My complaints about the coverage of electoral politics usually come from the Nate Silver direction: journalists’ uses of data range from innumeracy, treating every random statistical fluctuation as a watershed requiring extensive analysis and debate on its causes and effects, to plain lying (Of course Reagan will beat Mondale tomorrow, but I am calling the race a tossup because it makes for a more exciting story and will please my fans).But the human side of campaign coverage, though farther from my own areas of knowledge, is just as vapid and cynical, reducing “character” to demented shibboleths.
If you doubt me, read Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes and see what can be accomplished when a writer asks, “Who is this guy, really?” (they wre all guys in those days), where does he come from, what would it be like to have him for a boss or a brother-in-law? I recognize that my endorsement will probably not be enough to send you scurrying off to read a 1000-page book about the 1988 Presidential primaries; all I can say is that I went through it in about the time it takes certain people I know to rip through a season of Breaking Bad on Netflix.
Cramer profiles most of the major players in the 1988 election: Bush, Dole, Gephardt, Dukakis, Hart, Biden. All are portrayed with empathy, but also with some amusement at their pretensions (and people without big pretensions wouldn’t be running for President). My favorite is probably the treatment of Dole, who was, I think , widely regarded as a remarkably unlovable figure (there’s a reason that, when the Springfield GOP holds its midnight meeting, Bob Dole is chosen to read from the Necronomicon). The cold and brittle Dole we know is here—he barks “Keep it up!” at his staff in a tone of terse command “that passes with him for enthusiastic good humor”—but there is also the joy of working a crowd:
Sometimes when he’d finish a speech and a band would strike up some brassy tune, Dole wouldn’t leave the stage, wouldn’t even turn around to shake people’s hands. He’d stand there watching them cheer,, with the band pumping in his ears, and he’d swing his good arm in time to the music and bounce on his feet, up and down, up and down pumping that arm and hearing the cheers. He looked like a youngster,like a hep-cat from the ‘40s, bouncing to the big band , like one of those band leaders who played the big dances, the guys who didn’t play an instrument or sing, but stood up front swinging time to the music, bringing you the action: Bob Crosby and his Bobcats, Bob Dole, the Bobster, and he was action.
And, combining the two elements, the Bobster in front of the camera:…
Usually people asked for pictures. Would the Senator stop a second to pose with Denise here? Sure! Then Dole would laugh while the picture was taken, a prairie cackle that held no humor; it was his way of making his face right. “Hack-hack-hack-hack!” He never took a bad picture, always had a great smile, unless the people couldn’t work their own camera. That happened too—they were so in a flutter. Here was Bob Dole! “Hack-hack-hack-hack! Hack-hack-hack-hack! Come on!” It would come out teasing, in the middle of the laugh, but he meant it. He had other people to see. “Hack-hack-hack-come-on-come-on-Come-On-hack-hack!”
These amusing cartoons of the candidates are interleaved with biographical flashbacks: Dole grew up in the sort of Kansas town where nobody had any money until outsiders with oil jobs started to turn up. One year the Doles rented their house to oil people and moved the whole family into their own basement. Bob (I think he was called Bobby Joe) inherited a kind of fanatical discipline from his mother, who was ferociously devoted to him and mostly just ferocious to everyone else. He paid his sisters a nickel to iron his shirts to his special standard for his job as a soda jerk, and was voted the handsomest boy in his high school; it didn’t hurt that he was the star of the basketball team. Imagine the transformation of his world when he came back from Italy crippled and horribly deformed, his arm hanging by a thread and his spine so damaged that he was for a long time unable to walk. Or even feed himself. Now all that fanatical discipline came in handy, along with endless help from his family, a big collection from the townspeople and the charity of a surgeon in Chicago. His vanity became a prickly pride in not letting anyone pity him for “his problem,” and his anger a kind of permanent voltage that made his aides afraid to touch him even to help him burst through a mob of reporters.
The last bit may owe something to my own interpretation, but you get the idea. All the bios offer something more than clichés; the most appealing character is perhaps the slightly flaky but warm-hearted Joe Biden, the least appealing perhaps Dukakis, whose Puritan political rectitude seems to be deeply antithetical to Cramer (he notes that, during Dukakis’ first term as governor, people started to call him Governor Asshole). Those of us who hail from flyover country will be grateful for Cramer’s attention to genuine local detail: the Gephardts’ neighbors in South St. Louis, for example, were “scrubby Dutch,” a phrase guaranteed to provoke a madeleine moment in my family, and Gephardt is described as saying “carn” for corn, a feature of St. Louis dialect that I don’t think is widely known. (I thought that my grade-school secretary was named after the fourth planet until I I saw “Mrs. Morris” written down. Very disappointing, it would be so cool to have a planetary name.)
To be sure there is the occasional howler. Little Dicky Gebhardt was something of a nerd, or “fruit, as people said then,” but he countered this image by participating in the Drama Club. Oh dear. “Fruit” was a (usually) insulting term for a gay person, hence the old T-shirt slogan, Boycott Anita Bryant, Squeeze a California Fruit. It could also be used as a generic dis, but in any case nobody ever cleared himself of that accusation by joining a Drama Club.
What It Takes also affords the reader the pleasure of seeing early glimpses of now-familiar faces, as when you’re watching an old movie and one of the anonymous thugs intimidating Woody Allen on the subway is obviously Sylvester Stallone. There is of course an early edition of Biden, plus the youthful Georgie Bush, a.k.a. Junior, and a passing reference to a certain Governor Clinton (no mention of his wife). There are also some names to conjure with among us political nerds (political fruits?), such as Joe Trippi (later of Deaniac fame) and the unkillable Bob Shrum. In the direction, the world of campaign media is still dominated by something called “print,” including not only “newspapers” but “weekly news magazines.” If they do a new edition of Cramer’s book, they should probs add footnotes for these terms.