Someday I hope to write a multi-volume series about the history of US presidential elections. This prospect became somewhat more daunting when I happened across a mention of Richard Ben Cramer's book about just '88, What It Takes, and discovered that it was 1051 pages. Of small type. Eeek.

Of course, I had to have it. 1988 was the election I imprinted on: I remember that on the day of the first Democratic debate, 01 July 1987, I was thirteen years old and on vacation with my family at the Hotel Intercontinental of San Diego, and at 3pm I tuned the TV to PBS and was just enthralled. It's also perhaps the purest of American elections in that it wasn't really about anything — Bush's team managed to turn it into, as Jerry Seinfeld might put it, an Election About Nothing, all sideshow, no show. And here was over a thousand pages of this stuff! Once the book arrived I basically inhaled it.

Of the fourteen major presidential candidates that cycle (let's see if I can do this from memory — Democrats: Babbitt Biden Dukakis Gore Gephardt Jackson Simon and Hart; Republicans: Bush Dole Kemp Robertson DuPont and Haig) Cramer focuses on six, those who according to Cramer actually thought at some point that they were going to win this thing: George Bush, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Mike Dukakis, Joe Biden, and Dick Gephardt. The reason the book is so long is that Cramer essays a full biography on each of these people, including complete chapters detailing the life stories of each of their parents, even a few of their grandparents. While Cramer does pay no small amount of attention to each of these candidates' limitations, for the most part his portraits are surprisingly sympathetic; often, his project seems to be to show just how much more complex these six men are than the press has made them out to be, to trace the thought processes leading up to each of Bush's malapropisms, Dole's venomous barbs, Hart's evasions, and they seem so goshdarn understandable that the press comes off like a bunch of heels (or worse) for not being able to see through the candidates' eyes. (All the more curious, then, that when it comes to the candidates he's not covering, Cramer goes straight for the caricature — Al Gore in particular gets kneed in the proverbial groin every time he appears.)

Of course, after 1051 pages, even the most nuanced characterization begins to feel like caricature. At first, the sharp distinctions Cramer draws are welcome, as they help to keep his cast straight: Bush is the genteel son of privilege who's been taught to be self-effacing, Not That Way, supremely gifted in one area — making friends, networking — and comfortable in the Secret Service bubble; Dukakis is the policy wonk, certain that he's Correct in all things and more convinced of his Correctness the fewer people agree with him; Gephardt is the listener who agrees with everything people tell him; etc. But the thousandth time you see Gephardt compared to the RCA dog, the millionth time you see Cramer's rendition of Dukakis-speak (I'm the kinda guy who'll run the kinda campaign...), the billionth time you see Cramer's Dole start a sentence with "Agh," you want to shout, "Enough with the mannerisms, already!" And Cramer's own mannerisms are the worst of all — constantly referring to the press as "big-feet" and the Boston press in particular as "diddybops," starting most every chapter in medias res and only filling in the reader as to which candidate is being discussed somewhere in the second paragraph... in a 500-page book it might not have been irksome. In a 1051-page book, yeah, it gets old.

Most curious of all, not one of these 1051 pages is devoted to what went on between the conventions and Election Day 1988. As page 850 came and went without the narrative having even reached the fricking Iowa caucus, I knew something was up, and sure enough, once it's down to Bush and Dukakis, Cramer calls it quits. No "kinder, gentler nation," no "read - my - lips," no "you're no Jack Kennedy." Detailing the actual events of Campaign '88 is not Cramer's project. Cramer's project is to get to the heart of, well, What It Takes to successfully run for president. And the answer, it turns out, is the willingness to live entirely in the bubble, to put nothing — not family, not ideas, not honor, nothing — ahead of the quest to be elected president. This is not the first indictment I'd make against the US electoral process — the simple math problem of the plurality system is damning enough — but Cramer certainly makes a convincing case for putting it up near the top.

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