The Right Fluff

Richard Ben Cramer deftly penetrates the skulls of the 88 candidates. Now if only this Wolfe had fangs.

By Maureen Dowd

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What It Takes: The Way to the Whitehouse
by Richard Ben Cramer
Random House, 1,011 pp.

 hen this book first came in the mail, I thought, Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Eee Eee Eeeeeee! Augghh! Gaghhh!

It’s bigger than a dictionary! It’s bigger than the Congressional Staff Directory! It’s bigger than George Bush’s Rolodex!

For a long time, the 1,011-page book sat in my house, making an indentation in a chaise lounge as I threw reproachful looks its way. Then a 33-page epilogue arrived and I really got depressed. Now, while I’m still trying to figure out who Ross Perot and Bill Clinton are, Richard Ben Cramer wants me to go back on a fantastic voyage into the hearts and minds of Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis?

Whoooooaaaaaa! That’s sca-a-a-aryyy!!!

It’s an odd conceit, to take some of the least introspective men in the history of American politics and write from inside their heads—and to take some of the most ordinary and flawed politicians in recent memory and turn them into heroic figures. But, according to the jacket blurb, Cramer wanted to write an epic that would “do for politicians what Tom Wolfe did for astronauts in The Right Stuff.” He follows two Republicans, George Bush and Robert Dole, and four Democrats, Gary Hart, Joseph Biden, Gephardt, and Dukakis, from the cradle to the end of the 1988 primary, with an epilogue on the quenched dreams of Dole and the still-simmering political aspirations of the others.

In addition, Cramer runs wild mau-mauing the flacks, gurus, and reporters as he flips in and out of the heads of the candidates, their wives, their mothers, and their aides with Sybiesque fervor.

With a prose style more irritating than entertaining, the author takes Wolfe’s faded New Journalism technique and sends it into fifth Gear—VRO-0-0-OM! VRO-0-0-OM!— dousing each page with italics, ellipses, exclamation points, sound effects, dashes, hyphens, capital letters, and cute spellings. It’s never “character cops” when it can be “Karacter Kops.” Bob Dole rarely starts a sentence without an “Aghh” or “Gggaahh.” He even hums with a lot of consonants: “Hnnghhhh gnngh hnnnnnnnggh. Dut dug duunnnnnnghh dghndughnnnnnnn! Yut dut dut dunggghhhh. . . .” He never smells victory when he can smell “VICTORYYYY !”

After the election, Dukakis looks not just tired, but “weary, punch-rumpled, hard-cheese-beat- up.” After Gephardt places third in Michigan, his press conference is portrayed as a cacophony of the heartless hyenas of the press: “Areyagonnaquit? WHYD’YATHINKYOULOST? . . . Wouldn’alossbe CONGRESSMAN! Wouldn’t you say a loss in Michi-DICK!WHY’DYATHINK YA LOST?” And here is the press as Gary Hart gets back in the race : “GARYGARYLEEwhaddyMRS.HART! thinkaDONNARIy’gonna WIN think ya WINPOSTgonna print a LEE storygotta RICE Gary MONEYLEEEEHEYY!”

Beneath his hyperventilating prose, Cramer is a mordant observer and exhaustive reporter. But reading his book gave me the same impulse that Jimmy Stewart had with the tarty Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, when he told her something like: “You know, if you took off all that makeup, I bet there’s a lovely face under there.”

Cramer has lovingly laid on brush stroke after brush stroke—the gathering storm of the perfect Gephardt, the high school exploits of the brash Biden. The author reveals that it was a young Gary Hartpence who first employed the “didn’t inhale” defense. Hart was running for student council president at his strict religious college when he and some buddies were spotted passing a beer around the table at Ned’s Pizza in Oklahoma City. Hart said he didn’t sip, but lost the election anyway.

Certainly, Cramer has accumulated some wonderful tidbits in his five years of reporting. But after reading every nuance, every shading, every interior monologue in this monster book, I can’t say I’ve learned anything fundamentally new about any of the candidates.

Cramer only confirms what was already known: that Dukakis had an overwhelming need to be correct,that Biden had an overwhelming need to connect, that Kitty Dukakis had an overwhelming need to dramatize her life, that George Bush cared more about being president than he cared about ideas, that Hart cared more about ideas than he did about some silly standards of political conduct (like not opening the door of your hotel room in a short bathrobe when a female reporter is coming to interview you late at night, as Hart did with Patricia O’Brien of Knight-Ridder).

 The same things are sad that were sad five years ago: Dole’s mind-bending years trying to get back his motor skills after his arm and chest were ripped up in World War II. And the same things are funny here that were funny five years ago: Pat Caddell desperately seeking a musical theme that would appeal to the Big Chill generation, while his boss, Joe Biden, as Cramer writes, “was still a bit hazy on the Beatles.” Caddell forced the Bidens to listen to Les Miserables on their way out to annnounce Joe’s candidacy.

So the Bidens stood in announcement clothes, while Pat, as the majordomo, flicked on the stereo and cranked it up to TEN, till it felt like the speakers were slapping them in the face.

do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?

 “LISTEN TO THIS NOW . . .” Pat yelled through the music. This was important . . . the finale to Les Miserables . . . and this was HOW THE CAMPAIGN HAD TO BE!

It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light. . . .

 “Yeah, that’s great, Pat. . .”

While I’ve occasionally used the gimmick of getting inside George Bush’s head for a humor piece, the notion of using it for an entire book is disquieting. It’s not possible to really know what’s in anyone’s head, no matter how close you are to him, how much he tells you, or how much research you do. Attempting to recreate the streams of consciousness of Bush and Dole when they thought they might die in World War I1 is a bit of a stretch. And it’s hard to imagine that the ultrastraight Gephardt really thought his suit’s sliding shoulder pads made him feel like “he was growing tits.”

Cheese heads

Perhaps it’s just that I have always secretly hoped that these guys’ inner monologues are at a higher level than their extemporaneous speech. I fantasize that Bush talks to himself not like Bertie Wooster but like Philip Marlowe, and that Michael Dukakis speaks, not like a computer scroll of an urban planning paper, but with the mean-streets growl of a David Mamet character.

Unlike Molly Ivins and P. J. O’Rourke, who are raking in a lot of money making fun of politicians, Cramer has stacked the deck in the direction of the paeanic. As he noted in a recent interview, reporters think if they could only peel off enough layers, they’d find all the flaws, whereas “if they would actually peel the layers, they’d find a hell of a man.”

“They’re big, extraordinary men,” he told Mirabella magazine. “These are not small-cheese types. They bend lives everywhere they go.”

But one thing we know, looking back at JFK, LBJ, and Ronald Reagan, is that these are fallible men capable of huge mistakes of judgment and lapses of intelligence. And, unlike the ’88 crop, those men were big cheeses.

Although Cramer set out to explain the soil that best nurtures presidential ambition, it is still not clear what ingredients besides the obvious ones do the trick. All of these men were their mothers’ darlings. In many cases, they had fathers who did not succeed as they would have liked. Many were quasi-dorks who blossomed in high school or college. In many cases, they got into the presidential race without knowing exactly why they wanted to be president or what they wanted to say, and then ended up getting molded in unattractive ways by the image wizards.

Cramer offers a withering view of the consultants who grafted new personalities onto his heroes or threw verbal darts at them. He refers to consultant William Schneider as “the well-known TV-guest-in-the- know on well-known knowledge,” and “the ubiquitous pilgarlic, who worked for anybody, wrote a column, and showed up on TV whenever anyone spent a dime to call him,” and the “pilgarlic-polster-pundit-columnist-TV-guest-part-time-Biden-guru-who-gave-Joe-the-Kinnock-tape-in-the-first- place.’’

But the author reserves his highest contempt for the obtuse and superficial reporters who yap and nip at such titans as Biden and Hart. Cramer writes that Paul Taylor of The Washington Post

was cool, handsome, and detached, was by his own lights a man who “saw nuance” and “took a fair-minded approach.” . . . E. J. Dionne, from the Times, was short, quick, and awfully busy, harried like a border collie with a bad herd. Like so many Times-men, he was an expert—a Ph.D. historian from Oxford, no less—and he’d learned his politics at the knee of guru-columnist William Schneider, so he could seek from the latest polls the undertow of the great sea of voters. . . . Smooth Howard Fineman from Newsweek, with the soft hands and bottom-line eye of an up-and-coming junk bond salesman, just meant to hit with a thump—wherever, however. (Howard, it should be noted, was the first of his generation to earn a panelist’s chair on the Hour of the Living Dead, “Washington Week in Review.”)

And when Ben Bradlee gets involved in the Hart- Donna Rice imbroglio, Cramer calls him the Big Hound coming out of the kennel, trying to put the coon up the tree.

Virgin Gary

Although Random House promises “news-breaking revelations,” it’s hard to discern them. Asked about it, a Random House publicist replies that Cramer reveals that GARY HART DID NOT SLEEP WITH DONNA RICE!

This revelation seems to be based on Hart’s continuing claim that he did not, and that the young lady left after midnight by the back door not being watched by Miami Herald reporters. Suffice it to say that some readers may continue to doubt—even though Hart’s friends did always say he was a guy whose idea of a wild time was talking about Thomas Jefferson. Besides, most people thought of the Donna Rice caper not as a morals breach but as an IQ test.

In Cramer’s view, the press just did not understand Hart. As he writes in his epilogue, “Hart thought the sickness [of the character question] stemmed from a dangerous fallacy—Americans think they can know (have a right to know) everything about their leaders. But that certainty of knowledge is not available. People can’t be tied down, reduced to facts. More dangerous still, politicians try to toe the line. Hart quoted, from his friend Warren Beatty, ‘When forced to show all, people become all show.’ ” (Maybe Cramer should have called his epic War and Beatty.)

Random House also claims that Cramer reveals that Bush was under tremendous strain in the period after the United States invaded Panama but before Manuel Noriega was caught. In his epilogue, Cramer writes, “George Bush was wound so tight that his back seized up—he was hunched, walking like a hundred-and-eight-year-old man. Where was that sonofabitch Noriega? . . . It got so bad with Bush’s back that he couldn’t even play sports with his sons.”

That is serious.

Cramer can hit home about the faults of reporters: He’s right that “Dukakis’ ‘terrific comeback’ was . . . wish-fulfillment for the wise guys and a press corps that needed a story.” But the writer does not offer a serious discourse on the larger issues of press responsibility and presidential character. He merely takes a snide tone toward the reporters who, now that the parties are no longer winnowing the candidates, are struggling with the task of examining the backgrounds of guys who come out of nowhere and want to run the country.

Certainly, it could be argued that the press has debased the nation’s political dialogue. Ross Perot is building an entire candidacy on the strength of public distaste for conventional media outlets. But Cramer wants it both ways. If he wants to mock reporters trying to illuminate Karacter with “psycho-investigations,” then he should write a 1,200-page book examining all the ideas and issues he believes were ignored in 1988. But if he wants to write a Tom Wolfe version of Gail Sheehy, then he should curb his sneering tone toward reporters who tried to do it in real time with what he calls “Grape-Nuts’’ of information.

Still, Cramer’s cruelest cut to the gurus and reporters is not in his irreverent—and sometimes amusing—point of view. It is the fact that his book will not have an index, according to the publishers, so the Washington cognoscenti cannot engage in their favorite activity of skipping straight to their citations.

The Random House publicist explained that the book did not need an index because “everyone who’s in there already knows they’re in there.” I didn’t. I had to wait until page 519 to find out that I was “observant” but obvious, and until page 639 to learn that I am regarded as “the prima donna of the politics beat.”

Nooooooooo indexxxxxx?????! ! ! ! ! ! ! Unphh, unphh! Harrmmph!
Excerpt from What It Takes

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Maureen Dowd is a columnist on The New York Times Op-Ed page and winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. As a correspondent in the paper's Washington bureau, Dowd has covered four presidential campaigns.  
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