The bottom was dropping out…everywhere. The last states—Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma—states where he had a chance, till the end…well, this was the end. His numbers were melting like butter in a pan.
And even then, they meant to fly him on that lousy plane (no bathroom—no one would trust himself to have a beer)…across four hours of the country…again…to Miami, to another motel, middle of the night…Florida was only on the schedule for a fund-raiser in West Palm Beach. But the fund was canceled now…All he had was breakfast at a senior citizens’ center—seven in the morning on three hours’ sleep, in a state that was lost…yet the pros scheduled Dick to eat Raisin Bran and chat with his elderly tablemates while an old man in plaid pants and dyed orange hair entertained with his rendition of “New York, New York.”
And even then, on Super Tuesday, the day of his demise, [Congressman] Dick [Gephardt] did it.
The stream-of-consciousness style and suggestive title of What It Takes are reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979), while the satirical and at times almost surrealistic tone evokes Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973). Its theme of politics as all-consuming horse race harks back to Theodore S. White’s four-part “making of the President” series that began with the 1960 election. The difference is that while White basically extolled the process, Cramer skewers it. Twenty-eight years after John F. Kennedy’s victory ushered in the modern, television-era process, candidates had become pawns to their professional consultants, handlers, and pollsters as well as to the dictates of “impact” journalism.
Six years in the making and based on a thousand interviews (although there are neither footnotes nor index), What It Takes (a more apt title would have been “Whatever It Takes”) seeks answers to two questions. First, who would be so vain as to seek the presidency? Second, is success possible without sacrificing privacy, humanity, even one’s sanity? Cramer thinks not (see also his “The Price of Being President: How George Bush Went Mad in the White House” in the June, 1992, issue of Esquire). In 1988, Bush prevailed precisely because he gave himself over totally to a process that had become a trivialized, know-nothing exercise, a parody of democracy.
Until What It Takes came along, the quintessential book on the perils of presidential politics had been Jules Witcover’s Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976 (1977), at 684 pages not even two-thirds the size of Cramer’s tome. Talk about wretched excess! The author could have benefited from a flinty editor and deleted several of the four Democratic candidates who received full biographical treatment. Nevertheless, What It Takes is a delectable treat for political junkies. Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President, 1968 (1969) exposed the public relations essence of modern campaigns and Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus (1973) examined pack journalism; Cramer shows how sophisticated these cottage industries have become. As benefiting an occasional contributor to Esquire, the author employs a New Journalistic style featuring fractured punctuation (for the sake of intimacy), frequent italicizing (for emphasis), and crazy spelling (to imitate speech patterns). These devices are at times annoying. The prairie inflections of Bob Dole (Dohhhll), for example, are better captured in his sayings (“Gooda meetcha”; “Howy Doooonn”; “Agh, goota gooo!”) than in the rendering of his laugh (Agh, hagh-hagh-hagh).
Cramer is adept at highlighting the character traits of his supporting cast, capturing, for example, the maddening indecision of New York governor Mario Cuomo, the cold calculation of Georgia senator Sam Nunn, the blow-dried, snake-oil salesmanship of “windbag” Jack Kemp, and the “eye-in-the-middle-of-the-forehead charismatics” of fundamentalist preacher Pat Robertson. In the background was the Gipper, President Ronald Reagan, who, like the cagey Dwight D. Eisenhower a generation previously, was stingy in his praise for his second in command.
Vice President Bush is portrayed as a consummate political chameleon. If Lyndon Baines Johnson was “Big Daddy from the Pedernales,” to quote historian Paul K. Conkin, Bush was “Poppy,” a transplanted prep school Connecticut Yankee-turned-Texan who amassed a thirty-thousand-name-Christmas card list while cheerfully executing his funereal vice presidential duties. The book opens with a scene from the Houston Astrodome. Accompanied by his huge entourage, Bush is there to throw out the first ball at the start of the National League playoffs. The former Yale baseball captain grimaces as the baseball bounces in front of home plate, his humiliation caused by a bulletproof vest that the Secret Service had forced him to wear.
If Bush had a reputation as a wimpy lap dog, his rival Bob Dole was a Nixonesque loner. Cramer somewhat demeaningly calls him the Bobster, a throwback to his Kappa Sigma fraternity days. A workaholic, he had trouble delegating responsibility and distrusted, in Cramer’s words, “the big guys, the car-phone-in-the Jag crowd, the former White House Special Assistants, now lobbyists for McDonnell Douglas, consultants to the Republic of South Korea, [who] were telling him he…needed to build an organization: he couldn’t try to do it himself this time.” To Dole, who had “long since seen through the hole in Reagan’s silk screen: Morning in America,” the election was about courage to face up to the nation’s pressing problems, especially the spiraling deficit.
Dole’s motto, “He’s one of us,” caught on in...