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Richard Ben Cramer
Richard Ben Cramer
What it Takes: The Way to the White House
ISBN: 0679746498
What it Takes: The Way to the White House
Mr. Cramer discussed the elements needed in a person to be elected president. He started the book in 1986 and examined the presidential candidates for the 1988 election. Mr. Cramer also described the process involved in writing over six years and with getting a 1000 page book published by Random House.
What it Takes: The Way to the White House
Program Air Date: July 26, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Richard Ben Cramer, in your book “What It Takes: The Way to the White House.” is there any one thing that was a thread through the six candidates that you followed that would tell you what it takes?
RICHARD BEN CRAMER, AUTHOR, “WHAT IT TAKES: THE WAY TO THE WHITE HOUSE”: I think there was, although I didn't set out to write a paradigm of a presidential candidate. There were some similarities, and, alas, similarities in the stories of their campaigns. I found out that the title What It Takes is kind of a double-edged sword because all of them start out thinking they have what it takes, but in the end they find out what it takes from them, and what it takes is that whole life that brought them to the point they could be candidates in the first place.
LAMB: When did you start this book?
CRAMER: The middle of 1986 is when I wrote the proposal. I was out there working by the end of `86.
LAMB: Who are the six candidates?
CRAMER: I had two Republicans, George Bush and Bob Dole, and four Democrats, who were Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Dick Gephardt.
LAMB: You mention in the opening that Jesse Jackson just didn't quite make the cut. How come?
CRAMER: My final criteria for the list of guys that I profiled was that I wanted the people who got to the point where they made that last turn in the road, where they thought to themselves, "Not only should I be president, I'm going to be president. It's going to happen to me." When I saw Jesse making that turn finally and for one brief week, it was after the Michigan caucuses and everybody in the world wanted Jesse. So I couldn't slow him down long enough to give him a sense of the help that would be required. So much of the story in this book is internal, from behind the candidates eyes, that it really couldn't be done without their help. So when I couldn't get that kind of help from Jesse, I decided that it was better to leave him out and preserve the level of the book, rather than write about somebody that I didn't know as well.
LAMB: It's how many pages -- 1,000, 1,100?
CRAMER: A thousand forty-seven at last count.
LAMB: How did you get a publisher to put out that size book?
CRAMER: The size of the book wasn't really a problem once you got them involved with the idea. It was my idea from the first to try to write a real human story about these guys and try to let people connect with them in a visceral way so that they felt with them and exulted with them and felt their tragedy and their triumph. By the time I started feeding manuscript into the publisher, everybody was on board and they really weren't too worried about the length. The hard part was in the beginning, trying to sell a book like this. As I'm sure your viewers know, most books are signed up and contracted for before they are written. In this case, I had to go to a publisher, Random House, and tell them, "Well, look, I don't have Chapter One yet and I don't have an outline for you. I can't tell you who the characters will be yet. I can't tell you what the story will be, but you just give me all this money and I'll see you in four or five years. Don't worry. It'll be great." So once you sell a book like that, after that convincing them about the length is just a walk in the park.
LAMB: This book costs $28 to buy if you don't buy it in a discount store.
CRAMER: That's right, although it is being discounted, a practice of which I approve.
LAMB: Is it true that you got a half million dollar advance?
CRAMER: I can't contractually tell you exactly what the advance is, but you're not far wrong.
LAMB: I read that you'd spent it all, too, over that six years.
CRAMER: Oh, yes. Well, you know how it is. If you're following candidates in a campaign, you get on their plane, and what they're generally doing is they're dividing the cost of that charter flight by the number of reporters they're carrying aboard. In effect, the press is buying them that campaign flight. This doesn't seem to matter when it's Kay Graham's money or Otis Chandler's money, but when it's cash out of your own pocket, you begin to feel it. So you could say, in the immortal words of Jerry Lee Lewis, "I spent the hell out of it."
LAMB: Are you happy with this book?
CRAMER: I am. I'm happy with the way it came out because I've been able to see in the few weeks that it's been out that people are connecting with it, and they're getting a fresh look at these guys. They're finding out that they really didn't know them as they thought they did and that they really hadn't seen them as human beings in the same way that they do now that they've read the book, so that's very pleasing to me.
LAMB: As I was reading it, I kept saying -- and I feel clumsy trying to ask the question. How did you do this?
CRAMER: That's why it took six years.
LAMB: It's unfair to somebody who hasn't read this thing, why I would ask that question. Anybody who reads this book will have, I'm positive, the same reaction. How did you get the access?
CRAMER: You cannot overestimate my ignorance at the start of this process. I started out doing it as I thought Washington big-time political reporters do these kind of things -- calling up important people in Washington whom I had seen quoted in the papers or seen as talking heads on TV. I wanted to ask them about these candidates because I didn't really care that much about the campaign -- how did they win and how did they lose, etc. I really wanted to know these men, and I wanted to know what kind of life brought them to the point where they could be candidates. When I finally did force my way into a few of the offices of these important Washington figures and I started asking about the candidates, I found that they really didn't know these guys. They knew them in a kind of Washington way. They'd been in a couple of meetings with them or they'd been at a dinner party where this guy was the speaker or they had seen them on the floor of the House or Senate a few times, but they didn't know what made the guy tick. They didn't know why he was in politics. They didn't know what was driving him onward or what was the real reason that he was climbing to the top of the pyramid.

Eventually, after a period of months, I pretty much abandoned Washington. I went to the hometowns, and then I started talking to their schoolmates and their sisters and brothers and their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and cousins and their first employers and their Cub Scout leaders and their teachers and their law school buddies and college roommates. By the time I got back to the candidates on the campaign trail, I wasn't asking them how many points did they need in Iowa. I was asking them about their Aunt Lucy or their Aunt Gladys. She said they never would wake up in the morning when they spent a summer with her. Now they start their campaign days at 5:30 a.m. What got into these guys? So I was talking to them about life, not politics, and that started us on a different relationship.
LAMB: Who was the hardest? Who gave you the least access?
CRAMER: The hardest to get at was George Bush, by far, because he was already vice president. He was already living in what I call the "bubble," surrounded by guys in suits and in front of them a wall of secretaries and secretaries to secretaries, who are all awfully busy, you know, and awfully important, and you just can't get there from here. What I had to do was to follow my own route to the candidate, which is kind of new route or maybe a one-of-a-kind route, which is through the families. The real turning point with Bush came when George W. Bush, George Junior, brought me over to the residence for a backyard barbecue and horseshoes with the veep. Once the veep had drubbed me solidly in horseshoes, then I was on the map.
LAMB: How did you get to George W.?
CRAMER: Lee Atwater, the campaign manager, passed me into George W. I came in and my researcher came in, both of us with hair and not even as respectable as I look today, and George W. Bush sat back in his chair, put his cowboy boots on his desk and said, "Well, y'all aren't a couple of Y.R.'s, are you?"
LAMB: Meaning?
CRAMER: Meaning Young Republicans.
LAMB: How did you get to Lee Atwater?
CRAMER: Lee Atwater I got introduced to by a friend. I can't remember exactly how I first got to Lee, but I'll tell you how we got to talking was about Thomas Wolfe. Lee's from South Carolina, and he was reading Thomas Wolfe at the time and I had been reading a biography of Thomas Wolfe, so I gave him the book and then we started to talk. He was a fascinating guy, Atwater, and, I think, a man quite a bit misunderstood. I liked him very much, and he always proved to be a straight-shooter with me.
LAMB: Once you got to George W., meaning President Bush's son, and then to the president's backyard as vice president, how many hours do you think you talked to him for this book?
CRAMER: I don't think it was many, really. I would see him a lot campaigning, and that isn't really interview time. But what I wanted was the chance to be in the room. Especially at the beginning, I was much more interested in watching him do six other interviews where I'm just sitting out of camera range. Then sooner or later the equation changes a little bit because somebody says, "Well, you know, you really hit that agriculture question that time," and the vice president will say, "Yeah, that was better than the last time." You're in that discussion and you become a piece of furniture in the room, which is much more interesting usually than getting a 15-minute interview slot in the car going somewhere where you have five questions that you want to ask. I've never been much for asking that key question that opens the door to the psyche beneath. Plus I think these candidates are very outward-directed people. They aren't people who've spent 10 minutes thinking about themselves or how did they get the way they are. "Themselves" is the one thing they never have had to worry about. So asking them to explain themselves from the point of view of what really makes them tick is usually a waste of time.
LAMB: One thousand interviews?
CRAMER: Oh, easily, yes.
LAMB: One thousand interviews!
CRAMER: That was an estimate, but it's low.
LAMB: We've done three years of "Booknotes," and I've heard 150, 200. How do you know?
CRAMER: Well, you don't know. What I was doing was basically counting note files in my computer on an interview. What I would do is I would get an interview and then it would go as a separate file in the computer. There were literally thousands of those. So when I was asked to estimate how many interviews it basically boiled down to, I would say about a thousand, but that doesn't count all the little talks you have with advance men along the way and with workers in the various states as you roll in with the campaign because they aren't formal interviews where you sit down and take notes. Nevertheless, you're learning every minute. So it was a tremendous number of interviews and scenes that are written down at the time.
LAMB: How many chapters?
CRAMER: I'm not exactly sure. What is it, 130 or something like that?
LAMB: At least.
CRAMER: I think it's 130.
LAMB: It's in how many sections? It's 130 chapters with an epilogue.
CRAMER: Yes, it's in three books, and the first book is really Bush and Dole and how they came into politics, how their lives came from such different places to pit them face to face in 1988. The second book introduces the Democrats and continues with the stories of Bush and Dole. Then the third book begins this flooding tumble of the campaign where the past and present all seems to bump into each other.
LAMB: I want to get to some of the stories on some of the candidates, but I first want to ask you about your own background. Where were you born?
CRAMER: I was born in Rochester, N.Y., grew up there, and left at age 18 to go to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
LAMB: What did you study there?
CRAMER: Not too darn much, if the truth be told, but I did a lot of newspapering. We had a campus newspaper there, and that's really what I was most interested in. I came out as a liberal arts graduate, but it's hard to tell what they would have said my major was.
LAMB: How old are you?
CRAMER: I'm 42 now.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
CRAMER: I live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in a small town called Cambridge, which is out in the lowlands, the swamps beside the Chesapeake Bay. I actually live on the Choptank River.
LAMB: How many different newspapers have you worked for?
CRAMER: I worked for two. I worked for the Baltimore Sun just after I'd gotten out of college, and after three and a half years there I went to the Philadelphia Enquirer, where I was mostly a foreign correspondent for about seven years.
LAMB: Where were you stationed?
CRAMER: The Middle East was actually my specialty.
LAMB: Where'd you live over there in the Middle East?
CRAMER: I started in Cairo, and then after Sadat made the peace deal with the Israelis and you couldn't get a visa in Cairo to save your life, then I moved the bureau first to London, then to Rome. Actually, to call it a bureau is to dignify it unduly. I was the bureau, and one suitcase was its furniture, so you could move that bureau pretty easily.
LAMB: Have you written any other books?
CRAMER: I had a book come out that was actually a magazine piece I had done that was put together with a lot of photographs and made into a little book about Ted Williams, but this is the first book I wrote as a book.
LAMB: Your name is listed as Richard Ben Cramer. What do people call you?
CRAMER: They call me Richard. I always know a newspaper friend by them calling me "Richard Ben." Ben is my middle name, but I only stuck it in as a byline because the Baltimore Sun used to put its bylines in this little bitty eight-point bold type, and the first byline they ever gave me once they had shipped me out to Anne Arundel County, which is south of the city of Baltimore, said, "By Richard Cramer, Annapolis Bureau of the Sun," and "Annapolis Bureau of the Sun" was so much longer than my name that I stuck the middle name in there, too, just to even it out. I found out then that people really remembered it. They thought I was some kind of strange Arab or kin to Richard Ben-Veniste. Whatever it was, it increased the memorability factor a lot, so I stayed with it.
LAMB: As you know, we read a profile on you by the Washington Post.
CRAMER: Martha Sherrill, a great woman.
LAMB: The profile went into what you've gone through in all this. We'd better get all that on the table. You thought you had a heart attack, liver cancer -- I don't know. You had every disease -- phlebitis.
CRAMER: Every stress-related illness that can be listed in a medical textbook, that's correct.
LAMB: Is there anything wrong with you now?
CRAMER: Not that I know of, but I'm not checking too hard for fear there might be something.
LAMB: Your back was so bad at one time you had to work on your back writing in the computer?
CRAMER: I actually had a little space pen. It's a byproduct of the NASA years, and it writes upside down. This brilliant man developed a pen that would write in weightless, zero gravity, so that's what I used. I was lying there on my back with a paper over my head.
LAMB: How long did you have to do that?
CRAMER: Only for a couple of weeks on and off.
LAMB: You got married in the middle of all this.
CRAMER: I got married and had a baby.
LAMB: First time married?
CRAMER: First time married, first time baby.
LAMB: Who'd you marry?
CRAMER: I married Carolyn White, who was an editor whom I met in Philadelphia and is an editor to this day consulting to a magazine in New York, Mirabella. She really was the full-time editor on this book. It would be even harder to lift were it not for her. In due time we had a daughter Ruby who lives with us out in Cambridge, Maryland.
LAMB: Hard to lift. I've been carrying this thing around, trying to read it.
CRAMER: My sympathies. I always tell my friends it's easier to read than it is to carry.
LAMB: You really don't know where to start. I want to ask you about the candidates in just a second. One more thing -- where physically did you write the book?
CRAMER: I wrote it at a word processor in my house in Cambridge. I have an upstairs office. I actually have two computers set up -- one with notes, one for copy. From those two keyboards this book emerged.
LAMB: Did you tape record any of your interviews?
CRAMER: I did tape some, yes.
LAMB: What have you done with all those tapes?
CRAMER: Actually we have a very happy ceremonial pitching out of all of the things we had lived with -- boxes and boxes of newspapers and there must have been 300 or 400 notebooks and hundreds of audio tapes.
LAMB: Threw them away?
CRAMER: Tossed them out, yes.
LAMB: Didn't save the tapes?
CRAMER: No. Got them out. You can have no idea how necessary psychically it was to rid the house of the book.
LAMB: Why?
CRAMER: Because it had come to dinner six years ago and it had never left.
LAMB: Did you ever think of abandoning the project?
CRAMER: No, you know, I never did. There were months at a time when I thought it might finish me and that it would not emerge as a book; it would never finish itself and come to any roundness or fullness as a story. But I never had the temptation to stop trying because it was driving me. It wasn't something that I had to force myself to do at all.
LAMB: A lot of the things I want to ask you about really -- I shouldn't admit this. I didn't finish this book. I wish I could. I like to finish them before I do the interview. This is right in the middle of the convention and all. It was impossible to get all the details on it. But there are lots of things, some of them are personal, but it just seemed it was new and it had an impact when I read it. Joe Biden's aneurysm. You've got material in there that goes right into the operating room when they opened him up. When did that happen in the process, and what impact did that have on his life?
CRAMER: You have to remember that Joe Biden had been forced out of the race in September of '87 by a series of revelations, which individually were kind of minor and almost laughable when you look back on them, but by the time they were digested through the great long snake of the Washington press corps, they seemed to constitute an elephant of a character flaw. So Biden had been drummed out, and he really didn't come out speaking again until the turn of the year 1988 -- the early part of that year. It was February, the first time he'd been out talking on a college campus. He went to the University of Rochester, as a matter of fact.
LAMB: Were you there?
CRAMER: No, I wasn't there. I was in New Hampshire with all the good members of the pack. Joe did his speech at the University of Rochester, and then as is his wont, he took questions for several hours. When he got back to his motel room, all of a sudden -- bang! -- he got hit like a brick hit him in the head. He was dizzy, he was nauseated, he could barely see, he didn't know what was happening to him. He thought it could have been a heart attack, but he didn't know what it was. He just knew that he could barely move. He didn't seem to have any will to do anything. He lay down on the bed. He just thought if he could get home he might be all right. He lay there awake in terrible pain all night and finally dragged himself to the plane the next day, got back to Wilmington, and they literally had to carry him up his stairs in his house in Wilmington. His brother called, fortunately -- Jimmy Biden, who's a guy who's got a nose for trouble and a nose for his brother's need, and said, "Look, no more schedule, no more anything, put him in the hospital right now today."

That very night through a terrible snowstorm they took him by ambulance down to Walter Reed where a surgeon, Dr. George, decided there was no time to be wasted. There was an aneurysm in his skull, and they had to open his skull and get at this aneurysm. I don't know if the audience will know what an aneurysm is. An aneurysm is a weak spot in the wall of your artery, and if it should burst inside your skull, it's not that the loss of blood would kill you or anything like that, but the force of the blood coming from the artery would literally start pulverizing your brain tissue. I mean, it comes out like a fire hose. They didn't have any time to waste. They wheeled him into the operating room. Dr. George said it would be a matter of four, four and half hours. It turned out to be nine. The aneurysm burst right there on the table, fortunately outward, away from Joe's brain. It was a terrible mess and a critical time in his life. They literally gave him last rites there in the hospital, and fortunately, by grace of God, got him back together. He woke up. Being Joe he checked this all out himself. He counted the ceiling tiles in his room, multiplied them to calculate the area of the ceiling, spelled his name, spelled it backwards, tried to think how long he'd been out. He found out he could think, he could talk, he could move his limbs, and then it dawned on him that had he been campaigning in New Hampshire, which he certainly would have been had he not been forced out of the race, he would have been dead because he would have been up in the mountains. Up there, they never would have got him to Dr. George in time.

What it did for Joe was it reawakened in him his own sense of destiny -- that somebody up there has a plan for Joe Biden -- and made him feel a lot more sanguine about what had happened to him in that campaign.
LAMB: As I remember, you even had the details of the ambulance ride going to the hospital.
CRAMER: That's right.
LAMB: His wife was in the ambulance with him.
CRAMER: His wife and Joe, and I talked to his kids and also to Ted Kaufman, who is his closest aide and was right there at the hospital with them.
LAMB: You've got quotes from her saying some strong language to the driver.
CRAMER: Yes. You know, they had an ambulance from Wilmington, and they were going down to Walter Reed. The Wilmington ambulance guys didn't know where the heck Walter Reed was on the Washington Beltway. There were Maryland cops supposed to pick them up at the state line, and they never met them. It was the middle of a snowstorm. Bo Biden, the senator's oldest son, was riding shotgun in the lead cop car, and he had a ball cap on and a parka and the state cop who was leading them must have thought that Bo was some kind of federal SWAT team guy or Secret Service guy or something. They get into Maryland, and he turns to Bo, who was, I think, at the time about 18 years old, and he said, "Where are we going?" Bo said, "I don't know where we're going. You're the one who's supposed to know." So they just stopped by the side of the road, and finally Jill Biden, the senator's wife, who was riding in the back with Joe, started hammering on the back wall of that ambulance, saying, "I don't care what you know. Just get this damned thing going!" She saw her husband in peril of his life, lying there while they screwed around with the radio, and she was not going to have it.
LAMB: Is your version of this new and no one else had ever told it like this before?
CRAMER: Oh, I'm sure no one else has ever told it.
LAMB: I hate to do this because there's just not enough time. Sen. Bob Dole -- you write a lot about the bum right hand and arm as a symbol of his life.
CRAMER: It's not just symbolism. It has affected him every minute of every day of every year since his injury. A lot of people, even Washington people, don't know what Bob Dole has been through in his life. He was a kid who grew up in Depression dust bowl Kansas in a little town that knew poverty like we Americans don't know poverty anymore. Because he was such a kid of will and an extraordinary achiever, he had made a plan for himself that he would get to K.U., Kansas University, on a scholarship and he would become a doctor and he would thereby raise himself beyond all mischance of weather or want, beyond the dreams of all his townspeople, and he would live out his life there as a physician.

Then, as most young men did in those days, he went off to the war. He got terribly wounded by the Germans in the American invasion of Italy, and his whole right shoulder was shot away. He was paralyzed. He'd been a strapping young kid, a football player and a heck of a basketball player. That's how he got to Kansas University was on a basketball scholarship. By the time they shipped him home in a full body cast, he was 122 pounds on a 6' frame -- just bones, basically. Paralyzed, except for a little movement in his left arm, and completely without hope for himself. He had been reduced to a tiny little kernel of will that still burned inside him, and that's really what pulled him through. By grit and will he brought himself back from that injury, regained movement of all but the right arm and through a series of operations, he was, in effect, reconstructed so that the injury is not noticeable when he carries his arm in a certain way. By pluck and a lot of brains and constant effort, he became a lawyer, he became a politician. He won every race he ever ran, worked always harder than any opponent he ever found against him and brought himself to within an eyelash of the presidency. He, in the end, had it swiped out from under his nose by a pack of smart guys and big guys and Washington lawyers who spent all his money and left him marooned in New Hampshire. But it's a hell of an American story. There is no American story that is greater than Bob Dole.
LAMB: Did he give you good access?
CRAMER: Yes, he helped me a lot. But, as I say, there's not a lot of margin in sitting these guys down and saying, "Now, Senator, explain to me about your arm."
LAMB: You describe in his office, even during a holiday, what he does and where he sits and how he sits. There's a lot about the arm and how he manipulates it and all that stuff. Then you even have quotes when he picks up the telephone and calls people in his office that have worked for him for years. But the details of how he buys gifts for his people. Why did you think all that kind of stuff is important?
CRAMER: Because Washington has an idea about Bob Dole that he's some kind of snarler, that he's a grouch and a snarler and a bitter man. In fact, I found him to be a very honest guy, a real sweetheart to deal with. I think he's very tender inside. He's a man who literally experienced what it is to be without skin and to be helpless and to need people's goodwill.
LAMB: You call him the Bobster.
CRAMER: The Bobster, yes. You know, when he gets really happy out there, which is usually in front of a crowd and the band is playing and they're yelling his name, he really starts bouncing on the balls of his feet and swinging his good arm and he looks like one of these bandleaders from the '40s -- Bob Crosby and the Bobcats, one of these guys who didn't play an instrument but he got out in front of a band and kind of kept the time and brought you the action. That's Bob Dole when he's really cooking. There are a few people around in his orbit who have called him the Bobster, and I thought it was really apt because he's really a kid from the '40s whose life got stopped and diverted by that war.
LAMB: Martha Sherrill says in her Post piece that Elizabeth didn't care for this or she wanted a lot of changes.
CRAMER: Well, Elizabeth actually was worried about how she herself was presented. She's not a major character in the book in that it's about her. Certainly she reappears again and again, but she was very concerned about how she appeared in the book. I haven't said this yet, but I actually sent the pages to the characters involved in the book because I wanted them to read them and I wanted them to argue with me. You asked how did I get all these details. Well, one of the ways was by calling people up. Through all the years of writing, I would literally call the people up who were in the scene and read them that page word for word, and say, "Now, how does that strike you? Has that got it? Was that how that room looked? Where were you in the room?" If they argued with me at all, it always got richer because I would change things if they could convince me, but at the price that they tell me what really happened. So the tapestry always got more and more detailed. In Elizabeth's defense, I did invite the argument. But she's a ferocious lawyer and she was lawyering every word about herself, so that was something that didn't happen to me with other candidates.
LAMB: Did you talk to her yourself or did you have lawyers or researchers talk to her?
CRAMER: Oh, no, no, no. Certainly if she wants to talk to me, she talks to me. Mrs. Dole is not a woman to be denied or diverted.
LAMB: Michael Dukakis. The thing that I remember is your $9,500 plane ride with Kitty Dukakis.
CRAMER: That's certainly something I remember, too. As I told you, they just divide up the cost of the charter by the number of reporters, so I believe I was flying with maybe one other person on a Kitty Dukakis plane. I got this bill for $9,500 and I was the only guy out there who was using real money to pay for these things, so that's certainly something I remember. But it was the pleasure of flying with Kitty, that she was so good at what she was doing. She was really a great campaigner, and she loved her plane. She had the nicest plane by far to ride in, a little Gulfstream with about 12 seats. Beautiful service on it and good music and everybody was always in a cheerful mood. She really had constructed what I called the "better bubble." She was very talented at what she was doing. She was so excited about her new life and her new staff and the Secret Service and all the attention and people in every town yelling from the curbs, "Kitty! Kitty!" It was really too cruel and not handleable when it all stopped in one day, and she was back in her kitchen in Brookline and the phone wasn't ringing and there was no schedule and no staff and no Secret Service.
LAMB: I've got the book open to 1,026. This is the epilogue and you say, "The next morning with no limo attending, Michael happily set out on foot for the trolley." He's back in Boston. "Kitty Dukakis saw him off, then went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, measured out four ounces of booze, drank it down and went back to bed to pass out."
CRAMER: So she did.
LAMB: How do you know that?
CRAMER: Kitty said that. She said it, among other places, in her own book, but she also has been very candid about what actually happened to her.
LAMB: I'm confused where I saw this, that you didn't even send the copy on Michael Dukakis to him because you knew he wouldn't read it?
CRAMER: Michael had a rule that he was not going over his campaign. He was not reading the books and such. I don't know whether I made the right call on that, but it seemed to me at the time that I would check that with his closest aides and the people who I thought were in a position to know without kind of sticking that in Michael and Kitty's face again. It's not a pleasant story because Michael blames himself utterly for losing a 17-point lead that he had four years ago at about this time. I have subsequently been told, to my surprise, that Michael is reading the book, and I think Kitty will read it, too, but I don't know exactly how they'll react to it. It's certainly not a pleasant story, but I hope I've given them their size and their innings during the thing.
LAMB: Is he honest?
CRAMER: Michael? Utterly, yes, but he doesn't know a lot about himself. He's not a guy who dwells in his inner realm. I have to tell you -- this isn't about Michael, but you were asking about whether you could sit down and talk with these fellows about themselves. I was hanging around the White House one night with Marlin Fitzwater, and Marlin says to me, "You want to see the president?" so I said, "Yeah, sure. Yes, definitely." So he says, "Well, come out to the diplomatic entrance. He's saying goodbye to Walesa." Lech Walesa was upstairs in the residence tying one on. So, sure enough, we get to the doors there and came first the dog, Millie, and then Bar and then . . .
LAMB: Bar?
CRAMER: Barbara Bush. And then came the president and Lech Walesa. Bush was all over him like a cheap suit, pounding him on the back and squeezing his elbow and saying, "Tell Denuta,"-- that's Walesa's wife. Bush was very pleased that he knew how to pronounce the wife's name correctly. "You have to tell Denuta we were sorry she couldn't be with us. She'll have to come next time. Thank you for having us in your apartment." Pounding him and squeezing him and just doing everything -- you know, pumping out goodwill from every pore. Finally he gets Walesa in the car and after that, of course, Bush can't just go to bed. He's at full throttle, so we have a walk around the Rose Garden there. It's Marlin and Barbara Bush and the dog and me and the president and Brent Scowcroft, who was along for the dinner.
LAMB: Got your tape running?
CRAMER: No, as a matter of fact, no. But the president always sees me as a friend of Junior's, a friend of George W's, because that's how I was introduced to him. So he asked me about George, and we're talking about George, who's the owner of the Texas Rangers ball team. I say, "He's awful busy trying to sign Ruben Sierra and he's building that new stadium down there and he's going a mile a minute." "Yeah," says the president, "you know, he visited and he was go-go-go every minute and talking about that team and that ballpark. He just couldn't sit still for a minute. Boy, I'm glad I'm not like that." Now, here is a guy who has spent 68 years -- or however many years on the planet; born, I think, in '24 -- and has never been able to sit in a chair for more than five minutes, and he thinks he's some kind of laid-back old guy. I mean, there is no point in trying to get these fellows to describe themselves in those terms.
LAMB: I also read that Mrs. Bush wasn't happy with this book.
CRAMER: After I had sent her the pages, she wrote me a note that she had to stop reading it because she found it hurtful. I subsequently heard that what really bothered her was when I started talking about all of Bush's advisers as "the white men in suits." She thought I was trying to make Bush look like some kind of racist when, in fact, it had nothing to do with race. I was talking about class or, better yet, American substitute for class, which is power and money. So I think her unhappiness was based on a misreading, but there you have it.
LAMB: I'll come back to the president. Who introduced you to Joe Biden?
CRAMER: A woman who had been very close to him and his first wife really provided my introduction to Joe. I found him to be utterly charming. I didn't see until later the real guts that underlay his charm, and I think that's what was missed about Joe Biden through his campaign. Everybody was willing to concede his charm and the brilliance of his oratory, but they thought he lacked some kind of substance underneath. I found him to be a very gutsy guy and a man of the most generous and largest human reactions. I thought he was a spectacular fellow -- still do think so.
LAMB: Who introduced you to Bob Dole?
CRAMER: Well, Dole was hard, but by the time I got to him I had met his whole family in Russell, Kansas, which is a wonderful town filled with wonderful folks who will open up their hearts and houses to you. So I had probably been to Russell more times than any non-Kansan on the planet and knew his sister Gloria and his brother Kenny and his aunt Gladys and had eaten fried chicken in their houses and knew the brownies the way he liked them and such. By the time I got to him literally through his office, through his press secretary, we had a lot to talk about because I knew something about where he was from.
LAMB: Dick Gephardt had an apartment in West Des Moines that you say takes an hour or something like that . . .
CRAMER: It's a good 40 minutes if you do it the way his campaign workers drove it, which is straight out Grand Street.
LAMB: Moved his wife and children and his mother out there?
CRAMER: So he did. He moved his whole family out there, including his 79-year-old mother, for the entire summer of '87; that is, the summer before the Iowa caucus. Then so devoted was his mother to the cause that she stayed anyway all the way through the caucus. She didn't come home after the summer. She just stayed in Des Moines, and she is a marvelous campaigner.
LAMB: Ninety-nine counties, and he went to all of them?
CRAMER: Every one of them.
LAMB: I can see Mrs. Gephardt in the car with the kids going from county to county. You say it got to be a thing where all they talked about was the last five counties they'd been to. That was the only reason for being there?
CRAMER: How many counties they'd been to and how many times they'd been to this county and such. You know, it gets to be kind of an endless round in that Iowa caucus. It was a little different this time because the first battleground was really New Hampshire. But when Iowa takes center stage, there are endless van trips through the cornfields out to the next county seat, which might be an hour away. The candidates are burning up sets of tires at an alarmingly rate just running their lives out to these counties so they could say they've been to all 99 counties of Iowa. That's an easy thing to say, but it's not an easy thing to do.
LAMB: Is Dick Gephardt any different up close than what we see as a candidate?
CRAMER: Yes, I think people misjudge all of these fellows. That's kind of the point of the book. The ordeal through which we put these guys tends to diminish them and demean them in the public view. We march them around in airplanes for literally years at a time with guys in suits around them handing them things, telling them where they're going and whom they're going to see and what they're going to say to those people. The poor candidate who may have had a life of considerable excellence that brought him to the point where he could run is cut off from every source of strength that he ever had. He never has a real conversation from one end of the day to the other. Every time he lands at an airport, there's another group of suits lined up there on the tarmac to meet him, to pump his hand and tell him he's doing great. Every time he looks out over a microphone, there are a thousand faces upturned to him, cheering his every line. Pretty soon he can't see the normal American life that he meant in the start to improve. He is so cut off from anything that we would consider the normal life of an American that they look like empty suits to us. In fact, they're nothing of the kind. It's the life into which we shove them, and it's the way in which we cover them.

You know, after years of covering these guys in terms that are not quite human, 50 percent of the American people stay away from the polls, and then the same pundits and columnists and reporters who have made them look like empty suits in the first place sit back and wring their hands and say, "Oh, woe unto American democracy. There must be something wrong with our candidates." It's kind of a no-win situation for the guy in the bubble.
LAMB: Who introduced you to Dick Gephardt?
CRAMER: His mother.
LAMB: How did you get to his mother?
CRAMER: I called her up and I told her exactly what I wanted to do. I had been introduced to the mother by the brother. I'll tell you how shockingly easy it is when you actually are willing to do the work. My researcher and I went out to Long Island to take Dick Gephardt's brother and his wife out to dinner. That's Don Gephardt and Nancy Gephardt. Don is Dick's older brother, his only brother, his only sibling. We went out for a long, wonderful dinner and we were talking about the household and Mom and Dad and how the family really worked, the school and the candy store on the corner and baseball games on the street. This was wonderful stuff. We were on our way back to their house to go look at family photo albums. This is pure gold, photo albums. So I said just by way of conversation on the way to the house, "Well, Don, have you been inundated by interview requests?" He said, "Well, the gal from the Long Island bureau of the New York Times called up. She kind of wanted to jump in case Dick was coming to town. But other than that, that's been about it." Now, everybody was writing their profiles about Gephardt, but they were calling up . . .
LAMB: A suit?
CRAMER: Yes. Not to be personal, but Norm Orenstein or Bill Schneider or one of these Washington quote machines who makes his living making comments about these guys, when, in fact, they don't really know Dick Gephardt. On the list of Gephardt knowers, surely Don Gephardt has to rank in the top five, but nobody's calling him because he's out of Washington. He's off somewhere. They didn't know where he was. It's not the kind of look at him that they really want to take, but as far as who really knows the guy, try his only brother, for instance. You'll find out something about Dick Gephardt.
LAMB: Who introduced you to Gary Hart?
CRAMER: I had to meet Hart on the campaign, actually. I had tried a number of ways to get to know him a little bit. I had been to Ottawa, which is his hometown, also Kansas, and had been out to Denver where there are a good many people who know him well. It turned out that it was actually easier to meet him on the road, so by the time I met him, I was interested to bounce some of the things I'd heard about him off him -- some of the things I'd heard in his hometown and such. He, for one, was instantly aware of what this project could be and interested in it because he, of all the candidates, had the most acute frustration at not being able to present himself in the way he saw himself or the way others who really knew him saw him. I think all of the candidates are terribly frustrated that they don't seem to be able to get themselves over to the American people in any shape or size like they see themselves.
LAMB: You quoted him. I wanted to ask you whether it was tongue-in-cheek or not. He said, "I probably shouldn't have done this at all. I should never have run for this."
CRAMER: No, I don't think it was tongue-in-cheek at all. After he was drummed out not only of the 1988 campaign but out of the political life of our country and made to look like a ridiculous Lothario, when, in fact, he's probably the most serious candidate we had in 1988, I think he thought that his life had been a mistake, that he should not have gone into politics in the first place. He was unable to make himself known, and it was a terrible heartache to him and remains so to this day.
LAMB: There's a lot I want to ask you about President Bush because he's the only one in this book that's still around in the campaign. Thirty thousand names on his Christmas card list, personal list?
CRAMER: That was before he was president. That's his personal list, that's right. You know, George Bush is a man who meant to become president by making friends, one at a time if need be. The Christmas card list was the embodiment of Bush's treasure, his friends all over the country, all over the world. Nobody ever dropped off. For years the reason nobody ever dropped off is because Barbara Bush kept those files, and Barbara Bush would never let anybody drop off the screen. When their children grew up and moved away from home, those children got cards of their own. When their friends would move their houses, those cards were written over. Some of those cards have been written over four and five times, kept in a gleaming four-drawer box file that went from home to home with the Bushes. You know, they've moved about 25 times. That is Barbara Bush's ferocity that she kept that.
LAMB: Let me ask you about a quick contrast. I got the impression that Bob Dole might have 200 people on his list.
CRAMER: With Dole it was always kind of a last-minute thing. Dole is a very generous guy and gives gifts that another man might call extravagant to all the people who have helped him during the year.
LAMB: People who work in the restaurants and doorkeepers . . .
CRAMER: In the Senate dining room, in the Watergate, the doormen and the garage guys and the janitors and everybody gets remembered by Bob Dole.
LAMB: How big are those checks? You imply they're big.
CRAMER: They're pretty serious.
LAMB: A hundred bucks?
CRAMER: Yes, three figures and up. You know, the barbers and the drivers and the doormen and everybody gets remembered by Bob Dole. In the case of his family, he is truly extravagant.
LAMB: But back to making friends. You gave the impression that President Bush literally concentrates on every person he comes in contact with and makes personal friendships with them.
CRAMER: Absolutely. It's all personal with George Bush.
LAMB: How does he do it?
CRAMER: He finds common ground. If he were sitting here with you, he would find common ground with you. Do you fish? Do you play tennis? Do you have kids? Do you go to church? Do you know so-and-so? What state do you come from? Oh, do you know so-and-so? Until -- click -- there's common ground. Then it will never leave him. He will never forget that you're, say, Fred's friend or you're in the church with Bill and Michelle.
LAMB: Is that how he got elected?
CRAMER: I think that is his life's method. That's not only how he got elected, that is how is trying to be president of a republic of 250,000 million people and head of a $1 trillion government and commander-in-chief of the world's lone superpower. It's all by effort of personal exertion and personal attention, and you can see it just about sapping him now. I mean, even George Bush, a man of the vitality of 10 men, is getting weighed down by the cumulative weight of the presidency and trying to go at it by personal exertion.
LAMB: How does he do the personal note-writing and all that?
CRAMER: By steely discipline. You cannot imagine what it is to get on your plane after another 16-hour day and instead of kicking back with a martini, which is not a drink unwelcome to the president, instead calling for your note paper and dashing off 10 or 12 thank-you notes to the people at the last event. He is absolutely disciplined about it. He's the most disciplined guy I've ever met on the planet.
LAMB: Does he have a system of people around him that make sure that notes are in front of him? Does he write the notes himself?
CRAMER: He writes many of them himself, and then he'll write something on cards to be sent out by the office for other people. Or he'll have pictures taken with scores of people during a day and then all those pictures will show up on his desk. He'll write a quick little note on the bottom of them -- sometimes very charming and intimate -- and off they go in the mail to be put on somebody's wall, and that person will never forget that instant with George Bush and will never vote for anyone who's running against George Bush.
LAMB: Is it sincere?
CRAMER: Absolutely. It is his life's method. There is nothing more sincere than Bush wanting to make friends. It's like an animal thing. It's his whole body is wagging.
LAMB: Is he honest?
CRAMER: Yes, I think he's honest. He's absolutely honest at what he's doing. A lot of people are down on George Bush now because they say he's cut off from American life and he's not doing enough about the recession and so on. You have to remember that George Bush ran on a platform of not doing very much that was different. He was a "stay-the-course" president. He promised he would do nothing. He's done nothing. As far as being cut off, you cannot live in the bubble for 15 years, as he has, and be expected to know anything about American life. The White House is the thickest bubble of all.
LAMB: Critics say you fell in love with all these guys and lost your perspective.
CRAMER: I did fall in love with all these guys. I happily admit it, and if I have my way, the reader will, too. But it's more than love. It's like a love affair. You love them, you hate them, you suffer with them, you exult with them, you wish they'd get out of your head, you wish they'd come closer. It's the most connected relationship you can have off of this subject.
LAMB: How many of these books have to sell for you to make some money?
CRAMER: Oh, I can come in just under Iacocca and make a few bucks.
LAMB: Do you expect to make money off this book?
CRAMER: No, I don't expect to make money, but if people read it and like it, I'll call that money in the bank.
LAMB: What's the best thing anybody's said to you so far?
CRAMER: Well, the best thing that anybody's said to me are reactions from the characters who are in the book themselves -- that they think it's the first time anybody's tried to write about them like they are.
LAMB: And what's next?
CRAMER: Well, if I have my way, I'm going to try to do nothing for a while. I don't know if my bank balance will permit this, but if it does, I'm going to do nothing until I have about $200 left, and then I'm going to look for work.
LAMB: Do you want to do another one of these books?
CRAMER: I'd like to do another book, but it won't be about politics. If I haven't said what I meant to say in a thousand pages, I'm probably in the wrong business.
LAMB: After all this was over, did you change any of your thinking politically?
CRAMER: I didn't change my politics, but I have a much different attitude about candidates as human beings and about their families and what they go through. I also have a lot less cynical view of the process itself. I think that these are extraordinary men who live lives of great striving, and this is their highest moment of striving and attainment. They bend everything in their lives and the lives of their dear ones to this one very public roll of the dice in which five out of six will lose. I ended up admiring them for it.
LAMB: Last question: What do you think of the white men in the suits?
CRAMER: I think they're not half as smart as they have the world convinced they are. If a true appreciation of their worth were ever available, they would be making a lot less money than they are today.
LAMB: Richard Ben Cramer is the author. This is what the book looks like. “What It Takes.” Thank you for joining us.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1992. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.