When Presidents Were People

Richard Ben Cramer captured George H. W. Bush’s humanity in his classic book about the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes.

Vice President George H. W. Bush throws out the first pitch at Game One of the 1986 National League Championship Series at the Astrodome in Houston. (Ron Heflin / AP)

Richard Ben Cramer begins What it Takes, his masterful account of the 1988 presidential race, with the story of then–Vice President George H. W. Bush botching the first pitch of Game One of the 1986 National League Championship Series.

Cramer writes of Bush readying his windup as more than 40,000 fans in Houston’s Astrodome look on. But the vice president can’t quite get his arms up—the bulletproof vest under his shirt hampering his movement—and then he can’t quite get his left arm back, and the result is a throw that looks more like a toss. It’s short. Very short.

And as he skitters off the mound toward the first base line, and the ball on the downcurve of its bounce settles, soundless, into Ashby’s glove, then George Bush does what any old player might do in his shame … what any man might do who knows he can throw, and knows he’s thrown like a girl in her first softball game … what any man might do—but no other politician, no politician who is falling off the mound toward the massed news cameras of the nation, what no politician would do in his nightmares, in front of fifty million coast-to-coast, prime-time votes.

George Bush twists his face into a mush of chagrin, hunches his shoulders like a boy who just dropped the cookie jar, and for one generous freeze-frame moment, buries his head in both hands.

This scene is not the typical stuff of political journalism—the horse racing, the back channeling, the moments involving such activities as “huddling” in “closed-door meetings”—which can often be exciting, the images of important people doing important-sounding things. Cramer takes a different approach, sketching Bush not as someone above us—someone who considers our nation’s most explosive secrets, who connects with foreign leaders via direct line—but as one of us. Someone who does what any man might do.

Bush buries his head in his hands after his ceremonial pitch fell way, way short.

In the days since Bush’s death on November 30, his family, friends, and the reporters who covered him have told their own stories about the times they saw Bush do what any man might do—write thank-you notes, remember birthdays, bond with grandkids. Each story is a way for the tellers to reflect, in ways people don’t typically do now with respect to politicians, on Bush’s humanity—and on how fortunate they felt for that bit of privilege: I glimpsed what lay behind the veneer.

There’s a reason the internet has been rife this week with those personal stories: Bush showed himself to people. I don’t mean to say he was “authentic,” that consultant-class word that essentially describes politicians who are good at manufacturing homespun versions of themselves. What I mean is that George Bush wouldn’t let the Army land the chopper on hotel grounds when he traveled—“Didn’t want to disturb the guests,” Cramer writes in What It Takes—or let the Secret Service block the streets for the motorcade. “He made them stop at the lights!” Cramer writes. “He didn’t want to disturb the other drivers.” In other words, there are a lot of people in this country who, whether on that October night he botched the first pitch or at a stoplight in Washington, D.C., glimpsed what lay behind the veneer.

Cramer, who died in 2013 at 62, was proof that reporters were among them—that Bush didn’t shield the stuff that made him human from the people who covered him. But part of what makes What It Takes so meaningful is that it shows that Bush was hardly unique in doing so. Of Bob Dole, Bush’s main primary challenger, Cramer writes of his anxieties following the war, when German machine-gun fire left him with limited mobility in his right arm and numbness in his left. “It wasn’t so long since he’d starred in his own private nightmare, the vision of Bob Dole in his wheelchair, selling pencils on Main Street,” Cramer writes. “What he feared were the silent flashes of that vision in other people’s eyes—he searched their faces when he asked for a vote: Did they think he wasn’t up to a ‘real’ job?”

His treatment of 1988’s Democratic candidates was no less intimate and perceptive. Gary Hart, before he dropped out in scandal, Cramer writes, began to crumble in the car one day with his team, as video crews chased them. “In his car, Hart murmured: ‘Why do they have to chase me?’ He couldn’t understand what they gained. He couldn’t understand why they had to hunt him down … At one point, in the middle of a chase, Hart turned to [an aide] with a look that mingled irony and sadness. ‘I just want to have some fun,’ he said. ‘I’ve never had any fun.’”

Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, Cramer says, was fueled on the trail by a fear of losing because he’d lost before—running for reelection as Massachusetts governor in 1978—and he never wanted to feel so low again. In the month after that loss, he’d find himself wasting away afternoons, “sitting in the kitchen, dark, sad eyes fixed on nothing,” Cramer writes. “Michael was depressed. But Michael was a man who was never depressed—not for one day in his forty-five years. He never took more than one aspirin! Now he didn’t understand what had happened to him, what was wrong with him … He’d let himself down. And he could not understand, now, why he couldn’t pick himself up.”

A lot of folks like to sneer at so-called access journalism, as though the only way to convince subjects to talk is by promising them a puff piece (how ridiculous this is should go, I hope, without saying). But access is often the best—sometimes even the only—way to dimensionalize subjects, to gain intimate knowledge of the ordinary habits and hurts and hang-ups that inform their behavior in extraordinary circumstances. And in politics, it is an avenue through which readers can decide whether the person behind the policies is worthy of empathy and respect.

Cramer was relentless in his pursuit of access. Indeed, convincing a subject to pull back the curtain isn’t easy, and it never has been. But I wonder if at Bush’s funeral Thursday, we laid to rest not only a former president, but a relic of a time when granular accounts of our leaders—firsthand reports of who they are when the world isn’t watching—weren’t so rare. I wonder if thousands and thousands of people paid their respects in the Capitol on Tuesday because, through the existence of reports like Cramer’s, they felt they knew Bush.

After reading Cramer’s account of how Bush reacted to Watergate, for example, it’s hard not to think so. It wasn’t red-hued tribalism that led Bush to defend Richard Nixon, assuring anyone who asked that Nixon would be cleared. The spurts of doubt didn’t matter, Cramer writes: Nixon had told Bush, to his face, that he was innocent, and for Bush, that was that. “That was what he had to give, that was the measure of loyalty—and the requirement of the code: personal commitment,” Cramer writes.

“That’s what made it worse, in the end … when he found out. Nixon had lied to him, personally.”

“Bush could never shrug that off—couldn’t chalk it up to politics. That wasn’t politics to him,” Cramer continues. How jarring it was for Bush, after excitedly beginning a career in public service, to then doubt “whether politics was his game, at all.”

In the Donald Trump era, where cries of “fake news” abound and the president views the media as the enemy, it’s hard to imagine a resurgence of such access to politicians as people. But it’s worth considering how partisanship might change in this country if our leaders were more open about the things they do that any man might do—if, after messing up, they chose to bury their head in their hands, rather than run to the spin room.