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Sunday, 21 January 2007

What It Takes bookcover; Random HouseReview: What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer (1992)

"Understanding the person behind the persona can bring one closer to understanding how they arrived at their political views," [Cramer] said [to Lawrence World-Journal staff writer Sophia Maines].

“When you see how these beliefs came to be, then you can at least understand their politics,” he said.

This is the raison-d’etre of literary journalism. The touchstone of its success is its ability to make us empathise with the subject, and What It Takes, a 1047-page behemoth that required six years to research and write, fulfils the brief.

Cramer is a veteran journalist who “won a Pulitzer prize for international reporting in 1979 for his work for The Philadelphia Inquirer”, according to Maines.

His experience shows. And his professionalism. “Do you consider yourself a ‘literary journalist’?” “No, I’m a smith. I occupy the position in our society that a good wheelwright would have occupied in his. Making wheels is a highly specialized skill. I don’t consider myself to be an artist, I consider myself to be a skilled workman.” This answer to Robert Boynton’s question, published in The New New Journalism, is not uncommon among practitioners of literary journalism. They like to downplay the ‘literary’ in favour of the ‘journalist’ (or, even, ‘reporter’). They like to be humble, take a back seat, let their subjects shine through.

Which is why he wrote the book in the first place. “I wanted to answer a fundamental question I had about American politics. I would watch the candidates on TV and they looked like nobody I knew—and not in a good way. They looked stiff and removed. Rehearsed, although not well-rehearsed. They looked like they were bound up in a million thoughts and doubts.” He wanted to know what happened to the candidates to make them appear like that. On the way to the White House.

Instead of just interviewing the candidates, Cramer hung around (another typical literary-journalistic tactic) assimilating by osmosis the atmosphere of the campaign, the real feeling of the people and events that shaped the trajectory of each candidate.

He didn’t ask any questions.

I’d sit there for the first day, and the second day, and the third day, and on and on. And sooner or later, the candidate is going to get so comfortable with my being there that he will lean over to me after one of the interviews and say, “Damn, I fucked up that agriculture question again.”

And at that moment I’ve moved from my side of the desk to his side of the desk. That’s the judo move I try to pull off: using his power to throw him where I want him to go. I’m always trying to be on his side of the desk. If I come in with my notebook and my list of questions, then I’m just another schmuck with a notebook and questions to be brushed off with the “message of the day,” or whatever form of manipulation is in vogue.

This is a timely reminder of some unpleasant aspects of the relationship between journalists and politicians. John Lloyd, a British journalist, published a book in 2004, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics which “contends that politicians and the media have become locked in a destructive struggle for supremacy”. (Frank Kane reviewed the book for The Guardian.)

The 2700-word feature was published recently in the The Sydney Morning Herald.

… Lloyd believes, in competing against the vast entertainment industry for the public's flickering attention, the media have largely grown indifferent to reporting the complexities and difficulties of policy-making in favour of an eye-catching but adversarial and often contemptuous attitude towards politics. The loser, he says, is democracy.

Lloyd is not the only one to think so. I reported the publication of a similar book, The Worldly Art of Politics, which was edited by two Sydney University academics, in early December.

Getting to the other side of the desk seems like an apposite metaphor for what journalists should be doing in order to prevent a blow-out of the media in the future. If people stop reading newspapers and watching TV, and look to other media for their information, that will be a strong message to practitioners that they are doing it wrong.

Cramer begins his account from ‘the other side of the desk’ by delineating the contours of the early life of each candidate, starting with the two Republicans: George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, both war veterans and talented sportsmen but with broadly different characters and backgrounds.

Bush comes across as a nice guy, although still a player, who values loyalty above all else. A man who always wants to, and is able to, make friends. By the time he is VP, he is sending out 30,000 Xmas cards each year. He wears his background lightly, and never brags about his privileged past or his attainments.

Dole is a driven individual with a broad network of information sources who stays ahead of the game by tapping into all of them at all times. From a lower-middle-class background, he’s always got work to do. Summary: ‘grit’.

Book two is dedicated to introducing to us the Democrat candidates, starting with Gary Hart and continuing with Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden and Dick Gephardt.

Hart, from a Wesleyan-Christian Kansas family, comes across as a humane and intellectual person, a man of ideas. A man who needs time to think, who eschews sound-bite politics in favour of policy.

Dukakis, from a Greek, middle-class, Massachusetts family, is a driven student endowed with a tremendous self-belief. His decision to run for state government reflects his fundamental commitment to effecting valuable change in society.

Biden is a go-getter, a man of infallible assertions, a planner of great imagination who emerges from a tough Catholic background in Delaware.

Gephardt is a brilliant student emerging from a Kansas Nazarene sect, a thoroughly decent fellow who impresses with his intellect.

This is an astonishing book, a must-read for anyone interested in politics. The process of politicking gets a tough rap:

He had to decide, to know, where he wanted to lead the country. There would be no time to do the work, no time to think, in the campaign. Hart knew what the campaign could do to a man. The constant, restless, know-nothing drive that the system now demanded.

The media do no come out well. The scrutiny is relentless, the cynicism deadening.

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