Monday, January 3, 2011

What It Takes

If you're a political junkie and for some reason have never read What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, I certainly recommend you do so.  If you have read it, you'll enjoy the recent Politico profile of him.  Ezra Klein is pushing for everyone interested to buy the book today, by the way, so you might consider doing that. 

A few notes on the book, which I agree is terrific.  One is that while I guess he was unlucky in the original reception of the book, he's been pretty luck about the longevity of its main characters.  As with the original reviews of the book, it didn't start out that way, oddly enough.  The nature of the thing was that he was going to get a president out of his six candidates for the presidency in 1988, and he did -- but George H.W. Bush only lasted four years, and Bush's VP didn't come from the book.  However, the 1996 Republican candidate did.  And then Richard Gephart wound up as House Democratic leader for a while and eventually ran for president in 2004, and after that Joe Biden ran again in 2008 and became VP.  So while Michael Dukakis was old news pretty quickly, as a group the six of them have stayed timely for a good long run, and still going strong.

I've assigned What It Takes a number of times, and I always enjoy re-reading, especially the bits on Bush, Dole, and Biden -- each of whom I think he captured perfectly, as far as I can tell.  It's a remarkable accomplishment of reporting.  Most usefully, I think the sections on Biden and Gary Hart are particularly useful in helping us understand the relationship between politicians and the press, and the skills needed for politicians to handle it. I also think that he's excellent on the pathetic nature of the national press corps.

(Which is why, by the way, that it's no surprise at all that it's initial reception was so negative.  Of course the national political press hated it!).

I do agree with those who find the writing a bit much, although as cringeworthy as I find some of his prose, it's also true that I gobble it down and have no problem re-reading, so I don't know where that leaves me. 

It's also the case that the candidate's-eye view is very limiting, which isn't Cramer's fault, but is a danger for those who read it.  For me, it goes with The Candidate -- Cramer shows how the process tends to turn even the best of our politicians into blithering idiots.  But it's important to also step back from that view, and realize that there's a lot more to elections than candidate quality, and a lot more to candidate quality than the things Cramer emphasizes.  Again, that's not a fault of the book as much is it is a fault with, well, us as readers; we tend by far too quick to jump to explanations based on individual personalities at the expense of impersonal systematic analysis.   From the perspective of a political scientist, the proper way to read books like this in general (outside of just the sheer fun of it) is for the data, which in this case are terrific, and not for the conclusions, which are usually uninformed by the research we have on these things. 

It's by far my favorite campaign book ever, and I endorse Ezra Klein's "Richard Ben Cramer Appreciation Day."  Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. What's your opinion of the Chester/Hodgeson/Page 1968 book An American Melodrama?

    ReplyDelete

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