From a purely anthropological point of view, an American presidential campaign makes a fascinating spectacle-like one of those ancient Mayan ball games at Chichen Itza where they disemboweled the losing team, or Mongol warriors on the steppes of Central Asia playing polo with their enemies’ heads. Whom the gods would destroy, they first endow with ”exploratory committees.” Then comes the announcement to announce, the announcement, and the quadrennial trial by ordeal as the contenders beg for money, spin fairy tales, and try to avoid being drawn and quartered by the press. The winner we call Mr. President. The second-place finisher becomes a contemptible weasel, the punch line of every joke. The remainder are cast into oblivion.
For readers who can’t get enough of this spellbinding ritual in the morning newspaper and on the evening news, What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer’s energetic and remarkably vivid account of the 1988 presidential campaign, will prove both instructive and riotously diverting. Six years ago, Cramer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and contributing editor at Esquire, took it upon himself to scrutinize the intimate side of presidential politics. ”I wanted to know,” he writes, ”enough about these people to see…once they decided to run, and marched (or slid, or flung themselves headlong) into this semi-rational, all-consuming quest…what happened to those lives, to their wives, to their families, to the lives they shared? What happened to their idea of themselves? What did we do to them, on the way to the White House?”
A thousand or so interviews later, the result is a sprawling, repetitious, hyperbolic, semisatirical, yet oddly compassionate saga of ambition and folly on a continental scale. Cramer has never encountered a digression he didn’t like. His rhetoric runs to overstatement, and his favorite punctuation marks are the parenthesis and the exclamation point. Nobody could possibly read every word. Yet so powerful is the book’s narrative drive and so humane its depiction of the hitherto alien lives of the half dozen politicians whose perilous journey he describes, that readers will find themselves riveted even though they already know, in the broadest sense, what happened.
Not that Cramer handles the candidates gently. Of the figures portrayed, the least sympathetic are the finalists: George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Bush emerges as the World’s Shallowest Man, hands-down winner of the prep-school- twit-of-the-decade award, Dukakis as the Amazing Mechanical Governor, a prig with a vestigial sense of humor and the imagination of a hand calculator.
Far more sympathetic are the losers: Bob Dole, Joe Biden, and Gary Hart. Dole because the story of his struggle to overcome the physical and psychological wounds he incurred in World War II can’t help but inspire admiration, Biden and Hart because the savaging they received from what Cramer contemptuously calls the ”Karacter Kops” in the press far exceeded their all- too-human flaws. (The author never quite brings Richard Gephardt to life; Gephardt had that problem too.)
But even at their most unsympathetic, all the politicians are made to seem persons of dignity, courage, feeling, and substance next to their cocksure, parasitical ”handlers” and the bloodthirsty lynch mob that makes up the national press. By the end of the story, there’s not a ”big foot” media star standing without a face full of egg custard. Sally Quinn, George Will, Gail Sheehy, David Broder, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Miami Herald, Newsweek, Time, the network heavies…You name ‘em and Cramer lets ‘em have it. Evenhanded? Fair? Not particularly. Entertaining, satisfying, and long overdue? You bet. And scary too. Real damn scary.