Remembering Richard Ben Cramer And ‘What It Takes’

It’s incredibly sad to hear of the death of the writer Richard Ben Cramer from lung cancer. Many, many appreciations of What It Takes, his book about the contenders for their parties 1988 presidential nominations, will be written in the days to come. But what always struck me about the book is the relationship between objectivity and empathy in it.

Cramer believed that every candidate deserved a fair analysis, not a fair conclusion, and the book is richer for it. Details like George H.W. Bush’s penchant for writing thank-you notes or Michael Dukakis’ turkey tetrazzini are there not because they’re focus-grouped or blandly “colorful,” but for what they tell a reader about the candidate, from the strength of Bush’s network, to Dukakis’s tendency to get bogged down in details. The balance of the book stems from Cramer’s genuine curiosity about all the men he wrote about, and that curiosity has a way of opening up even settled minds. I’d always thought Bob Dole was simply mean until I read about his rehabilitation regime after his service in World War II and his work on the food stamps program. But in a fair analysis, not everyone is equal, and Cramer is honest about each man’s weaknesses and strengths, be they stylistic or risk-taking, like the idiot daring that lead Gary Hart to the deck of the Monkey Business.

We talk a lot these days about the win-the-morning mentality in political journalism. It’s a frustrating dynamic because it encourages an obsessive focus on perceived gaffes or individual debate performances, rather than fundamentals like the quality of President Obama’s reelection team’s ground campaign and sophisticated use of technology. But What It Takes is also a reminder that the most important campaign fundamental is the man at the head of it, and that he’s the product of thousands upon thousands of mornings.