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 Im 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?
Its an odd conceit, to take some of the least introspective men in the history of American politics and write from inside their headsand 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 Wolfes faded New Journalism technique and sends it into fifth GearVRO-0-0-OM! VRO-0-0-OM! dousing each page with italics, ellipses, exclamation points, sound effects, dashes, hyphens, capital letters, and cute spellings. Its 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? WHYDYATHINKYOULOST? . . . Wouldnalossbe CONGRESSMAN! Wouldnt you say a loss in Michi-DICK!WHYDYATHINK YA LOST? And here is the press as Gary Hart gets back in the race : GARYGARYLEEwhaddyMRS.HART! thinkaDONNARIygonna 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 theres a lovely face under there.
Cramer has lovingly laid on brush stroke after brush strokethe 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 didnt 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 Neds Pizza in Oklahoma City. Hart said he didnt 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 cant say Ive 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 OBrien of Knight-Ridder).
The same things are sad that were sad five years ago: Doles 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 Joes 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.
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!
While Ive occasionally used the gimmick of getting inside George Bushs head for a humor piece, the notion of using it for an entire book is disquieting. Its not possible to really know whats in anyones 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 its hard to imagine that the ultrastraight Gephardt really thought his suits sliding shoulder pads made him feel like he was growing tits.
Perhaps its 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. ORourke, 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, theyd find all the flaws, whereas if they would actually peel the layers, theyd find a hell of a man.
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 experta Ph.D. historian from Oxford, no lessand hed 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 thumpwherever, however. (Howard, it should be noted, was the first of his generation to earn a panelists 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.
Although Random House promises news-breaking revelations, its 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 Harts 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 doubteven though Harts 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 Cramers 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 fallacyAmericans think they can know (have a right to know) everything about their leaders. But that certainty of knowledge is not available. People cant 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 uphe was hunched, walking like a hundred-and-eight-year-old man. Where was that sonofabitch Noriega? . . . It got so bad with Bushs back that he couldnt even play sports with his sons.
Cramer can hit home about the faults of reporters: Hes 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 nations 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, Cramers cruelest cut to the gurus and reporters is not in his irreverentand sometimes amusingpoint 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 whos in there already knows theyre in there. I didnt. 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.
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