If, like me, you’re an obsessive reader of the political blogs, you probably have encountered references throughout the political season to Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes. By all accounts, it’s the landmark work on presidential primaries. When I first saw a recommendation of it, I wasn’t impressed. Why, after all, would I want to read 1,100 pages on the 1988 presidential primaries, which in my memory ranked among the least memorable of contests.
The regular drumbeat of recommendations finally got the better of me a few weeks ago. Here’s the verdict: drop whatever else you’re reading and pick up What It Takes. The first two chapters alone make the book a classic. In the first chapter, Cramer details then vice-president George H. W. Bush’s trip to Houston to throw the first ball at the 1987 National League Championships Series game. It’s funny, but it also brilliantly conveys a host of Bush character traits that prove crucial in the rest of the book. Junior also makes a memorable appearance, which should have told anyone what a disaster he would be. The second chapter goes back to Bob Dole’s childhood in rural Kansas. I never understood how Dole became a national-level politician, but a reader can’t fail to be moved by Cramer’s account.
In addition to the two Republicans, Cramer follows Gary Hart, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and the eventual Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis. I really feel, falsely in many ways, that I know all six of these politicians now. You could extract Cramer’s chapters on each of them and have a fantastic biography. Put it all together and you’ll never feel so gripped by 1,100 pages of political writing.