What It Takes

Usually I blog about books AFTER I’ve read them, but my copy of What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer has an interesting back story. Since the book is over 1,000 pages long and has landed on my doorstep while I’m right in the middle of several other books I’m attempting to read in my 2011 “To-Be-Read Pile” challenge, I wanted to dash off a note about this book now.

Matt Langer is a web site creator and more, having created things such as a co-op work space in Brooklyn and a new venture to create a Facebook-type site for social causes called Jumo that I find fascinating and am still trying to work into my online world.

Anyway, one day on his blog, Matt mentioned how much he liked the book “What It Takes: The Road To The White House”. As you can see, his devotion to Richard Ben Cramer’s book is a bit stronger than “like”:

It’s the one book that perfectly captures all the reasons I give a shit about policy and government and political journalism, and it’s the book I return to whenever I need to be reminded that we can always do better, whether as journalists or as citizens or as a nation. And considering that this “American Iliad”, as it was billed, emerged from an election cycle so marred by the likes of Lee Atwater and the Monkey Business and Willie Horton—an election cycle that in many ways set the tone for those we continue to endure today—that such a gem emerged from all that mess gives me hope.

Matt’s love for this book is such that he went through a local bookstore and got a bulk buy of the book and said he’d give away the book free to the first 10 folks that sent him an e-mail. He called it his political donation in this political off-season. He ended up giving away 23 books and I got one of them. I even offered to pay postage and he said no.

I’m very interested in this book, as the 1988 Presidential campaign was the last national campaign where I played an active role as a volunteer. Immediately after this election I became a VISTA volunteer and, due to the Hatch Act bar on federal employees engaging in partisan politicking, had to sit out the first Clinton election. Since that election I became a community organizer and turned my back on electoral politics as a means to community change. My mantra during my now 17-year organizing career has been “we can bend any politician to our will!”

I’ve been aware of this book since it was published, but remained relatively dismissive of its impact for two reasons. 1) As a callow youth with little world experience around 1988, I dismissed the book as fluff. I can imagine myself saying things such as “Who cares about personality, character and the real world test of management skills during a political campaign? It’s all about the ideology, the platform, the issues.” I think I’m finally ready to entertain a more holistic look at politics as I enter middle-age and have been away from the nitty-gritty of politics for awhile. 2) He covers 6 candidates, but not the most interesting candidate to me: Jesse Jackson.

I was, of course, a Jackson volunteer. I made phone calls, helped organize fundraisers, went door-to-door in the African-American neighborhood in which I now organize and was a poll watcher during the primary. People forget how close Jesse Jackson was to breaking out in ’88. I’ll never forget the thrill when Jesse won the Michigan primary and the next big vote was ours–N.Y. It was a heady moment. Win N.Y. and we’re on our way. It was truly the last time N.Y. had any influence whatsoever on a national race. Unfortunately, we gave Dukakis the nomination. Al Gore campaigned as a spoiler, walking arm in arm w/ Ed Koch through white ethnic neighborhoods fanning racist backlash. (The Hymie-town comment surely didn’t help.) Syracuse did its part. Jesse packed the Syracuse War Memorial for a speech, drawing 5,000 people at a time when every other candidate drew 25 campaign workers to fly-in, fly-out press conferences at the airport. Our efforts helped Jesse win the city of Syracuse primary. But, like every other place in the state, Jackson lost heavily in the suburbs and didn’t do well enough in NYC to make up the difference.

Since I’ve received the book, I’ve read the author’s foreword and he states that not covering Jackson was one of his regrets about the project. However, the Jackson campaign simply did not want to provide the depth of cooperation and access that the author was requesting. Given the Jackson campaign’s tone deaf response to its candidate’s ethnic slurs and what we now know was Jackson’s personal secret about infidelity, it’s not surprising they were not forthcoming. I accept Cramer’s explanation that he wasn’t able to write about a candidate whom he really didn’t know. I wasn’t so accepting back in the day.

Anyway–Thank you Matt Langer!

2 thoughts on “What It Takes

  1. I was at that Syracuse rally for Jesse Jackson in 1988 and it was both the best and,… well, I don’t want to say the worst of times, but it was a harbinger of just why he wasn’t going to win. You remember, he had everyone whipped up, to the degree that if he’d asked me to go outside and throw a brick through a storefront window I’d have done it. And then suddenly he took the steam out of it all to say that a children’s choir had been hoping to sing a song for him and he was going to ask them to do it then. What a major letdown and total change in direction, and that was always going to be the problem, and turned out to be the problem; his timing was terrible.


    1. You’re right Mitch. As an organizer, I was just concerned about turnout and pizzaz–but if you dig deeper, you could see where the wave would inevitably crest and roll back!

      What was even more dispiriting was the attempts after the election to get the local Rainbow Coalition chapter off the ground. Chaotic, unfocused, unorganized–and definite tensions amongst different groups in the supposed big tent we had created.


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