Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Richard Ben Cramer, RIP

Richard Ben Cramer, author of What It Takes -- one of the best books ever written on American politics -- has passed away. Below, I repost a piece I did from two years ago on the book.

At the repeated urging of Jonathan Bernstein, I finally read Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes. And you know what? It's excellent. It's a very detailed behind-the-scenes look at most of the major candidates in the 1988 presidential election, including Dole, Bush, Gephardt, Biden, Hart, and Dukakis. The stories are wonderful. The candidates' backgrounds are fascinating -- I was surprised how many of them dealt with a serious illness or death of a loved one (Bush's daughter, Biden's wife, Dukakis' brother, Gephardt's son), not to mention Dole's own personal travails.

The book is very much not political science, but it contains a ton of evidence that political scientists would find useful. I got the impression that there's enough material there to write another The Party Decides, although the book just isn't organized that way. Take, for example, this discussion of Gephardt's campaign:
When you got down to it, [Gephardt] meant to run Jimmy Carter's campaign -- twelve years later, different issues, new wrinkles, but still, he meant to hike the trail that Carter blazed. He would come out of nowhere, win Iowa... get the bump... and then the hot light would hit. Dick had to be ready. He had to know how to run in the South, how to make his campaign truly national; had to know what the press would do, how to get the money while his name was hot, how to tie down the pols who meant to ride with a winner... how to build momentum until his nomination, like Carter's, could not be stopped.
So he sought Carter's advice, and he followed it. He started early. He made sure his contact with Iowans was not only broad, but deep -- and deeply personal. Thought his money was tight, he staffed not only Iowa and New Hampshire, but offices in several southern states. He picked his campaign team, and he backed it -- even in the worst times, he never second-guessed. He worked small towns, and corn boils, church picnics, county fairs... he did everything, in short, that Jimmy Carter did... did it just as hard, and much longer... and with two months before the Iowa caucus, he could see... it hadn't worked worth a damn.
Others, including the authors of The Party Decides, have pointed out how the 1970s were an atypical era in presidential politics where a bandwagoning candidate could actually put together a campaign on his own and win the nomination, and how that approach stopped working by the 1980s. And here's Cramer hitting the same point back in 1988. Pretty cool.

Now, Cramer grants a much more powerful role to the media than most political scientists do today. And the media really do not come off very well. Respected journalists like E.J. Dionne are depicted buying into pack journalistic mentalities and grilling Gary Hart about his affairs because "everybody knows" he has a problem. What's more, the candidates seem to react to this press coverage. Hart and Biden are seen as pulling out of the race because the media would not leave them alone about Donna Rice and plagiarism, respectively. You can almost see Bill Clinton reading this book in 1990 and saying, "So all I have to do is ignore them and I can still win the race? Piece of cake."

The political media clearly have their own agenda separate from that of the parties, and they can seem quite feckless at times. But these stories aren't always wrong. Bill Clinton really did have a character problem, one that ended up dominating much of his second term in office. But Cramer presents evidence of pretty good people being driven from public life by nasty, personal media coverage based on little factual content, and it's hard to defend that.

Anyway, the book is definitely worth the read.


  1. Great point, I remembered another part of the book where Cramer is discussing Bush’s campaign leadership team (the self-styled Gee-6, like the economic group the G8) and their strategy and at first glance it looks like electioneering type stuff but if you step back it’s much of the same themes as “The Party Decides”:

    “This was part of [campaign manager Lee] Atwater’s southern fire-wall strategy, Lee’s determination to erect an unassailable, insurmountable Super Tuesday bulwark, so that even if Bush lost Iowa...still, even so!...on Super Tuesday, seventeen states would vote, most of whose citizens had never seen a candidate, and, as a consequence they would vote in small number—small enough to match, or even overmatch with a machineable bloc…just the kind of bloc vote that Lee could deliver, knowing, as he did know, every small-time white-shoe Republican op in the Old Confederacy, having worked with them on the Gipper’s campaigns…”

    That’s obviously more than just a strategy for how to win votes, Lee’s job here is to use his status and personal reputation with other GOP political professionals, an important part of any expanded party network, and get them on board as much as devise a strategy to win states. Cramer goes on to point out how Atwater goes on to sign up others to team Bush that seem to have little to do with winning votes, but a lot to do with getting the support of important groups inside the GOP in the late 80s:

    “That was the same leak-plugging logic that led Bush to sign on a strange but Bush-devoted Christian, Doug Wead, as “adviser” and liaison to the born-again crowd…He looked like a standard Washington luncher, dyed his hair, showed up as man-in-the-know at politico-religious meetings, where he appeared to be well known. The convention of Christian Booksellers, for example: Wead was big—had a half-dozen books under his name. Now he was working on a book about Bush Man of Integrity was Wead’s new title…Meanwhile he [Bush] did not hesitate to issue a ringing endorsement of Jerry Falwell (“The nation is in crying need of your moral vision!” and to host Wead’s friends, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, at the Residence. (This was before the Fall. Bush said he watched their television show.)"

    This passage goes on to explain how Bush would do this over and over again. Not going to events to get voters to like him, like Gephardt at those corn boils, but to get party actors on board. In addition, Bush is working not so much to show he’s the most conservative or candidate but to prove to the GOP that he is conservative enough, he’s not the moderate he ran as for President in 1980 (and for Senate in 1970) and his views are acceptable to the bulk of GOP party. At a dinner tribute to the dead published of the Manchester Union Leader Bush announced “Bill Loeb always spoke the truth as he saw it.” While when Loeb was alive he called Bush a hypocrite and “unfit to be the Republican nominee.” And the chapter ends with a great story about Bush trying to recruit conservative activists in private:

    “In ’86 the PAC arranged for Scott Stanley, editor of Conservative Digest, and Bill Kennedy, its publisher, to meet Bush in the west Wing of the White House. Just a chat—a search for common ground. (“Y’play tennis…”) And it went great! Kennedy and Stanley said to Bush: “What can we do for you?” Bush replied “I would love to see the War Powers Act tested in court. “ They ate that up. He was making headway with these people! They were friends! (They’d already reprinted his Loeb speech in their March issue.) Then Kennedy suggested that KGB operatives were working out of Senator John Kerry’s office. Bush turned momentarily and looked at Atwater (you owe me for this…) and then, with a polite smile, without argument, turned back to his guests."

  2. That was a great section. I believe I dog-eared that one while reading it.