‘What It Takes’ is fascinating and still relevant today

ANDREW DOVER reviews What It Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer

Every election has its iconic debate and campaign moments, political sticking points and candidate gaffes. The collective memory of the 1988 Presidential election (Vice President George Bush Sr vs Governor Michael Dukakis) focuses on Dukakis’ ill-advised tank photograph, Bush’s repeated promise of “(read my lips) no new taxes”, and the infamous Vice Presidential debate when Lloyd Benson rebutted Dan Quayle’s talking point with the line “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”. These points are what virtually every piece of media covering that election will discuss ad nauseum, except Richard Ben Cramer’s magnum opus, What It Takes: The Way to the White House.


The book is lauded amongst pundits for its detail and level of access (he casually mentions the thousands of interviews he conducted). Cramer creates memorable characters of the 6 candidates he follows, accurate down to their smallest idiosyncrasies and speech patterns. Though he doesn’t cite sources for individual claims, he interviewed seemingly everyone in the candidates’ orbit, often over 50 times per interviewee. The book possesses a timeless quality, it doesn’t analyse fleeting campaign moments or issues relevant only in ’88, rather Cramer demonstrates the similarities and differences amongst the candidates in an attempt to answer What it Takes to seek the presidency.


The book follows six presidential hopefuls: Governor Dukakis (D) and Vice-President Bush (R), Senator Bob Dole (R), Senator Gary Hart (D), Senator Joe Biden (D) and Congressman Dick Gephardt (D). The first sections are asynchronous. It’s sometimes difficult to keep track but is highly engaging. Cramer describes the background of the six candidates, treating the reader to six vivid biographies. In later sections, he weaves these into the narrative of their presidential campaigns. Though each of these candidates receives highly in-depth analysis, Cramer’s writings on Biden are the most interesting considering the 2020 election.


Biden was clearly the most charismatic candidate. In 1988 “Biden had balls. Lot of times, more balls than sense.” We are introduced to him in his plush Delaware home reminiscing about how he sweet-talked the land developer into selling at a bargain price (still more than Biden could comfortably afford). At this point, Biden had been a senator for 15 years. While he still exuded a boyish charm, he also had a thorough grasp on policy issues. He took pride in forging personal relationships across party lines within the Senate. Biden’s first wife and daughter were tragically killed in a car accident only weeks before the start of his first term and he grew close to many senators as a result.


In the 1988 elections Biden was magnetic on stage, able to sway even the most unfriendly audiences to his favour. He stepped down from the campaign after plagiarising the UK politician Neil Kinnock’s speech in the primary debate - he had frequently cited the speech on his speaking tour, but seemingly in the heat of argument forgot to give Kinnock credit. Cramer characterises Biden as passionate, but seemingly only able to give proper attention to subjects that engage him, Biden flunked many classes in law school but studied endlessly for months in the middle of his campaign to discredit President Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.


The other candidates Cramer follows are equally fascinating including Gary Hart’s uneasy relationship with the media and their discovery of his affair and George H. W. Bush’s immense campaigning skill and overwhelming desire to befriend every state and local Republican official in the nation.


Cramer has stated that his title has a double meaning. Initially each Presidential hopeful was convinced that they had what it takes to become president, yet ultimately the campaign trail took enormous physical effort, strained family lives and exhausted personal relationships. This book provides an extremely rare window into the drive it takes to seek the highest office in the land, the skills necessary to win it, and the struggles of the intense personal scrutiny the media and omnipresent news cycle presents for any political figure. These themes have only become more relevant with every election cycle.

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