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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Richard Ben Cramer

The Best Political Book No One Bought

Before Richard Ben Cramer, the campaign political book genre was dominated by the great Theodore White and his remarkable Making of the President series. That changed after the appearance of Cramer’s monumental door stop of a book on the 1988 presidential campaign.

Now every book about American politics is measured against Cramer’s masterpiece – What it Takes: The Way to the White House. Cramer’s book, a classic piece of “new journalism,” not only provided the inside account of the campaigns of politicians like Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden, Gary Hart, Bob Dole and the eventual nominees, George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, but also offered fascinating, in depth profiles of the candidates. It was a book about character as much as politics and it has become a classic for political junkies and Cramer and his approach have become a role models for a new generation of writers who see politics as less an insiders game and more a study in character and motivation.

[One might argue that the 1988 campaign did a great deal to shape the current presidential campaign environment. Just remember some of the moments: Biden’s plagiarism, the Willie Horton ad, Dukakis is a silly helmet in a tank, Bush 41’s “read my lips” and Lloyd Bentsen’s put down – “you’re no Jack Kennedy” – delivered at Dan Quayle expense.]

Politico has produced a must read profile of Cramer with insights into his book – the book was panned by reviewers when it came out years after the ’88 election and never sold well – that is also a great look into what now passes for political reporting. Most big-time Washington reporters continue to focus their political coverage on the inner workings of the campaign. It’s reporting analogous to covering a baseball game – report on the balls and strikes, throw in a little strategy, compose a clever opening graph and you’re good to go.

Cramer’s book – he claims to have done more than 1,000 interviews – concentrated instead on why these remarkable men came to be where they found themselves in 1988. He was interested in who they were as people and what made them tick. This approach – the motivations of people, their background and the details of their lives – is vastly more enlightening to voters than most of what we get in more standard political reporting.

I suspect that one of the reasons we don’t get more of the kind of reporting Cramer does, in addition to the fact that it is darn hard work, is that candidates generally hate this kind of reporting. As Cramer told Booknotes interviewer Brian Lamb in 1992, most politicians aren’t introspective. They never spend 15 minutes thinking about who they really are and what they really hope to accomplish. Cramer’s book gets to these questions.

The big book of the 2008 campaign was Game Change by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, a book full of gossipy detail and the interesting, but not always insightful, “inside baseball” of politics. Cramer, never one to mince words, is dismissive of Game Change because, as he told Politico, it “almost religiously eschews any understanding of who [the candidates] are.”

Cramer became disillusioned with reporting on politics after the initial tepid response to What it Takes – he still owes his publisher $200,000 from the advance he received – and hasn’t written about politics or candidates since. Instead, Cramer has produced books on baseball, including a book on Ted Williams and a devastating biography of Joe DiMaggio, and is now at work on a book on Alex Rodriquez.

It’s never too early to get ready for the next presidential election – candidates are already planning trips to New Hampshire and Iowa – so, if you haven’t read What it Takes, haunt a used book store and lose yourself in one of the best political books ever written. What it Takes is a classic.

And thanks for checking in here during 2010…a Happy New Year to you and yours.

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