‘What It Takes’ To Write A Classic on American Politics: Empathy

518FOVslpCL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-69,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_After the death of authorRichard Ben Cramer at age 62 on January 7, 2013, I downloaded the first two chapters of his classic,What It Takes: the Road to the White House, published in 1992, for a re-read. Many critics have said it’s the best book on presidential politics ever written, and required reading for students of history and politics. Cramer selected one of the dullest and most uneventful election years, 1988. In the general election campaign, George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, two charisma-challenged candidates, argued about almost nothing of significance. Why would anyone want to relive that campaign in a book?

Yet Cramer produced a fascinating book of significance. How? He went on a quest to determine WHY anyone — in particular the six men he profiled — would endure the humiliation, embarrassment, uprootedness (years of sleeping in hotels), obnoxious reporters, routine invasions of privacy, enormous sacrifices of time, attention and family, sleep deprivation, and objectification for years, on the off chance that lightning might strike and one of them might be elected president of the United States and might become a figure of historical consequence?

Cramer employed something exceedingly rare in political journalists these days — empathy for politicians. And yet he didn’t write puff pieces. The first chapter of What It Takes, about “Poppy” Bush, captures Bush’s way of speaking, and some paragraphs read a lot like the text of Dana Carvey’s Saturday Night Live impressions of Bush. “No can do…Wouldn’t be prudent.” Still, Cramer illicits sympathy for the humiliations Bush 41 endured as a candidate. Throwing the first pitch at a Houston Oilers game, the Secret Service forced him to wear a bullet-proof vest underneath his clothing. An accomotionalist by nature, Bush stifled his discomfort, looked ridiculous and botched the pitch. The angle of the TV cameras make him look like a buffoonish out-of-shape sixty-something man. In reality, Bush in his early sixties was still an athlete in great physical condition. But what filtered through to the public was a cardboard caracature to be largely mocked.

So it is with most of the major candidates. Larger than life, in many cases noble forces of nature up close, they come across as small, craven, opportunistic, soap opera characters from the distance of daily political journalism.

Salon called Cramer “the last trusted reporter.”

Drill Deeper:
Related articles

Richard Ben Cramer’s masterpiece
Richard Ben Cramer’s true legacy
What I Learned From Richard Ben Cramer
Goodbye to Richard Ben Cramer.
Remembering Richard Ben Cramer And ‘What It Takes’
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