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Posts Tagged ‘American politics’

Richard Ben Cramer died this week, author of the magisterial What It Takes, about the 1988 US Presidential campaign. It’s a must-read book for anyone fascinated by American politics: over a thousand small-print pages about the Primaries and then the Presidential campaign itself.

what-it-takes-book

I devoured it about three years ago, and even at a great pace it took me nearly a month of reading into the early hours of each morning.

It’s not really about an ephemeral moment in US politics; it’s about character – what makes people tick, what forces influence them, what strange combination of personality, circumstance, chance, choice and fate conspires to guide some people through to the very end. It’s really six heavyweight political biographies woven together into an epic drama. If you have enjoyed even a single episode of The West Wing, you will love this.

Joe Klein pays tribute to Cramer and to his masterpiece:

Beautifully written, precisely observed–and with a larger point that beggared the cheap cynicism that had become, and remains, the default position for so many political journalists. Cramer actually dared to appreciate the incredible intelligence, hard work, courage and, yes, character that went into running for President. At a time when most of his colleagues were calling the Democratic candidates for president “the seven dwarfs,” he found a blissfully compelling Irish champion in Joe Biden and reported the anguish of the impassive midwesterner, Dick Gephardt, as the Congressman and his wife struggled with their son’s cancer.

But it was on the Republican side that Cramer found his two classic heroes–George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. Both of them combat-scarred veterans of World War II, both dedicated to service, both easy to weep, both open to making political judgments that might harm their careers. Cramer’s account of Dole’s remarkable recovery from a grievous wound and the post-traumatic stress that accompanied it was the heart of the book. (I’ll never forget one precious detail: As he struggled to rebuild muscle strength, Dole listened to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over and over again.)

Cramer defiantly became friendly with his subjects, especially Biden, Bush and Dole. That may have been a bridge too far for those of who of us don’t dive in, as Richard did, and then leave the political scene. It’s hard to criticize politicians who are also friends (as Daniel Patrick Moynihan became for me). But Cramer’s appreciation of these politicians’ skill and humanity became an example I tried to follow in subsequent campaigns, a crucial antidote to the wall-to-wall ugly that corrodes the political process. (Thus, in 2012, it was  important for me to write about the incredible strength of Rick Santorum’s family, even if I disagreed with him on almost everything.)

Cramer’s clear-eyed fairness is a quality badly needed now. A new generation of journalists, without the time or budgets to get to know the people who would lead us–and a new generation of politicians, burned by the gotcha TV reporting  and tweeting of the moment (and over-protected by their handlers)–have taken the juice and joy, and a larger accuracy, out of political journalism. There are exceptions. But if you don’t know Mitt Romney, and all he’s willing to say in public is pablum and baloney, it is extremely easy to assume the worst. The hardest story for any young political journalist to write is a positive one about a politician.

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I admit it: I’m a West Wing junkie. I made the mistake, when I was staying with some friends one holiday, of watching the first two episodes of Season Two, the two-parter when the President has just… Oh dear, I’m about to reveal some plot; and if there is just the slightest chance that you haven’t seen the cliffhanger at the end of Season One, then I’d better leave you to that moment of TV heaven without spoiling it.

I know, some of the haircuts from the first few years are already dating, and we have had plenty of great TV since then. But it’s still, to my mind, one of the most dazzling and thought-provoking shows of all time. My heart still hasn’t healed from trauma of discovering that they were not carrying on into Season Eight.

So it was a relief to get my hands on Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, which covers the Primaries leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, and the election itself. They take you inside the conference rooms, the conversations, and even inside the heads of the leading protagonists, claiming to base every quotation and italicised inner thought on the testimony of those who were there and those who experienced it.

How did Obama come from nowhere? How did McCain win the Republican nomination with no money and little heavyweight Republican support? How did someone with Edwards’ manifest failings stay in the race for so long? How did Palin really get picked as McCain’s Vice-Presidential candidate? How could someone as experienced as Clinton allow her campaign to fall into such dysfunction? How, in the end, did he win?

It’s all here. And it’s exhilarating. If there is any hint of West Wing addiction in your bloodstream, this will keep the craving at bay for a few glorious hours. Then, all over again, you’ll start missing Josh, CJ, Toby, Donna, Sam, and all the crew, and having to remind yourself that they aren’t, really, your personal friends…

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