Why What It Takes, whose author died Monday at age 62, remains a touchstone for political writers 20 years after its publication
Having come to political reporting late, I didn't read Richard Ben Cramer's campaign epic What It Takes until last year, when I was deep in the task of covering the 2012 presidential campaign. Reading it in those circumstances was simultaneously intimidating and inspiring. As gallopingly pleasurable a read as it is, it often didn't feel like pleasure reading, so closely did it track my everyday life on the trail.
But the enthralling humanity and breadth of Cramer's tome quickly became a touchstone for me as I covered the campaign, as the book has for so many political writers over the years. Cramer's death from lung cancer Monday got me thinking about those lessons.
A Russian-novel-sized tale of the American political process, the 1992 book about the 1988 campaign has enduring relevance for its indelible portraits of such contemporary characters as Joe Biden and Bob Dole. The story of Biden's orchestration of the Senate hearings that derailed Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination is worth the price of admission alone, not to mention the operatic arc of Biden's rise and fall: Exiting the campaign in a plagiarism scandal, Biden was done in, tragic-flaw-style, by the same bluster and self-assurance that brought him such great success. To his credit, Biden saw the truth of Cramer's devastatingly accurate depiction. When the book first came out, Cramer said at the time, Biden's "reaction to the book was of such wonderful largeness and humanity." In a statement issued Monday, the vice president said, "It is a powerful thing to read a book someone has written about you, and to find both the observations and criticisms so sharp and insightful that you learn something new and meaningful about yourself. That was my experience with Richard."