To honor Richard Ben Cramer, politicians and journalists need to muster what it took to produce ‘What It Takes’

By Walter Shapiro

Tuesday had been reserved for pleasure reading under the flimsy guise of work. For probably the fifth or sixth time, I was going to read large chunks of “What It Takes,” Richard Ben Cramer’s monumental 1,047-page portrait of six men who sought the presidency in 1988.

What explains the enduring appeal of a book about the run-up to a dispiriting election that featured the awkwardly patrician George Bush versus the awkwardly meritocratic Michael Dukakis? Cramer etched a psychologically revealing account of what it takes to run for president, and he wrote it with such brio, with such humor, that it is a delight to simply savor the words.

That is why I assigned the book to the students in a political science seminar that I am teaching at Yale this semester. My herculean challenge for Tuesday lay in picking the best sections. But how do you choose among Bush in a bulletproof vest struggling to throw out the first pitch at the 1986 All-Star game, a manic Joe Biden enthralled with his Delaware real-estate adventures or the dark humor of the perpetually wounded Bob Dole (“the Bobster” in Cramer’s telling)?

Instead, I awoke Tuesday to the wrenching news that Cramer died of lung cancer Monday night at the age of 62. There are moving tributes by those who knew him far better than I did. But Cramer blurbed the book that I had written on the 2004 campaign. That was an enduring honor because—more than any other author, more than any other journalist—Cramer in “What It Takes” shaped how I look at the men and women who put their egos on the line in the quest for the White House.

Leafing at random through “What It Takes,” searching for inspiration to write this appreciation, I stumbled upon, in the space of a few minutes, two memorable descriptions:

George W. Bush (then known as “Junior”), the scapegrace son of the vice president, chafing over how White House staffers and his brother Jeb had gotten the good box seats at the All-Star game: “Junior was the Roman candle of the family, bright, hot, a sparkler—and the likeliest to burn his fingers. He had all the old man’s high spirits, but none of his sense of accommodation.”

Those words, written in the late 1980s, provided a dead-on preview of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Here is Cramer writing about how Joe Biden, living on his Senate salary, acquired his Wilmington dream house: “By the time Joe’s finished talking, it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t have a thousand dollars cash ... in fact, that no one would see any cash for years. When Joe Biden starts talking deal, he’ll talk that deal until it’s shimmering before your eyes in God’s holy light ... like the Taj Mahal ... Where do I sign?”

Even though it was written more than two decades ago, that seems an apt summary of Biden’s recent negotiating style in hammering out the "fiscal cliff" agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Cramer wasn’t just a press-box wise guy with perfect pitch for description. Those word pictures of George W. Bush and Biden were eerily accurate because Cramer earned them. The book, which took six years to write, was based on interviews with more than 1,000 people. These portraits were the distillation of painstaking research.

Cramer did something else that cuts against the grain of political reporting, both then and now. He not only read back quotes, but he let the candidates (or their top aides) see what was written about them before it was published. His goal was accuracy. Not just the factual accuracy of copying something correctly in a notebook, but the emotional accuracy of making sure that a passage or an anecdote was truthful.

Maybe Cramer was lucky. There was neither a demagogue nor a raging incompetent among the six 1988 candidates he wrote about (Bush, Dole, Dukakis, Biden, Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt). The sexual scandal that sunk Hart (a trip to Bimini with would-be model Donna Rice aboard a boat called “Monkey Business”) proved tame compared to the furors that Bill Clinton later survived as both a candidate and a president. And, yes, Biden was driven out of the presidential race for stealing autobiographical lines from British politician Neil Kinnock. But nothing prompted Cramer to lose respect for his biographical subjects as people.

It was that empathy that allowed Cramer to get close to them as politicians. The odyssey that produced “What It Takes” did not begin with gold-plated access. Instead, as Cramer explained in a 1992 C-Span interview with Brian Lamb, he quickly learned that his story was not centered in Washington. Rather, he said, “I started talking to their schoolmates and their sisters and brothers ... and their first employers and their Cub Scout leaders and their teachers and their law school buddies and college roommates.”

As a result of this approach, Cramer said, “By the time I got back to the candidates on the campaign trail, I wasn't asking them how many points did they need in Iowa. I was asking them about their Aunt Lucy or their Aunt Gladys.” Presidential candidates have grown increasingly adept at hiding from the press, but many of the questions that they do answer have the shelf life of a tweet.

It was difficult in 1988 to be a different-drummer reporter asking biographical questions, and it is even harder now. Campaigns are constructed around staged events and a traveling press corps is walled off from the candidate. That may, in theory, be a prudent strategy, but it means that candidates like Mitt Romney (and, yes, Barack Obama) become little more than abstract, symbolic figures.

The realities of 21st century politics suggest that another book like “What It Takes” will never be written. Bickering aides and sentences like “David Axelrod was angry” are the ingredients for modern campaign best-sellers. But there are lasting truths about who the presidential candidates are and where they came from that are still available. That is, if you start early enough and are willing, like Richard Ben Cramer, to take the less traveled route.

If you care about politics or journalism, if you care about the Bush family or Joe Biden, do me a favor. Just pick up a copy of “What It Takes” and read a few pages (and hopefully a few chapters) at random. That would be a fitting memorial to its author.

It will also be a reminder of what political journalism once was—and, in the right talented hands, could be again in 2016.