Now that I’ve read Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, I’ll never look at elections or election coverage the same way again. More importantly, I’ll never look at media criticism the same way again.
First of all, let me start by saying that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, period. It’s brilliantly constructed and incredibly well written. Ezra Klein wrote about the book’s impact when Richard Ben Cramer passed away earlier this year.
The most brilliant thing about the book is that Cramer writes with sympathy for all of the candidates that he covers. I wouldn’t have wanted most of the book’s subjects to be President, but I felt bad for all of the losers and the eventual winner as the book unfolded.
I think, though, that the lasting impact of the book is that it makes it clear that all of the political themes we discuss today are just echoes of the same themes that we’ve been arguing about for decades. For example, here’s a snippet from a 1988 Gary Hart speech:
Agriculture and energy, that’s another. … Infrastructure—now what is that? That’s our roads and harbors, and public works, our sewer systems, transit systems, and bridges—there’s bridges falling down in this country in every state of the union! That’s how to put our people back to work!
That sounds like something any Democratic politician might say today. His explanation of Texas conservative politics decades ago that could be a word for word description of the Tea Party today. None of this stuff is new.
Most importantly, he lays the idiocy and destructiveness of horse race campaign coverage bare. The desire to reconstruct actual events into a narrative that the pack can write about, the eagerness to chase pseudo-scandals to keep things interesting, and the need to discipline candidates who don’t meet the expectations of the media horde — he sees and reports on it all.
If you’re interested in politics at all, I’d skip the contemporary accounts and go back and read What It Takes. It’s all already there.