Before reading Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House, I had only a passing familiarity with the 1988 US presidential election. I knew George Bush trounced Michael Dukakis in the general election, but I didn’t know much about the primaries or the candidates. Reading this book, I felt like Cramer must have had a Rita-Skeeter-like ability to transform into a beetle and listen in on conversations. The level of access and intimacy he shared with the candidates blew me away. Over the book’s 1,000-plus pages, Cramer profiles Bush, Dukakis, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart, and Joe Biden as they battled during the primaries.
But the book goes beyond the year preceding the election to describe each candidate’s upbringing, formative experiences, and political maturation. Chapters simply titled by year (e.g. 1945, 1972) chronicle the injuries Dole suffered during World War II, Bush’s business ventures in Texas, and Biden’s childhood antics. These chapters, as much as the ones about the campaigns, helped me understand what motivated these men and what they thought of the country.
Perhaps I am naive, but the 1988 campaign seems much more civil than the one we have just endured. Towards the end of the book, Bush laments how dirty the campaign became. But as a reader in 2017, the controversial attack ads of 1988 seem tame when held up to the rhetoric we hear daily.
After Cramer passed away in 2013, Biden said, “It is a powerful thing to read a book someone has written about you, and to find both the observations and criticisms so sharp and insightful that you learn something new and meaningful about yourself. That was my experience with Richard.” Sharp, insightful, meaningful—those are perfect words to describe this book. It is not only tailor-made for political junkies, but it’s also a sympathetic and nuanced inspection of six imperfect men who played major roles in our history.