inSide Books: What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer died in early January. The following is excerpted from his obituary in the New York Times:
It took time for “What It Takes” to become a classic.
A labor of six years and 1,047 pages, the book, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer, appeared in 1992 to mixed reviews. Subtitled “The Way to the White House,” it was an intimate, deeply reported chronicle of the 1988 presidential race.
But the fate of “What It Takes” between 1992 and the dawn of the 21st century is telling, for it reveals the sea change that has swept over American politics, and American political coverage, in the interim.
In a 2007 essay about “What It Takes” in The New York Times Book Review, Matt Bai, a writer on national politics for The Times, called it “not just the most ambitious and riveting in a line of great American campaign books, but perhaps the last of them, too.”
Where previous election histories — notably Theodore H. White’s “Making of the President” series — had focused on the process of campaigns, Mr. Cramer trained a magnifying glass on the psyches of the candidates themselves.
“What It Takes” is a hexagonal portrait of the six men at the center of the 1988 race: the Democrats Joseph R. Biden Jr., Michael S. Dukakis, Richard A. Gephardt and Gary Hart, and the Republicans George Bush and Bob Dole.
Through the thousands of hours Mr. Cramer spent with the candidates on airplanes and at whistle stops — as well as countless more hours with their families, friends, former schoolteachers and myriad others — he sought to answer two questions: What kind of people seek the White House, and what does the quest ultimately do to them?
Mr. Cramer’s book is at bottom a psychological study of towering ambition and the toll of public life. Where it succeeded most notably, in the view of many critics, was in its depiction of the candidates not as mere archetypes but as flesh-and-blood human beings.
Vice President Biden said: “It is a powerful thing to read a book someone has written about you, and to find both the observations and criticisms so sharp and insightful that you learn something new and meaningful about yourself. That was my experience with Richard.”
What became clear over time was that the kind of closely observed, densely textured profiles around which Mr. Cramer’s book was built would very likely not be seen again. The leisurely access he was afforded by all six campaigns resulted in a group portrait that in today’s climate of unremitting, Internet-driven news cycles and minutely stage-managed news conferences reads like an anthropological study of a fascinating tribe since walled off to outsiders.
Perhaps the most unorthodox thing in “What It Takes” is that it has no index, an omission insisted upon, in a kind of gleeful malice aforethought, by Mr. Cramer himself.
“For years I watched all these Washington jerks, all these Capitol Hill, executive-branch, agency wiseguys and reporters go into, say, Trover bookstore, take a political book off the shelf, look up their names, glance at the page and put the book back,” Mr. Cramer told The New York Times in 1992. “Washington reads by index, and I wanted those people to read the damn thing.”