice President, and is now the incumbent President. He doesn’t just take the long view, he has lived it.

Many, many things in What It Takes hit differently now than in 1988, such as this snippet on how early his ambition showed up:

But [his mother] needn’t have worried. Joey was not short on will. And he had eyes to see what he didn’t want to be. He did not want to be [his uncle, who also stuttered] Boo-Boo, arguing with schoolboys about their lessons, to show how smart he was. He did not want to have an alibi [of stuttering]. He did not want to drive through five states, selling mattresses—no.
He knew it just as surely as he knew the other truth of his young life: he was not going to sell cars—no way. He didn’t know how his father could stand it. He would not to be slave to a mortgage on a tract house; he would not end up trapped on that treadmill. No. He was a Biden and he could do … anything. (p. 304)

When the book was published, he had flamed out as a presidential candidate, leaving the race before any primaries had been contested. Cramer’s “anything” seemed to carry an implicit “except win the White House.” Now, he has done it.

Much deeper into the book, writing about the final meetings before Biden withdrew from the campaign, Cramer describes the role played by Biden’s elder son, Beau: “It was almost eerie how alike were father and son … and Beau made the argument [to keep campaigning] with such feeling, such intensity…” (p. 660) Beau, too, went into public service. He won statewide office in Delaware as Attorney General in 2006 at age 37, serving until the completion of his second term 2015. He was preparing to campaign for governor of Delaware the next year when he died of brain cancer in 2015. He saw his dad run for the presidency twice without collecting a single delegate. Cramer wrote movingly about Joe Biden’s closeness to his sons after a terrible car accident killed their mother and their baby sister in the short months between his first election as Senator and actually taking office. Reading those passages now, I could not help but recall that Biden has also outlived one of his sons.

It’s not just personal issues that hit differently. In the chapters about Biden, Cramer writes extensively about the fight to defeat Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. As Larry Tribe, one of Biden’s advisers, put it, “Bork’s problem isn’t just Roe, it’s Griswold.” (p. 537) While Roe recognized a woman’s right to have an abortion, Griswold stated that married couples had the right to obtain contraception without government interference, a right that now also applies to unmarried persons. Biden recognized that people didn’t want laws telling them what they could and couldn’t do in bed; Bork took the opposite position. After extensive hearings that even Judge Bork said were fair, his nomination was defeated on a bipartisan basis, with three times as many Republicans crossing over to vote against as there were Democrats voting for. In the event, Tribe got the order wrong: thirty-five years later, Republicans on the Supreme Court struck down Roe first. Griswold remains the law of the land, but very much in the cross-hairs of Bork’s ideological descendants on the Court, who still think that laws should tell consenting adults what they may and may not do in bed.

How far will it go?

The way [long-time Biden adviser Pat] Caddell saw it … if you push the right-wing social agenda hard enough, the whole Reagan falls apart. There’s no way all those Reagan Democrats want the Moral Majority fucking around with their lives. (p. 543)

And also:

Because if Biden was right … then the people did not want to go back—not even to the rosy Reaganaut fiction of an America that was right, and white, and neatly authoritarian in its prejudice, politics, and the polar absolutes of its worldview. If Biden was right, what the country wanted was a more perfect realization of its old ideals: Liberty, Justice, Compassion … (p. 632)

We are in the process of finding out.

What It Takes also serves as a reminder at how very contingent history can be. In February 1988, Biden had an aneurysm. As Cramer describes the situation:

They were going to fly Joe down [to Walter Reed] in a chopper, but it was snowing like hell that day, February 11. Anyway, Joe was too fragile to fly. The doctors at St. Francis in Wilmington had found blood in his spinal fluid—they were pretty that Biden had an aneur[y]sm in his brain. If it blew—change of pressure, a jolt in the air—it was curtains. (p. 907)

If Biden had still been on the campaign trail, the odds are high that he would not have gotten the immediate medical attention he ended up needing. But he did get it, and he took the time he needed to recover, and he is still here.

The book reflects its era in many ways. It is very white, though Cramer writes as part of his introductory note how much he would have liked to have had Jesse Jackson among the book’s protagonists:

By its nature, then, the project had to exclude some credible and charming candidates … The omission I most regret is Jesse Jackson, whose story is surely as fascinating as that of any man who has campaigned for the White House. Alas, I came to Reverend Jackson late, and I was never able to slow him down long enough to make him understand that help was required. We never got to the level of candor that was essential, and so, in the end, it seemed better not to write about someone I did not know well. (p. viii)

At least in this book, Cramer does not reflect on why he came to Jackson late, or why a Black candidate might have been slow to open up in such depth to a white author.

The book is also very male. The Biden chapters show how important his sister Valerie was to his campaigns and career, but she is one of the few women in what was very much a men’s game. The chapters show how important Jill was to every facet of his life, but not until Biden has left the 1988 campaign does Cramer even suggest that she might have harbored some of her own ambitions to be First Lady.

I cannot recall any out gay people in the chapters about Biden; I wonder if there are any in the whole book.

What It Takes remains a great and monumental book. The Biden chapters — 17, 19, 21, 25, 30, 38–41, 62–67, 77–78 and 112, plus a little bit of the epilogue — are fascinating in their own right, a guide to his early life, a portrait of the kind of man he was in 1988, and a basis for reflecting on the person he has become in the decades since.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2023/03/18/what-it-takes-by-richard-ben-cramer/

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