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What It Takes: The Way to the White House

de Richard Ben Cramer

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5691241,969 (4.42)5
An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate? As he recounts the frenzied course of the 1988 presidential race-and scours the psyches of contenders from George Bush and Robert Dole to Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart-Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer comes up with the answers, in a book that is vast, exhaustively researched, exhilarating, and sometimes appalling in its revelations.… (mais)
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Mostrando 1-5 de 11 (seguinte | mostrar todas)
Gave a complete view of the primary season from 1988. It was intriguing to get inside the minds of the various candidates and spouses. However I felt it was too long. Though it was interesting, the scale of detail was at times overwhelming. ( )
  thewestwing | Aug 12, 2022 |
By far the most detailed book about presidential campaigns I've ever read, in fact so detailed it's almost exhausting over its thousand-odd pages of tiny, close-set type, What It Takes is an extremely entertaining read that also raises profoundly troubling questions about the whole venture. Out of all the people contesting the 1988 presidential campaign, Cramer selects Democrats Joe Biden, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, and Gary Hart, Republicans George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, and asks some serious questions about their ultimate goal. What makes people want to become president? What sort of person takes that idea and commits to it? What does that commitment really mean in terms of how it relates to the rest of your life, the quiet, private, alone parts? What kinds of obstacles are there along the way? What is it really like to be completely surrounded by the press and by other people, and by the public? How often do people crack under the strain and what is that like? All these questions and more get raised and answered, but one can't help but be unsettled by the process, and ask why the public tolerates this kind of spectacle.

I'm a politics junkie, which is why I picked up the book in the first place, but while I do care most of all about the nuts-and-bolts policy aspect of politics, I freely admit to also enjoying the horse-race side of things to some degree. It's no coincidence that many people who are heavily into politics are also heavily into sports, because they both offer thrills, ups-and-downs, dramatic upsets, and questionable Narratives that are as much fun to invent as to tear down. Politics is a sport, sometimes a literal blood sport, and that attracts a certain sort of thrill-junkie who gets a kick out of a state changing color on a map or a cell on a spreadsheet of polling data bouncing over the 50% mark. But if politics has a bloodless wonk side and an energizing combat side, there's also a sappy, gauzy, human-interest side that by all logic should be completely irrelevant, yet somehow remains the dominant filter through which most people see the candidates (does it really matter what John McCain does for fun, or if Mitt Romney isn't always the world's greatest pet owner, or which teams are in Barack Obama's March Madness bracket, or how many shots Hillary Clinton can knock back, or who is or isn't wearing enough flag pins?). How many people were inspired about politics by JFK or RFK's biographies, even though LBJ had the real domestic achievements?

I usually try to act like those biographical elements of candidates' stories are irrelevant to me, but I respect Cramer for getting me to admit to myself that I care about that stuff as much as anyone else. Like it or not, it's impossible to avoid empathizing with these five guys at one point or another in their lives, even the comparatively more charmed existence of George Bush. While Cramer regrets that he wasn't able to cover Jesse Jackson as well (since that election featured a large number of still-influential people, I also miss the inclusion of Al Gore and Donald Rumsfeld, and even Pat Robertson), the book doesn't seem to suffer for their absence in terms of readability or detail. It turns out that it really does seem to matter, somehow, if Dukakis' brother once tried to commit suicide, or that Biden's family was poor when he growing up and he had to overcome a stutter, or that it took Dole quite a while to recover from his war injury, or that Bush had a magic touch for making friends, or that Hart had an extremely religious upbringing, or that Gephardt acted oddly mature for his years as a child. The differences between a rich kid like Bush, a rich-turned-poor kid like Biden, or a just plain poor kid like Dole are very apparent, and that affects how they go about pursuing their goals. Each seems to involuntarily fall into a sort of archetype like the Front-Runner, the Underdog, the Wild Card, the Insider, and so on, which makes the reader ponder the boundary between the media's forced caricaturing and the true nature of these guys. Do we truly get the candidates we deserve?

Cramer obviously did endless interviews to unearth these kinds of personal touches, delivering each anecdote in a chatty, almost New Journalism/gonzo-ish style with plenty of exclamation points. He never simply says "And then candidate X gave a speech...", instead he'll go on for paragraphs about how the speech was constructed, who it was to, what everyone thought about it, etc. That helps to, yes, "humanize" these people, which is welcome since the book spends a fair amount of time on backstory (the results of the election they've all been working towards - and that the reader has been patiently waiting for - is relegated to a brief epilogue). But the ride is enjoyable enough that so much exploration is welcome. If Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography series is all about the nature of power, taking it as a given that LBJ cares about nothing else and will do anything to get it and use it, then Cramer's work is about personality, exploring what forces act on these people from such wildly different walks of life to get them to consider answering the impossibly hubristic question "Could I really become President?" with a "yes", and then try to actually accomplish that goal.

A lot of questions come to mind along the way, however. America's presidential system of government is not unique in the world, but it is rare, and our electoral system, with its almost unbearably prolonged campaign "season", is almost without peer. Most parliamentary systems feature fairly quick elections where the campaign season is about a month or two long, and their parties vest power in a leader who isn't even popularly elected but chosen by the party. They seem to do just fine, and while biographical details obviously play a role in those countries' elections also, foreign party leaders typically don't receive anywhere near the amount of scrutiny that American presidential candidates do. Why is that? To put it another way, what does it say about America that a book where five out of six main characters don't manage become President is publishable, salable, and even enjoyable and laudable? To put it yet another way, why am I reading this, and what am I supposed to take away from this lovingly detailed analysis of presidential pageantry?

A defender of the current system might say that America is such a large, diverse, and powerful country that it's important that whoever ends up leading it have something special. The lengthy Walk to Canossa that each of the candidates endures is just a series of Feats of Strength, a hazing ritual with meaning. So the endless fundraising they have to do is a proxy for how acceptable they'll be to the financial powers that really run the country; their pandering to voters in lightly populated and not terribly vital states like New Hampshire and Iowa proves they can appeal to the Common Man; their endurance through a year-long marathon under the microscope reveals their resilience; their skill at hiding or explaining away past misdeeds, ethical lapses, and peccadilloes indicates their discipline; and their ability to survive endless rounds of aggravatingly pointless and inconsequential questions from the press showcases their fortitude. At the end, the field having been cleansed of all candidates insufficiently orthodox and nonthreatening to the existing power structure, somebody wins, and America can be assured that the winner had the Right Stuff, whatever that means. The system works!

Personally, I would much rather have the parliamentary style of leadership selection, not only because I don't think the presidential system delivers optimal policy results due to the democratic legitimacy problem, or because it just takes way too damn long, but also because our system feeds into what Gene Healy memorably termed The Cult of the Presidency, where people are trained to tune into the world's most expensive reality TV show every four years and then tune out with the assumption that problems will be solved, because the other branches of government don't exist. The quest for the presidency is really a quest to amuse, entertain, and delight the public, and the fascination with personal details that this book is emblematic of is fun, yes, and makes for very entertaining television, but it's also hopelessly superficial and leads to depressing absurdities. That feeling is due in large part to the press' ability to decide who's a serious candidate and who's not, which comes off as by far the worst part of the process. While Cramer is able to present all these candidates as fairly normal, relatable people, their every action becomes magnified and distorted by a completely incompetent, dangerously trivial press corps that jumps on the slightest whiff of "scandal". Maybe this aggressive press interrogation is another essential round of preparation for the high stakes of international diplomacy - maybe it just means or media culture is broken. Most depressingly, maybe the media is just responding to people's innate love of tabloid trash.

Regardless of what you think of the media (from this campaign alone, their mishandling of the Biden-Kinnock speech quote, their bloodlust over Hart's relationships, and their stupidity over Dukakis and the tank picture are legendary) and their gatekeeper role, it would be a mistake to look at presidential politics solely through that lens. Beyond the cameras, beyond the fundraising, beyond the backroom deals, and even beyond the structures of partisan politics, there are a bunch of people who want to be President of the United States, and will do just about anything to get there. This book is one of the best looks at what happens to that dream from conception to the often harsh light of reality you can find. I was only 4 years old when this election happened, but since many of its key players are still around in one form or another, it's still a surprisingly relevant guide to who these people who show up on TV every four years are, and how they get there. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
A profound look at the political careers of many powerful men vying for the presidency in the 1988 election. This book follows George Bush, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, and Joe Biden, almost all of whom would at one point secure their party’s nomination. It’s incredible the amount of work, effort, talent, and luck went into these careers.

George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole led fascinating military careers and sacrificed so much. It’s a shame how rare military service is for presidential prospects these days. This election also marked a change in the relationships between the press and the candidates, as shown with Gary Hart’s fall.

It’s also sad to see the enthusiasm and life found in Joe Biden despite all the tragedy of his life, when compared to this current election. The man has been running for more than 30 years- possibly for the last time. ( )
  ARIZ12 | Jul 30, 2020 |
Wow. An absolute must read if you are interested in political history and 'what it takes' to become the President of the United States. ( )
  jpnygard | Aug 2, 2018 |
Wow! A great book about both the Republican and Democratic Primaries in 1988. It's all on display with plenty of inside baseball. Bush, Dole, Dukakis, Biden, Gephardt and Hart are all front and center. Cramer's coverage of all the races and all the details as well as his thorough biography and history of each of the prominent candidates is amazing. The actual general election is only covered in the last 50 pages and from what I can gather it seemed like the primaries were where the action was (much like in 2008). A great book that I would highly recommend to anyone that loves politics. Very humorous at times with classic quotes of the candidates. In the end, everything seemed to hinge on negative attack ads with Bush leading the way all the way into the White House. I almost wondered if the title should have been "Whatever It Takes". A good primer for what should be a great lead into 2016. God Bless America! ( )
  Charlie-Ravioli | Jan 18, 2016 |
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An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate? As he recounts the frenzied course of the 1988 presidential race-and scours the psyches of contenders from George Bush and Robert Dole to Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart-Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer comes up with the answers, in a book that is vast, exhaustively researched, exhilarating, and sometimes appalling in its revelations.

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