Richard Ben Cramer and “What It Takes”

There was no shortage of praise for Richard Ben Cramer upon his death earlier this month. The author of What It Takes was widely lauded for writing probably the definitive campaign narrative, a hefty but breezy tome following eight candidates in both parties during the 1988 presidential campaign. If that sounds like another époque, it was; campaigns move at the speed of technological change and this one was no different. But it speaks well of Cramer’s reportage and writing that I can still recall scenes, set pieces and character-making elements of many of the candidates in his book which I read more than 15 years ago. It’s a peculiar irony that all the candidates he wrote about outlived their author.

Almost universally praised now, Cramer’s book was met with tepid reviews and sold poorly when it was released in 1992. Cramer was so despondent he never wrote again about politics. Little wonder. Although a driving, detail-littered book, the 1988 campaign was hardly era-defining. The book’s release date, four years after the 1988 campaign, was smack in the middle of the 1992 campaign. That year would give us our first baby boomer president, an aggressive campaign style that presaged the Internet age, and the full blooming salaciousness that Gary Hart’s peccadillos only winked at. If only Cramer had dedicated his awesome energy and focus to 1992, or 2000, or 2008, what then? Game Change would have looked like spare change by comparison.

What It Takes’ other glaring flaw is Cramer’s unwillingness, or inability, to take his narrative all the way through to the end – that is, from the early, earnest primary contests, through the horrible winnowing of the losers to the party conventions and then on to the general campaign and Election Day until the final winner is standing above it all: the President-elect of the United States, leader of the world’s greatest democracy, master of the Free World. But Cramer’s book ends abruptly – with an epiloguous glance back at Election Day, Michael Dukakis returning to govern Massachusetts in defeat – before the general election gets cranked up. And in that sense, Cramer has written the longest first volume ever put to press. So it will always feel unfinished to me.

Cramer’s prose is kinetic, intimate, profane, almost gonzo – hardly, I imagine, how those running the campaigns think of themselves, channeling the Kennedys or Reagans. But with that inside-the-bullpen perspective came something revelatory to me when I first read it: the candidates themselves. Cramer’s remarkable subjectivity, his willingness to look out at the world from the candidates’ eyes, I had never experienced before. With remarkable humanity and sympathy Cramer sketched these very different and driven individuals during some of the most extreme moments of their lives. The campaign is only one of those extreme moments. What It Takes taught me that their vantage point was a valid and important one.

That is probably Cramer’s greatest bequest to political reportage. These men and women may not be exactly like you or me – that, the book makes dramatically clear — but they’re worth understanding, wherever it is they stand.