Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Horse Race, 20 Years Ago

In the final weeks before this year’s election (a coincidence, I think), I’m on a bit of a political reading kick. I just started All the President’s Men, which is great, but also (strangely) narrated as if Bernstein and Woodward didn’t write it -- i.e., “Bernstein looked across the newsroom. There was a pillar between his desk and Woodward’s, about 25 feet away.” I suppose it would be even more awkward keeping track of two "I's" throughout, but it's weird.

This is on the heels of What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer’s massive book about the 1988 presidential primaries. The book is 1,050 pages long, but honestly reads more like 350. Part of the speed is Cramer’s style -- a Tom Wolfe-ish gonzoness heavily dependent on italics and exclamation points. And sentence fragments. And interior thoughts that . . . couldn’t possibly be known to the author!!! It’s a sloppy but breakneck style.

Cramer followed Bush and Dole on the Republican side, and Dukakis, Gephardt, Biden, and Hart on the Democratic side. I was 14 in 1988, so it was strange reading about a race that I knew but didn't know. As shocking as it is to me, Dukakis had as large as a 16-point lead over Bush in national polls that spring. The luster was off Reagan, post Iran-Contra, and he was considered a bit of a liability to Bush’s chances. But Bush, a fierce loyalist, wouldn’t distance himself from the president (even though, hilariously, Reagan would barely lift a finger to help his VP’s bid).

Biden, the only character still relevant (and how) in national politics, comes across as you might expect -- goofy. There’s nothing horribly unlikeable about him, but he’s a motor-mouth. The book actually captures him at a time of bright spotlight (leading the nomination proceedings of Robert Bork) and personal shame (dissembling, intentionally or not, about his personal biography on the campaign trail). Even against the likes of Dukakis, Gephardt, and Jesse Jackson, he gained almost no traction in the presidential race. (Even worse was Al Gore, who polled 3% in the Michigan primary for a distant fifth place. And one commentator described his strategy in the New York primary as turning into “a Jew for a week.” Oy.)

The funniest chapter (and there are lots of laughs in the book; this is not a somber study) is called “Bambi,” and it involves Gephardt’s attempt to finally get tough. I guess it shows a lack of empathy, but I found the initial meltdown of his campaign (from which he actually bounces back, only to melt again) absolutely hysterical. The book benefits from the fact that Cramer has candidates who exist in the mind as cartoonish to start with -- Gephardt’s Richie Cunningham mien, Dukakis’ hirsute brow and proudly bland, technocratic approach to government, and, as Cramer writes it again and again, Bob Dohhhll!!!!!

Dole was the big winner in the book, in my eyes. His fate after the war was gruesome, his resolve was extraordinary, and despite being known as a gleeful attack dog, he had friends on the other side of the aisle. His disdain for Bush (of the “what has he ever had to earn?” variety) rings pretty true based on the portrait of the VP in the book. Aside from one campaign in which Dole really and desperately smears the hell out of a fellow Kansan in order to retain his senate seat, even his reputation as a “hatchet man” seems more entertaining than serious. (Maybe that’s just retrospect.) And Elizabeth -- shame on me -- is far more accomplished than I ever gave her credit for. After reading the book, I think a time machine back to 1988 (and a bump in my age) might see me voting for, gulp, Bob Dohhhll! (Cramer’s liberties with Dole’s speech -- adding “Aaggh!”s before a lot of proclamations, etc. -- make him sound like Bill the Cat come to life, but I found it endearing.)

If the book has a lingering point -- and Cramer isn’t often explicit about “lessons,” content mostly to ride the roller coaster -- it’s the disgraceful role of the media. This is most vivid, of course, with regard to Gary Hart and his romancing. Hart only got what he deserved, but then kept getting it, even after most of the country (supporters and detractors) clearly no longer gave a damn. I forgot that he reentered the race, on a threadbare budget, after the Donna Rice scandal.

And then there’s the candidates and their use of media. Most notably Bush, who has to be pushed (mostly by plummeting poll numbers) to go negative on Dukakis. There’s a lot of hand-wringing on all sides about whether or not to “go negative” -- but you get the unsurprising sense that it was the handlers in the background who pushed hardest for it.

All in all, Cramer’s style requires a large grain of salt, though at least one reporter and fan of the book has said, “Over the years, I’ve had the chance to talk with dozens of people who worked on those campaigns and contributed to the book. Remarkably, I have never heard a single complaint about its accuracy.” (Of course, that same reporter starts his column saying that the book begins at a Texas Rangers game, when it’s a Houston Astros game, so who knows about him and accuracy.) (For another take, journalist Mark Halperin wrote about the book and the current campaign here.) All in all, I’d recommend it -- along with Michael Lewis’ Losers -- as an entertaining look at the death march to the White House.


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