I’m just finishing the Epilogue of Richard Ben Cramer’s What it takes, which is truly an excellent piece of reporting. It’s an in-depth piece of journalistic piece of work, covering the US Republican and Democratic primaries for the 1988 election.
The strength of Cramer’s work is in the depth, in the fastidious attention to every detail. As he writes in the introduction, he interviewed not only the people running, but their family, their staff, people at second remove in every direction. And it shows. He brings to the stories he tells a level of nuance, and detail, that’s truly impressive.
The questions Cramer sets out to answer are what kind of man (or woman, although in that election it was all men) can run for President? What does it take, and is there something special inside them? The answers that I found in his stories were respectively ‘everything’, and ‘no’.
The beauty of Cramer’s style (that travels back to when the candidates were very young; when they were children. He interviews neighbours, school teachers, friends, pulls together stories from when they were in their formative years) is that it gives some perspective. Most of the characters he writes about (Dukakis, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole, George Bush) are hard working. Driven, busy, strong. But his writing dispels the air of inevitability, that can be conveyed by some accounts of politics. I think it’s easy, when you’re trying to tell a story, when a journalist is writing about the latest politician, to give a sense of inevitability – in the search for causes, it’s perhaps possible to forget the fact that things weren’t always necessary, inevitable. For Bob Dole and George Bush he recounts moments of deep struggle before they even entered politics, when the very possibility of continuing seemed unlikely. And yes, both of those people had a sense of drive, of persistence, of grit, that’s truly remarkable. But not as exception as to dictate that they’d become President, or even a candidate (although both did, eventually, stand for President). Cramer shows how not only does the individual have to be driven, but sometimes, it’s not clear at all where they’ll go, or if they’ll succeed.
The other question he begins to answer is ‘why do people do it’, and for each potential candidate he makes a genuine effort. I have no way of knowing if he’s right, but it’s a plausible story.
As to ‘what it takes’ – he hints at that, in his recounting. It’s in the Epilogue that he truly speaks his mind. He describes the political machine, the political process that elects leaders, as a way for the public to demand everything – everything – of their political leaders. Those who fall by the wayside are those who won’t sacrifice (family, principles, a sense of self) to the process, for the cause of power. That’s a strong interpretation, perhaps, but he shows how the process shreds people, tears their lives apart, rips them to pieces.
Cramer’s narrative is primarily about people; about their experiences, their motivations, their ways of seeing the world, and how that fits into the process of running for Presidential candidate. But even through that lens, other things are apparent. The role of the media, of money, is inescapable. He has only derision for the media, for the way there needs to be a story, a consensus between the major reporters, a way of seeing the candidate’s story, and for the supposedly explicatory narratives they create. It’s a fair critique, although he doesn’t extend it (as I think it should be) to the audience that consumes horse-race journalism. The other thing that’s evident (even if only from a distance) is the impact of money. Money stops candidates from campaigning, money funds advertisements that change results, money drives the engine. There’s another book in that topic (several are already out there), and it’s okay that it wasn’t obvious in this one.
There are downsides to Cramer’s approach. His tone for every candidate is somewhat … joking, supportive, on-side. Which, when he clearly struggles with some candidates (like Bush’s privileged background and worldview), can feel frustratingly like reading one of those terribly obvious pieces of sarcasm that goes for pages and pages. It becomes tiring, and you wish that Cramer would just out and say it – Bush is a privileged git who takes for granted his blessings and looks down on others. That’s one example, but throughout the piece, there’s a sense that Cramer isn’t willing to quite come out and own his opinions, but hides a little behind the narrator’s voice, framing his story but never quite willing to own it.
He also elides his own role; mentions at most once or twice ‘the writer’, or ‘the journalist’. A more honest telling might have had a little more about his own role, his own part in the conversations, how he experienced the nightmare that is a perpetual campaign. For a different take on that, try Desperately Seeking Mitt, by Wells Tower.
But for all that, What it takes is an exceptional book. It’s in depth reporting of the kind we need more of (in Australia, I’d think of the Quarterly Essays done on Turnbull, Rudd and Abbott as good examples). And reading it while our latest Australia election was underway was an excellent reminder of why horse-race journalism isn’t the most useful thing to be reading.