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  • New Political Journalism
  • Thomas W. Benson
Cramer, Richard Ben. What It Takes: The Way to the White House. New York: Random House, 1992.

Richard Ben Cramer’s stated aim is to write an account of the 1988 presidential campaign that answers the questions of

What kind of life would lead a man (in my lifetime all have been men) to think he ought to be President. . . . What in their backgrounds could give them that huge ambition, that kind of motor, that will and discipline, that faith in themselves? . . . What happened to those lives, to their wives, to their families, to the lives they shared? What happened to their ideas of themselves? What did we do to them, on the way to the White House?


Cramer follows the fortunes of six of the 1988 candidates—Republicans George Bush and Bob Dole, and Democrats Joe Biden, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, and Gary Hart. The book’s 1047 pages are divided into 130 chapters (and an epilogue) wherein Cramer constructs an elaborate collage modeled on Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Cramer tells the story of each man’s childhood, family, upbringing, career, and participation in the campaign of 1988 (apart from the epilogue, the story ends with the 1988 conventions, omitting most of the story of the fall campaign itself). In every case, these men are portrayed as the product of habits formed in childhood and youth, and in every case their virtues are shown to be—in the tragic genre—inseparably linked to the flaws that bring five of them to bitter defeat and leave the eventual winner a caretaker president (“the fact was, he wanted to be President. He didn’t want to be President to do this or that. He’d do . . . what was sound” [797]). Cramer, in layer after layer of storytelling, with a narrative voice granted the privileged knowledge and intimacy of fiction and the texture of Elmore Leonard dialogue, invites us to like and admire each of these men, invites us to see the world from each of six extremely different points of view, and then he throws them into the arena, along with their handlers, their wives, the press, and each other—and shows us that what we thought happened in the 1988 campaign was, in multiple, deeply ironic ways, a misrepresentation.

Cramer argues that the press got it wrong. He most deeply admires Gary Hart and Joe Biden, who were driven from the race by scandals arising from charges of adultery (Hart) and plagiarism (Biden). In Cramer’s view, both were blackmailed by an arrogant press. Cramer’s Bob Dole is a fascinating reconstruction of a man stereotypically dismissed by the press as the attack dog of the Republican party. Dick Gephardt is portrayed as a tough and deeply spiritual man whose gift for compromise is important to the function of Congress. George Bush is depicted as a decent and self-disciplined man who is utterly sincere in his commitment to personal friendship and honor as the basis for politics and government. Cramer is most hostile, in my reading of the book, to Michael Dukakis, and his portrait of Dukakis, though adding considerable detail and nuance, is in many ways close to the view offered by the press and the Republicans in the 1988 campaign—an honest but out-of-it good-government governor who had no message about why he should be president and who wouldn’t listen, hence bringing his troubles on himself.

The strengths and weaknesses of this epic book are embedded in two paradoxical rhetorical choices that are central to the work—they have to do with Cramer’s decision to focus on the “personal” side of the personal/political axis, and with the narrative technique of the book.

Cramer begins from the widely shared complaint that the media coverage of campaigns, in interaction with the techniques of modern presidential campaigning, has thrown the focus of campaigning from issues to personality. But, argues Cramer, the focus on personality has led the press and media into a corruption of their traditional and useful skepticism, resulting in a kind of pack journalism that takes as its role the day-to...

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