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An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate? As he recounts the frenzied course of the 1988 presidential race -- and scours the psyches of con An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate? As he recounts the frenzied course of the 1988 presidential race -- and scours the psyches of contenders from George Bush and Robert Dole to Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer comes up with the answers, in a book that is vast, exhaustively researched, exhilarating, and sometimes appalling in its revelations.


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An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate? As he recounts the frenzied course of the 1988 presidential race -- and scours the psyches of con An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate? As he recounts the frenzied course of the 1988 presidential race -- and scours the psyches of contenders from George Bush and Robert Dole to Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer comes up with the answers, in a book that is vast, exhaustively researched, exhilarating, and sometimes appalling in its revelations.

30 review for What It Takes: The Way to the White House

  1. 5 out of 5

    Adam Dalva

    Gigantic work of political reporting and a huge accomplishment. It's a comfort to read Cramer's close examination of the 1988 primaries and remember that campaigns are always nutty. The overriding thesis of the book is smart: a deep look at 6 very different figures (Bush/Dole; Dukakis/Biden/Gephardt/Hart) that examines the moments that made them want to be president, paired with a beat-by-beat walk-through of the challenges to those identities during their runs. Though the inside information is g Gigantic work of political reporting and a huge accomplishment. It's a comfort to read Cramer's close examination of the 1988 primaries and remember that campaigns are always nutty. The overriding thesis of the book is smart: a deep look at 6 very different figures (Bush/Dole; Dukakis/Biden/Gephardt/Hart) that examines the moments that made them want to be president, paired with a beat-by-beat walk-through of the challenges to those identities during their runs. Though the inside information is good, this book is much more important for its style, a bizarre mix of Thompson and Pynchon that somehow inhabits each politicians' voice, to particular effect with the dour, ever-working, tragic hero Dole, the always-charismatic Biden, and, surprisingly, the sporty, friendly, bubble-bound Bush the senior. Subtle differences in cadence (and unsubtle differences in vocabulary) immediately ground you in the minds of the candidates. He doesn't find such success with Gary Hart, but the PLOT of Hart's failure is so Shakespearean and wonderful that his sections still have good momentum. My one regret, and Cramer cops to it, is that he didn't see Jesse Jackson coming. The Gephardt sections are flat, and Dukakis is never that interesting (which probably says something about the choice that was made in '88). I understand that an 1000 page book about a 26 year old election isn't going to hook all of you, but this is a gem.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    "This is about as good as it gets, as close as American politics offers to a mortal lock. On this night, October 8, 1986, the Vice President is coming to the Astrodome, to Game One of the National League Championship Series, and the nation will be watching from its La-Z-Boys as George Bush stands front and center, glistening with America's holy water: play-off juice. Oh, and here's the beauty part: he doesn't have to say a thing! He's just got to throw out the first ball. He'll be hosted by the "This is about as good as it gets, as close as American politics offers to a mortal lock. On this night, October 8, 1986, the Vice President is coming to the Astrodome, to Game One of the National League Championship Series, and the nation will be watching from its La-Z-Boys as George Bush stands front and center, glistening with America's holy water: play-off juice. Oh, and here's the beauty part: he doesn't have to say a thing! He's just got to throw out the first ball. He'll be hosted by the Astros owner...he'll be honored by the National League and the Great Old Game; he'll be cheered by 44,131 fans - and not even a risky crowd, the kind that might get testy because oil isn't worth a damn...No, those guys can't get tickets tonight. This is a play-off crowd, a corporate-perks crowd, the kind of fellows who were transferred in a few years ago from Stamford-Conn., you know, for that new marketing thing (and were, frankly, delighted by the price of housing), a solid GOP crowd, tax-conscious, white and polite - they're wearing sports coats, and golf shirts with emblems - vice presidents all..." - Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes: The Way to the White House So begins one of the classic works of American politics. A huge, giddy, breathless ride that leaves you exhausted. Just like politics leaves you exhausted. There is no better time to read Richard Ben Cramer’s What it Takes. For years, now, we've been locked in the midst of one of the longest, most deplorable political cycles in American history. Like no time since the height of the Vietnam War, domestic politics has become a blood feud, tearing apart friends and families and co-workers. Politics has infused every aspect of our lives, even our sporting events. It is hard to watch; it is hard to escape. Thus, you are probably asking yourself: Why would I want to read about more politics? But here's the thing: What it Takes is an excellent way to get your political fix without having to pay attention to what’s currently unfolding before your eyes. It takes you back to the 1988 presidential campaign, and even though it wasn’t necessarily clean – Lee Atwater was involved, after all – at least none of the candidates felt the need to talk about the length of their penis. (Bob Dole’s Viagra commercials would eventually force us, implicitly, to think about his penis. However, in 1988, that was still in the future). What it Takes is unlike most books I’ve ever read. The closest comparison, both in size and authorial audacity, might be Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. (Insert your own joke about whether it’s more pleasant to read about a convicted killer or political aspirants). Cramer, a fantastic journalist who died in 2013, announces at the outset his intention get into the heads of the men who want to be President of the United States. To know “what kind of life would lead a man…to think he ought to be President.” Cramer accomplishes this feat by delivering a dazzling, dizzying, intensely detailed 6-person biography. He digs deep into the cores of Republicans George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole, and Democrats Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden, and Gary Hart. This is a rare book that manages to achieve an intimacy with its subjects. It’s hard enough to penetrate the psyche of an ordinary person, much less a politician who is trying to present himself as fit to lead the free world. What Cramer accomplishes is almost breathtaking. You go inside the heads of these guys. You gain a psychological understanding of what made them who they are. Most biographies are content to tell you what happened, and when. This is the rare work that tells you what happened, when, and most importantly, why that matters at all. Like all masterpieces, What it Takes presents certain challenges. The first and most obvious is size. As in 1,051 pages of text. (There are no endnotes or source notes whatsoever. This is troubling, of course, but perhaps necessary to keep the book from being the size of a human infant clutching a full-grown Chihuahua). That’s a lot of pages. Moreover, I must add – at the risk of sounding a million years old – that the font is really, really small. Fortunately, What it Takes is broken down into 130 chapters and an epilogue, meaning that most chapters are fairly short. Cramer writes with a kinetic energy that he manages to maintain throughout his book’s prodigious length. (I don’t know how he did it. Even reading, I had to stop to take a breath). The detail is of the impossible, person-in-the-room variety. There are long portions of quoted dialogue. There are internal monologues. There is stream-of-consciousness. There are a lot of ellipses. There are – of course! – a trove of exclamation points. Cramer even goes to lengths to capture the actual speech patterns of the candidates. At first, this seems ridiculous. Eventually, like everything else, it works by serving to heighten the feeling that you know these people. That you’re with them. Cramer captures their lives in moments big and small. Bush getting shot down during World War II off the island of Chichi Jima. Dole suffering serious wounds while serving in Italy. Biden leading the Senate revolt against Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Hart leaving his campaign after his womanizing comes to light. Cramer gives you the exhausting day-to-day of life on the campaign trail. No viewpoint goes neglected. He even provides an entire page through the eyes of a motorcycle cop in Bush’s motorcade. As it was, they spent half their lives waiting; it was dreariest when the schedule got busted and H-hour came and went and nobody even knew anymore what was supposed to happen. But with George Bush, they could fire up their gleaming Harleys at H-hour minus five, and he'd be there, with his crew in the cars, right on the hour. Then came the part that was their specialty, as they roared away from Ellington Field, southeast of town, and onto the open concrete of I-45, where seven or eight of their buddies had already closed the first few ramps and held back traffic on the northbound side. Not a car, not one truck in the way! And another half-dozen men in jodhpurs would peel away from the motorcade, and throw their hogs wide open - sixty, seventy, eighty miles per hour! - roaring up to the next ramps to close them until the motorcade sailed by. And after the trailing Harleys passed, they'd open those ramps again and thunder on past the motorcade with the wind keening off their farings and flattening their smiles inside their helmets - ninety, a hundred, if they could - past the motorcade again to block off the ramps and road ahead...That limo was never gonna need a brake job. Never had to stop - not while these boys were around. None of this is delivered chronologically, meaning you have to pay attention. There are six different timelines to keep track of. For example, Cramer starts his book with Bush in the present-day (1988) timeline. Then he jumps all the way back to World War II to cover Bush’s time as a naval aviator. He uses this same technique for every candidate. Sometimes, the chapter title will give you the dateline. At other times, though, Cramer just thrusts you into the middle of a scene. It can be a bit vexing, until you realize that the chronology isn’t as important as the effect Cramer has achieved. These lives are a puzzle that is only gradually solved. Politics today are, in a word, dehumanizing. Cramer’s greatest attribute is his humanness. His empathy for every single person he covers. Their triumphs and tragedies. And there are a lot of tragedies marking these men. The death of three year-old Robin Bush of leukemia. The death of Joe Biden’s wife and one year-old child in a car accident. The substance abuse struggles of Kitty Dukakis. All these instances give resonance to the paths taken by each of the candidates. If Cramer has a favorite, I’d venture it’s Dole, whose painful war-wound recovery Cramer follows in excruciating detail. But he gives every man their due – and lets you see the world from their perspectives. (I feel like this kind of humanizing has an extraordinary power. I wonder, for instance, if Bush knew that Gephardt’s young son had cancer. And if that knowledge might have bridged politics). Refreshingly, Cramer is not out to "get" anyone. If he has a target, it is the ratings-obsessed media covering the candidates. He is clearly irritated at the sordid, pre-Clinton take-down of Gary Hart by journalists who hounded his family and paramour Donna Rice. Cramer never lectures, though. Indeed, What it Takes serves as a compelling rebuke to facile, sensationalist reporting without saying anything at all. One downside to Cramer’s intense, personal approach is that you lose any sight of the broader context. If you – for some reason – really just want to know the nuts and bolts of the 1988 Presidential campaign, What it Takes will certainly disappoint you. It entirely ignores candidates other than his chosen six. Even after 1,000 plus pages I didn't know who all participated in the race. There are only passing references, for instance, to Jesse Jackson’s surprise run in the Democratic primaries. (Hint: If you read this, the Paul Simon that Cramer refers to is the Democratic Senator from Illinois known for his affected bowtie. It turns out that the famous singer did not make a bid for U.S. President). It should also be noted that Cramer does not get to the Iowa caucuses until roughly 800 pages into his story. The actual general election is not even covered. This might have pissed me off, but it makes a certain kind of sense. What happened is not interesting to Cramer. Anyone can find out what happened. He is, to the end, concerned with the candidates themselves. Today’s political titles – like Game Change – traffic heavily in gossip, backstabbing, and score-settling. Don’t get me wrong. It’s entertaining as hell to read. But it’s also so fleeting and transitory that you don’t remember a thing. There is no deeper purpose; they seek no meaning. Those kinds of books are written in sidewalk chalk. What it Takes is a monument chiseled in stone. A monument not solely to the candidates, but to the art of writing itself.

  3. 5 out of 5

    A.J. Howard

    I'm reposting this review today because the e-book version of this is on sale at Amazon for $2, or a .0005¢ per page. Tempting me to buy an electronic copy of a long book I've already read, that I probably won't ever read again.But if you haven't read this one, I really recommend it. Re-reading my review I found a handful of pretty bad grammatical mistakes, leading me to question my long-held disbelief in proof reading. Hopefully, corrected the most glaring one's and I apologize for not catching I'm reposting this review today because the e-book version of this is on sale at Amazon for $2, or a .0005¢ per page. Tempting me to buy an electronic copy of a long book I've already read, that I probably won't ever read again.But if you haven't read this one, I really recommend it. Re-reading my review I found a handful of pretty bad grammatical mistakes, leading me to question my long-held disbelief in proof reading. Hopefully, corrected the most glaring one's and I apologize for not catching them earlier. Maybe it's just a function of my age, I was three at the time, but the 1988 election has never really seemed that notable to me. I may be a child of Reagan, but George H.W. Bush was president when I first grasped a notion of what a president was, so I may have seen the '88 election through an aura of inevitability. Politics and opinions aside, George Bush will always be the bedrock for my conception of president. '88 seems the Young Americans of presidential elections, a not particularly noteworthy event wedged between two groundbreaking eras (Reagan Revolution/"Ziggy" and Clinton Administration/"Berlin Trilogy.")* Does such a seemingly foregone conclusion as Bush beating Mike Dukakis deserve such a massive tome? Because Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes is certainly foreboding. 1,047 pages filled with tightly packed text in a small font. That 1,047 pages is earned too, there's not stat padding commonly found in history books. Because the book is based off of original reporting there is no bibliography, end notes section, or even an index.** I'm a political junkie, as soon as I read about this book I knew I would end up devouring it. But this amount of work devoted to a not particularly interesting election which resulted in a one-term presidency may seem indulgent to those with a less fervent fascination. First off, all indications otherwise, it's not entirely accurate to say What It Takes is about the '88 election. In fact, judged as a history of the '88 election this book is a disappointment. I'll get into what exactly this book is shortly, but to give you an idea of what we're dealing with, the results of the Iowa caucus, the first actually meaningful raw data of '88 campaign, are first discussed on page 867. That leaves 180 pages for, well... 1988. Cramer's main narrative closes before the national conventions, and his 30 page epilogue opens up on Election Day. Obviously this would be a problem if the book solely aspired to be a blow by blow account of a political campaign. So, if the book isn't a piece of conventional history or straight-up journalism, what is it? Cramer's goal in writing this book were to examine what type of human willingly puts himself through the process and the effect of process on the human. To do this Cramer, starting in 1986, spent a baffling amount of time with six potential candidates, four democrats and two republicans. Those candidates were Bush, Bob Dole, Dukakis, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Biden. The access that the text hints at is extraordinary in itself. The behind the scenes account Crammer was able to get almost demands a behind the scenes account itself. The book is basically a close third person narrative of each of the six candidates. Cramer isn't trying to be objective, instead he gives the reader something like a 'candidates eye view' of the events. He effectively inserts the reader inside the heads of one of the candidates. Because of this, the book is extremely sympathetic to each of the six main figures.*** In many ways the book is an exercise in empathy, and readers are more likely to empathize with a book's characters when they, at some level, like the characters. Politics aside, Cramer mostly succeeds in this. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of What It Takes is that it not only convinces the reader to like six politicians, but that the reader likes six politicians who are adversaries. He does this by interspersing biographic episodes into the narrative. The reader gets to know each of the candidates. These episodes are much more focused on the upbringing and family life of the candidates than their political history. For instance, more space is dedicated to the Congressional career of Prescott Bush than George Bush. What It Takes is concerned more about where each of the candidates are coming from than the specifics of the their political career. The book is concerned with the broad process rather than the details, so Cramer is able to avoid getting into specific issues which would detract from a reader's sympathy. Cramer doesn't interrupt the narrative to interject any editorializing or different perspectives. Cramer may use the events of the narrative and the candidate's biography to subtly hint at specific character flaws. But these flaws are human flaws, not the frivolous and general sound-bite associated gaffes and misteps obsessed over by the media in modern elections. The only way one of the candidates will be directly criticized is through another candidate. Through this narrative technique, a specific criticism will seem unfair in one chapter and then justified in the next. What It Takes is mainly concerned with depicting the personal struggle with the process of a presidential race. As such, the actual events leading up to the '88 election are mere background to the more personal drama Cramer is interested in. The actual 'history' of the campaign weaves in and out of Cramer's narrative as it suits the story. Some stuff is dealt with in detail, some stuff is ignored altogether. The '88 election is to What It Takes as to the Napoleonic Wars were to War and Peace. That being said, it's worth noting that the quality of the work is lessened during the last few hundred pages. Again, considering the parameters of the book, this isn't surprising. The book is entirely based on original journalism, so the quality of the work inevitably depended on the access Cramer was able to achieve. Once votes started being cast, Cramer's access to the remaining candidates must have been severely curtailed. Another thing worth considering is that this book was published in 1992. I think it's fair to criticize Cramer for inadequately anticipating future readers. For a book that sets out to be about something timeless in the way America selects its leader, it can often be weighted in the time it was written. Throughout the book there are dated pop culture references and sly allusions to events that would take place later that modern readers may not catch. Also, I know I have been stressing that the book is about the process more than the specific events of 1988, but Cramer's almost complete neglect of the general election**** make a 1,000+ page book seem incomplete. I'm not asking for a couple hundred pages, but when we leave the main narrative Dukakis is up by double percentage points before the conventions and then we cut to Bush giving his acceptance speech. I'm not sure if he was facing publishing deadlines or what, but even 20 pages of summary would have been nice. Wolfe's The Right Stuff, for instance, is about much more than the history of the Mercury Program, but all the same, still manages to be somewhat comprehensive about the subject it is using as a simulacrum of larger trends. The absence of this here is the reason I'm docking a star. I was going to go into the specifics of the 1988 election, but I've gone on long enough. Suffice it to say, whether it's Cramer's writing or the candidates themselves, the six main figures are written in a vibrant and compelling manner. The book works as a character study of six compellingly different, but somewhat similar, figures who had the courage or the egomania or the delusional capability to think that they should be Commander in Chief, and the willingness to serve, or, at least the egomania, to put themselves and their family through the process. I gained much more respect and insight on George H.W. Bush, my bedrock president.***** Bob Dole figures simultaneously fully justifies the Norm McDonald SNL sketches and becomes so much more.****** What It Takes presents real questions about how American democracy works. The most surprising thing about the book is how Cramer treats the political media, which comes off as a sort of demented Greek chorus, insisting on snooty comments on a candidate's sex life and focused exclusively on perceived character issues while Athens burns. Cramer depicts the media as obsessed with chasing the hot story or the daily soundbite at the expense of substance. George Bush was able to get elected by producing quality b-reel and spouting drivel because his team figured out the game. Gary Hart, who comes off as a less sleazy Bill Clinton, was hounded from the race by faux-Puritanical press whose real motive was moving copy. Dukakis, an effective bureaucrat but a lousy politician, was able to coast to the nomination and never forced to get his head out of his ass until Bush started hammering him with Willie Horton. Cramer begins the book asking who would want to be President knowing what they would have to submit themselves to. Since '88 the process has only gotten noticeably worse. With few exceptions, Warren Beatty's prophecy, made after his friend Gary Hart had to bow out of the race after the Donna Rice scandal have come true: "When forced to show all, people become all show." What It Takes shows that there is a healthy portion of egomania that drives someone to office, but there is also, or at least there was a generation ago, healthy portions of decency and commitments to serve. Whether that's always going to be the case, or is the case even now, remains to be seen. * To extend this completely ridiculous analogy of Bowie albums to U.S. presidential elections: '72 =The Man Who Sold the World(probably just because of the song), '76=Hunky Dory, '80=Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, '84=Diamond Dogs (and not just because of the song), '88=Young Americans, '92=Station to Station, '96=Low, '00=Let's Dance. This makes sense to me, but to explain it I would need 5,000 words and hours of spare time. ** Which given the wide cast of characters, around a dozen important campaign officials in each of the six different campaigns, would have been useful. *** Fair warning: What It Takes is much more indebted to Tom Wolfe than Theodore White. The text is full of gonzoisms that can be well-placed or irritating or both. For instance, Cramer uses a variety of techniques, keywords, and phrases to distinguish each of the candidate's perspective (Examples: use of the third person, the preamble Argh, and phonetic Midwestern drawl for Dole; brash, cockiness for Biden; repeated use of the word neat for Gephardt). Cramer also uses a healthy portion of italics and elipsis to simulate stream of consciousness. Generally, this didn't bother me but I found myself sometimes wishing he would tone it down just a little bit. ****About 10 pages of the 30 page epilogue deal with Bush and Dukakis immediately after the election, and involves some reference to the general campaign. ******If George W. Bush was born on third base and thought he hit a triple, H.W. was walked on favorable calls, earned a hard earned steal of second, and reached third on a sacrifice fly. ****** If it was on Youtube I would have linked to the Bob Dole on Real World sketch.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Cora

    "One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you. I learned that on the campaign.” - President Barack Obama, speaking to Michael Lewis in October 2012 What It Takes is widely considered a classic among hardcore political buffs, campaign reporters and political scientists, on the level of Robert Caro's LBJ trilogy. Richard Ben Cramer has the less earth-shaking su "One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you. I learned that on the campaign.” - President Barack Obama, speaking to Michael Lewis in October 2012 What It Takes is widely considered a classic among hardcore political buffs, campaign reporters and political scientists, on the level of Robert Caro's LBJ trilogy. Richard Ben Cramer has the less earth-shaking subject of the 1988 presidential election, and it might seem strange to dedicate 1100+ pages to a relatively unimportant election. (Cramer also largely omits the Jesse Jackson campaign, missing out on what's now considered a necessary precursor to Barack Obama's election.) But that's part of the secret genius of the book; this is a representative sample of a broader trend, and the larger picture of campaign season, in all its all-consuming insanity. A similar book could be written about 1968, or 2008, and the essential basis of the book would remain the same. Cramer profiles six candidates: George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole for the Republicans, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt and Joe Biden for the Democrats. Cramer is a very insightful biographer, and I was impressed at how compelling he was able to make all six. An early pair of chapters recounting the World War II experiences of Bush and Dole, respectively, is a wonderful account of the American class experience during wartime. (Bush was a bomber pilot in the Pacific, and most of his wartime experience was pastries and volleyball games and the occasional terrifying bombing run; Dole was an infantry officer in Italy, meaning that he was basically target practice for German snipers and spent his free time eating cold beans out of a can and trying not to get trenchfoot.) Cramer is also a very readable writer about campaigning, although if you thought his writing was purple I wouldn't argue. (So is Robert Caro, for that matter.) The first chapter of the book is about George Bush going to a baseball game to throw out the first pitch in 1986, which doesn't sound like much of a story. But in Cramer's hands it's both a blisteringly funny portrayal of the bubble (a Vice President doesn't go to a public place without the involvement of dozens of people for thousands of man-hours) and a sharp insight into Bush's personality. Cramer is even better with the big set pieces of the story, from Gary Hart being caught with Donna Rice (leading to a media siege that sounds frankly nightmarish) to the revelation of Kitty Dukakis' pill addiction. What It Takes is about the American obsession with the Presidency, as seen by the people who aspire to the office. Americans, even very well-educated Americans, tend to reduce complex political situations to a very personalized story about the President. The current stalemate and broader institutional failure in Congress gets reduced to, Why won't Obama lead? Surely if he would lead, the votes would be there. Lyndon Johnson is elevated to a cornpone genius famous for 'the Treatment' that dominated all who came near him and through sheer force of will pulled the Great Society from Congress. Of course, no real person is actually like that. So in Cramer's account, a presidential campaign is the art of seeming ever more like that person, by putting your whole life on display while simultaneously retelling it in mythic (and politically convenient) terms. (Think of Obama again, saying "In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.") Even for the healthy egos who run for President, the experience can be very alienating. Here's Dick Gephardt, on going into and out of the bubble: No, they told you to be yourself, but they didn't want you to be like yourself. They wanted you to be like a President! They wanted you to be huge for them. "I'll tell you the weird part--is when you stop. ... I was in Louisiana. Little town ... I don't think they'd had a Presidential candidate since, uh ... Millard Fillmore. "So, I get there, and there's cops and motorcycles, and a limousine the size of Ohio. There's the Mayor, and marching bands ... and they treat me like the King of Spain. "I do my speech, I get back in the limo, get to the airport ... and two hours later, I'm back in O'Hare ... hauling my suitcase off the place ... carry it half a mile ... I gotta wait in line for a lousy hot dog... "All of a sudden, I'm back, I'm a ... a, uh..." He was hunting a word." "I'm a, uh... a shit-bum! Of course, the national press plays a large part in whether somebody looks like a President or not, and Cramer is none too kind to them: cynical but prone to credulous groupthink, obsessed with "character" while reducing candidates to a few simple traits. George H. W. Bush had a WASP's breeding, an near-obsessive capacity for cultivating friends, and played the good soldier for Ronald Reagan to secure the nomination in 1988. The media took this to mean that Bush was a wimp, and was surprised to discover (in the general election, in Panama, in the Gulf War) that Bush was a man who could not lose a competition, who would not stop until his enemy had been defeated. And the only way to win is to give up everything in its pursuit. "In the end, we have only one nonnegotiable demand for a President, the man we hire to watch the world at our backs: that is totality. ... We will not allow anything to be put ahead of it, not friends, family, nor certainly rosy self-regard ... nor ease, restoration of self--forget it!" It's an indication of Cramer's achievement that this seems like a minor tragedy.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Noah

    This book is the opposite of a light read. It's not something you can just have on the nightstand and casually dip in and out of every once in a while. It's a book that you wrestle with and try not to get bucked off. That being said, it's probably one of my favorite books of all time. Even though the book is twenty years old, it feels totally relevant. Cramer does more than anyone else I've ever read to actually make sense of the absurd machine of modern American politics, to diagram how all the This book is the opposite of a light read. It's not something you can just have on the nightstand and casually dip in and out of every once in a while. It's a book that you wrestle with and try not to get bucked off. That being said, it's probably one of my favorite books of all time. Even though the book is twenty years old, it feels totally relevant. Cramer does more than anyone else I've ever read to actually make sense of the absurd machine of modern American politics, to diagram how all the different pieces - the candidates, the money, the media, the handlers, the voters - fit together. You get to understand what kind of bubble candidates and officeholders live in, and the conflicting incentives at play. More than anything he does a damn good job of answering the core question of the book, which is, what kind of person has the gall to think they ought to be president? By the end, you feel like you really know all the candidates (also, in a depressing commentary on career politicians, a surprising number of them are still on the scene, including current VP Joe Biden). The best part is that Cramer only shows, never tells, but he still manages to get everything across. In the end, this book is part farce, part tragedy, and it's hard to which is sadder: what happens to the people who don't win, or what happens to the people who do. I could go on about this book for hours - it really and truly blew me away.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Susan Bigelow

    This book. This incredible, huge, infuriating, impossible, gorgeous and utterly mind-bending book. I've been reading this book at night now for what has to be months and months. I picked it up because the guy who runs Political Wire recommended it. It's 1400 pages long, or so the Nook tells me, but it's worth it. The story Richard Ben Cramer has to tell is so vast and expansive that it merits the length. This is the story of the 1988 presidential campaign, but it's also much more than that. It's This book. This incredible, huge, infuriating, impossible, gorgeous and utterly mind-bending book. I've been reading this book at night now for what has to be months and months. I picked it up because the guy who runs Political Wire recommended it. It's 1400 pages long, or so the Nook tells me, but it's worth it. The story Richard Ben Cramer has to tell is so vast and expansive that it merits the length. This is the story of the 1988 presidential campaign, but it's also much more than that. It's the backstory of many of the main participants (though, sadly, not Pat Robertson or Jesse Jackson) from Joe Biden to Bob Dole to Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush. The book explores their lives, their campaigns, their formative experiences, and what made them really tick. It's the story of how 1988's campaign was a disaster for them, how it chewed them and their wives and staffers up and spat them out. It's the story of a fickle, sensationalist and distracted national press, and how the press formed the campaign. But mostly it's a very human story of the men who offered themselves up to the great primal beast of American presidential politics, and paid for it. The writing is gorgeous. I've never seen anyone capture American dialect and speech patterns like this. The commentary on the system is laced throughout the book, and it's both cutting and utterly heartbreaking. If you are obsessed with American politics and want to read a great book on politicians and their campaigns, this is the book for you. Recommended without reservation.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Brian Eshleman

    I'm predisposed to a four or five-star interest in presidential elections as a reflection of their times. To have an author dive into the psyches of these candidates and the disruption and resilience of their families with a treat. That far, this book approached five stars. But if the definition of writing in The West Wing was that it holds the reader's attention for as long as the writer has asked for it, this author said his bar too high for himself, or almost anybody else. It was SO long and d I'm predisposed to a four or five-star interest in presidential elections as a reflection of their times. To have an author dive into the psyches of these candidates and the disruption and resilience of their families with a treat. That far, this book approached five stars. But if the definition of writing in The West Wing was that it holds the reader's attention for as long as the writer has asked for it, this author said his bar too high for himself, or almost anybody else. It was SO long and definitely could have benefited from some streamlining. I'll say this admitting that I tend to be wired to read quickly and to want a change in voices and subjects about every three days. That's not this author's fault, but that was my experience.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Coan

    What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer It is rare that I will encounter a book that I have not heard of before and while reading it realise I am reading a masterwork of the genre. Rarer still for a book that seems so focussed and myopic in its scope but that which takes such joy in its topic (this being the 1988 lead up to the US Presidential Elections) and, without trying, prompts easy reflections on one’s current life. As mentioned, the book covers the Presidential candidature run of six people -f What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer It is rare that I will encounter a book that I have not heard of before and while reading it realise I am reading a masterwork of the genre. Rarer still for a book that seems so focussed and myopic in its scope but that which takes such joy in its topic (this being the 1988 lead up to the US Presidential Elections) and, without trying, prompts easy reflections on one’s current life. As mentioned, the book covers the Presidential candidature run of six people -for the Democrats: Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt and Joe Biden. For the Republicans: Bob Dole (a personal favourite to read about for his amazing energy, will and down to earth attitude) and George Bush. The book is six biographies in one, told from boyhood to just after the election with key moments of their lives told and how it shaped them for public office. Ben Cramer’s book is meticulously researched to an intense level of detail. It would be worth a short book in itself or a documentary on how he managed such access and ability to capture the lives, emotions and motivations of major political players in the US system. So intense are the specifics, you almost forget that some parts must be filling or at least slightly inaccurate due to their being just reflections of people there at the time. It really is amazing. From the language, to the highs and lows of the wins and defeats you will feel your own emotions move as you become invested in these people (and sometimes the staffers who make ongoing appearances). Sometimes sections stick out like: “It was the moment when the guys in suits stop telling the candidate the truth.” Or “ So, in the NBC debate, Gephardt takes out a .357 Magnum, and blows Bambi’s head off.” There are some great moments. The names and lingo are all here: wise guys, smart guys, button guys, guys in the know, advance teams, big foots, diddybops etc. From the hyper masculine advisors of Gephardt often referred to just as ‘The Killers’ to Bush’s own ‘white men’, it’s a taste of a world you wouldn’t normally see. The curtain is pulled back and it is not only very human in all its mixes of brilliance and ugliness but you realise that sometimes the election machine really is just making it up as it goes along. Not once does Cramer break the fourth wall by speaking in the first person until the epilogue. At that point he starts to give some personal views of what he sees when speaking to the candidates or observing the then-President on the toll their run has taken (both financial, physical and psychological). It’s quite clever in this change of point of view right at the end -like a victory lap to observe the course just run which of course, it is. The book is split into three parts but essentially is just one large piece. It is over 1000 pages (the Iowa Primary only takes place in the mid 800’s). To be honest, the very worst chapter is the first. In this chapter you follow the (then) Vice President Bush on his visit to a baseball game. With no idea of how the stories in this book are told I found it confusing and almost put me off completely. But it is so worth it to continue. Cramer’s prose is easy to read (as a journalist he had a real talent with writing) and he shapes the book and its tempo well. Some chapters are very short for extra impact -one involving the attempted reconciliation of Michael Dukakis and his former Chief of Staff/Campaign Manager is just one page long but only needs to be that way for its point and impact to be made. The book is a real gem. If you love political science, modern US history, US politics or just a politics junkie in general, you will want to read this book. I honestly think anyone who takes an interest in politics from an educational point of view should read this. The memories and stories from it are going to stick with me for my entire life. For this, I will be very glad. 5/5 stars.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Is there such a thing as being too definitive? The late Richard Ben Cramer's titanic deep dive into the 1987-88 presidential primary season is rightly regarded as the last word on the crazy-making rigors of electoral politics in this country. Hard to argue: books like Game Change, and similar attempts to go behind the scenes with the insiders, are but superficial imitators to the throne in comparison. The level of commitment from Cramer is awe-inspiring, likely rivaled only by Robert A. Caro's mul Is there such a thing as being too definitive? The late Richard Ben Cramer's titanic deep dive into the 1987-88 presidential primary season is rightly regarded as the last word on the crazy-making rigors of electoral politics in this country. Hard to argue: books like Game Change, and similar attempts to go behind the scenes with the insiders, are but superficial imitators to the throne in comparison. The level of commitment from Cramer is awe-inspiring, likely rivaled only by Robert A. Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in the category of total immersion. But at least Caro has been writing for nearly 40 years about one man; Cramer somehow managed to follow six different campaigns around in real time over a two-year stretch, apparently leaving no stone unturned and unpacking each candidate's life story in indelible detail (at great cost to his own health, it turns out). The depth of reportage isn't the only thing that distinguishes What It Takes. Cramer, a disciple of the New Journalism school of writing, gets so deep inside the heads of his six candidates and their families and their handlers that the narrative voice goes somewhere beyond omniscience. You can actually hear these people speaking (you'll never listen to a clip of Bob Dole the same way again). If you, like me, are under 40, you may have a hard time recalling much about Dick Gephardt or Dole (not counting his weird turn as a Viagra pitch-man), but George Bush and Joe Biden are very much still with us, and Cramer absolutely nails them. The only way he could have done this is by spending hundreds upon hundreds of hours alongside them, listening and listening hard. Nor does Cramer even feign objectivity. He clearly loves his characters and eschews the kneejerk, smart-ass cynicism that characterizes most political books post-Watergate (Cramer reportedly spent a lot of time chewing the fat with George Bush's eldest son, the future president himself). In an age when most presidential campaigns are treated like game shows more than a serious vetting of potentially important people, Cramer's reverent treatment of his subjects feels almost revolutionary. What cynicism there is gets leveled at his fellow journalists (the diddybops), who clearly don't have the dedication he has to really understand these Men Who Would Be President, preferring instead the drive-by, salacious exposes of the kind that ended Hart's campaign. For the most part, I greatly enjoyed my week-long experience reading this book. Once you get acclimated to Cramer's amphetaminic writing style, filled with ellipses and colloquialisms and whatever else he could throw into the hopper, it becomes compulsively readable. That he was able to make Michael Dukakis seem like the most compelling person in the world for a while is reason enough to exalt him. Ultimately, what holds What It Takes back are the candidates themselves. Perhaps the head-down, drama-free governance of Gephardt and Dukakis are admirable qualities in a president, but as fodder for a thousand-page, small-font book, well, there are only so many layers to uncover. By the time I headed for the final quarter of the book, right when things should have been at their most dramatic, I was really starting to get fatigued by the whole project. I get it: Mike Dukakis thinks he's above down-and-dirty politics. George Bush will never say anything to hurt the president. I don't need 150 more pages on this. Plus, the two most fascinating men of the six, Joe Biden and Gary Hart, are forced to end their campaigns earlier than expected, and you better believe their loss in the overall narrative is felt over the last 300 pages. Even Cramer, with all his razzle-dazzle prose, can't bring up the energy level to compensate. And the MOST fascinating man in the entire race, Jesse Jackson, isn't covered at all. Then, after 950 pages of exhaustive primary-campaign play-by-play, the general election gets only a chapter, touching only briefly on the things that people actually remember about the otherwise bland 1988 election cycle: Willie Horton, "Read my lips," Dukakis' wonky strikeout on the capital punishment question. And there's no mention at all of Lloyd Bentsen's extraordinary takedown of Dan Quayle, nor any mention of the Tank. Oh Lord, THE TANK.* But what this book does well it does better than just about anything else you'll ever read about what running for national office actually entails, the real cost it exacts on these all-to0-human people. Small wonder that a new generation of political writers now take it as a point of departure, bestowing on it the lofty reputation it didn't get when it came out in 1992. *No doubt Cramer would say that the point of the book wasn't to get into the nitty-gritty of a political campaign, it was about the PEOPLE, and that's why you have to wait 800 pages before a single vote is even cast, but even still, I wasn't prepared for how quickly Cramer dispensed with the Bush-Dukakis campaign. Or else he was as bored with it as everyone else.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Cullen

    3.5 stars I picked this up because it is supposed to be a must-read for political junkies. Aaron Sorkin required that cast members read it during the production of The West Wing. It is very readable and effective in humanizing the six chosen characters of the 1988 election, so from that standpoint the book was a great success. However, many reviews describe this book as "exhaustive", and at nearly 1100 pages it certainly should be. I found it frustratingly sketchy on many details. The first votes 3.5 stars I picked this up because it is supposed to be a must-read for political junkies. Aaron Sorkin required that cast members read it during the production of The West Wing. It is very readable and effective in humanizing the six chosen characters of the 1988 election, so from that standpoint the book was a great success. However, many reviews describe this book as "exhaustive", and at nearly 1100 pages it certainly should be. I found it frustratingly sketchy on many details. The first votes of the primary season are not cast until page 900, and there is virtually no coverage of the post-convention general election. The '88 election had many moments that are now famous: * Dukakis riding in the tank (never mentioned) * "Read my lips, no new taxes" (one sentence) * "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" (never mentioned) * Quayle and Bentsen are nowhere to be found * The Willie Horton ad (two paragraphs) In a book that devotes multiple chapters to Kitty Dukakis' diet pill habit, and at least 20 pages on the political career of George Bush's father, I was really looking forward to those moments being explored in detail. By the time it became clear that it was never going to happen I became pretty frustrated.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    This is one of the two best books ever writen about the US presidential campaign, and the finest book on politicians ever made. Don't confuse that thin gruel produced by pundits & reporters today with what's possible; this book shows how inane that self-important snot Mark Halperin is, how thuddingly dull Chuck Todd's analysis can be, how cartoonish Chris Matthews' color commentary comes off. This is an amazingly FUN and smart read. And on sale today for you Amazon ereaders.... This is one of the two best books ever writen about the US presidential campaign, and the finest book on politicians ever made. Don't confuse that thin gruel produced by pundits & reporters today with what's possible; this book shows how inane that self-important snot Mark Halperin is, how thuddingly dull Chuck Todd's analysis can be, how cartoonish Chris Matthews' color commentary comes off. This is an amazingly FUN and smart read. And on sale today for you Amazon ereaders....

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    At some point in the past couple of months, I developed a troubling fixation on the question: which state do I think about the least? Another slightly more unsettling way of asking this: which state, if it suddenly ceased to exist, would I be least likely to even notice was gone? I’ve gotten a variety of answers to this question, from Wyoming to Iowa to Delaware (this from a New Jersey native) to West Virginia to Nebraska to either of the Dakotas, but none of these answers seem to be exactly rig At some point in the past couple of months, I developed a troubling fixation on the question: which state do I think about the least? Another slightly more unsettling way of asking this: which state, if it suddenly ceased to exist, would I be least likely to even notice was gone? I’ve gotten a variety of answers to this question, from Wyoming to Iowa to Delaware (this from a New Jersey native) to West Virginia to Nebraska to either of the Dakotas, but none of these answers seem to be exactly right. Wyoming is the default response, which is itself distinctive- I mean that it stands out for its desolation, for being the least populous state, and is therefore occasionally thought of; Iowa has only four letters, which is pretty indistinctive, but it's also the first state in the presidential primaries; Delaware, it’s true, I almost never think about, but not only have I been there but it borders my home state, for Christ’s sake; West Virginia is the first state I think of now whenever anyone mentions “Trump Country”, coal mining, pervasive despair or true crime; Nebraska has the song "Omaha" by Counting Crows and the short story "Children of the Corn" by Stephen King; North Dakota’s capital is called Bismarck, which makes it seem German, which is distinctive; South Dakota has the Badlands and Rushmore… It’s unsettling not to be able to come up with the answer to this question, the thought that there is a state I'm not thinking of (which would make a great deal of sense, if it's truly the state I never think of) torments me, but maybe it was the need for some kind of resolution that caused me to pick up this 1,072-page book about the US presidential election of the past 60 years that, I’m fairly confident, justifiably or not, I think about the least. That and the half-formed conviction that if you’re going to write 1,072 pages about GHWB and Dukakis, just as if you were going to write 1,072 pages about Delaware, it's got to be good. Right? I don’t know…I just don’t know.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kelley

    It took me almost as long to read this massive book than the actual presidential election cycle of 1988. When I first saw it, I was drawn back to this time, my own first real presidential election as an an adult where I worked on my first campaign as a local volunteer. I thought it would be fun to learn of the behind the scenes happenings to augment my own experiences and memories of that time. Honestly, I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I started reading before the last preside It took me almost as long to read this massive book than the actual presidential election cycle of 1988. When I first saw it, I was drawn back to this time, my own first real presidential election as an an adult where I worked on my first campaign as a local volunteer. I thought it would be fun to learn of the behind the scenes happenings to augment my own experiences and memories of that time. Honestly, I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I started reading before the last presidential election but had to stop for a while because it was all too raw after that election. I resumed though and plowed through it very, very slowly. The book centers around Dole and George H. W. Bush on the Republican side, and Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart, and Joe Biden on the Democrats side. That right there is the first problem. There were many other major candidates who he mentions only in passing: Jesse Jackson, and Paul Simon to name a few. Cramer clearly interviewed a lot of people for this gigantic account, but there is another problem. He has so much material, which made me wonder where his editor was. This book had so much superfluous material that it could have been much smaller and flowed much better with the help of a good editor. The other problem was that Cramer, I suspect, had writer's ADHD. He bopped around ceaselessly from one story to another, going backward and forward in time, relating a campaign cast of thousands (but be prepared to forget who was who because there were so many as he flipped from candidate to candidate). You get the idea. It actually seemed to me, that toward the end, Cramer knew he still had so long to go to finish, he just decided to rush through the elections and be done. Yet curiously, what should be major moments were mere after-thoughts. It was almost as if the elections themselves were minor events. He spent virtually no time on how either Bush and Dukakis ended up choosing their VP partners. Quayle was mentioned maybe in 2 sentences (in a 1000+ page book). Bentson got more coverage -- maybe a paragraph. Where I do applaud Cramer's work is that he really did a great job showing us who Bush, Dole, Dukakis, and Biden are as people, strengths and flaws and all. With Hart, and Gephardt, he was somewhat less successful in capturing them, especially Hart. I couldn't help but wonder if I would have changed my vote, in hindsight, if I knew then what I know now about those candidates. Cramer gives a less than flattering view of with Bush or Dukakis, but Dole really comes alive and seems amazingly normal as a result. Biden seemed very likable, but I still don't connect with him as a person much because of this book. If you're a political wonk, like me, then this book is worth exploring. For casual readers, I'm not so sure, as it may disappoint and for the time investment to read it, I'm not sure the payoff warrants it. In my view, Bob Woodward, writes far better political insider accounts than Cramer.

  14. 4 out of 5

    James

    I enjoyed this book, which came in handy given the 1000 pages of dense script. On the surface the book covers the republican and democratic primaries for the 1988 presidential elections, really though the underlying theme is the level of almost delusional self belief and obsessiveness you need to enter and survive the marathon from hell also known as the US presidential elections. Watching them unfold is exhausting enough with the frenzy of reporting on every single day as a multi dimensional ma I enjoyed this book, which came in handy given the 1000 pages of dense script. On the surface the book covers the republican and democratic primaries for the 1988 presidential elections, really though the underlying theme is the level of almost delusional self belief and obsessiveness you need to enter and survive the marathon from hell also known as the US presidential elections. Watching them unfold is exhausting enough with the frenzy of reporting on every single day as a multi dimensional make or break event. In fact reading this book requires a certain level of odd devotion to the arcane. The characters, Gephardt, Dukakis, Biden and Hart for the Democrats and Bush and Dole for the Republicans are devoted to becoming President. What makes this book great is that the author refrains from doing a hatchet job on their characters, in fact he shows that these were all extraordinarily talented individuals who achieved phenomenal things based on either incredible gifts or superhuman endurance. Taking the time allowed me to unmoor the combatants from the lazy labels attached to them: Bush was a wuss, Dole was a beltway hatchet man, Dukakis a loser etc etc. The book blows these labels away and offers a far more sympathetic picture which made me feel oh so much better about the political process. What made me feel oh so worse was the depiction of how the process reduces gifted characters into howling lowest common denominator caricatures. It became clear that of all the prerequisites to becoming president you need to start with a degree of self belief and doggedness that is both a little unhealthy and likely to make you do some really odd things. The worst bit is that along with luck that is kind of where the criteria end. Of all people quoted in the book the best is Warren Beaty who said if you have to show all you end up being all show despite your very best intentions. At the end of this book I had only one complaint, it should have been longer (more cowbell!) it stops after the primary process leaving me with a bit of an anti climax feeling because how could you cover all of the tournament and then miss out on the finals and finally apart from a brief cameo there was no Jesse Jackson. Fundamentally though having read a slab of a book on a topic I had little interest in and conclude that it should have been much much longer is a pretty glowing endorsement.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    I am an election junkie. Every election year, I get passionate about the issues, and read up on the different candidates and fervently espouse my choices. So it was probably a given that I would love this book. However, I suspect many people less passionate about politics may love it as well. WHAT IT TAKES is THE RIGHT STUFF of political tomes, an in-depth look at six candidates--George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt and Joe Biden--and their quest for the Presiden I am an election junkie. Every election year, I get passionate about the issues, and read up on the different candidates and fervently espouse my choices. So it was probably a given that I would love this book. However, I suspect many people less passionate about politics may love it as well. WHAT IT TAKES is THE RIGHT STUFF of political tomes, an in-depth look at six candidates--George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt and Joe Biden--and their quest for the Presidency in the 1988 race. Cramer chronicled their ups and downs, their triumphs and struggles, with wit, detail and compassion. This book pulls no punches and spares no one, least of all the press. You'll laugh when Bush throws out the first baseball at the National League Championship Series, or when Governor Dukakis tries to balance the Massachusetts six hundred million dollar deficit by reusing his predecessor's stationery. You'll get a lump in your throat when Biden loses his wife in an auto accident, or when Bush's daughter dies of leukemia. You'll feel pity when Gephardt realizes he can't win and cries in Jesse Jackson's arms. You'll be amazed at Dukakis's fiscal conservatism and Bob Dole's agitation to make it easier for the poor to get food stamps. You'll steam at Gary Hart's arrogance and stupidity in the Donna Rice scandal. You'll be inspired by Dole's determination to never give up after being seriously injured in WWII...and then disgusted at his second wife for using his campaign to fund her blind trust. Every possible facet of life is covered in the space of two years. I actually came out of this book with a higher regard for some of the candidates than I'd had before, such as Dole, Bush and Biden. On the other hand, I now have a lower regard for Dukakis, not that I ever cared for him much. Also, don't get the idea that I changed my political views. This book helps me realize that even the candidates with whom I differ are real, sympathetic human beings, however. For that alone, I highly recommend it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Michael Huang

    Wow what a detailed narrative of so many people — only if they are interesting people. Presidential candidates are not that interesting after all. You do learn some interesting facts though. Joe Biden if of course known to us as the ex-veep, but did you know he was crucial In blocking an ultra conservative Supreme Court nominee.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Arnold

    By far the most detailed book about presidential campaigns I've ever read, in fact so detailed it's almost exhausting over its thousand-odd pages of tiny, close-set type, What It Takes is an extremely entertaining read that also raises profoundly troubling questions about the whole venture. Out of all the people contesting the 1988 presidential campaign, Cramer selects Democrats Joe Biden, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, and Gary Hart, Republicans George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, and asks some se By far the most detailed book about presidential campaigns I've ever read, in fact so detailed it's almost exhausting over its thousand-odd pages of tiny, close-set type, What It Takes is an extremely entertaining read that also raises profoundly troubling questions about the whole venture. Out of all the people contesting the 1988 presidential campaign, Cramer selects Democrats Joe Biden, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, and Gary Hart, Republicans George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, and asks some serious questions about their ultimate goal. What makes people want to become president? What sort of person takes that idea and commits to it? What does that commitment really mean in terms of how it relates to the rest of your life, the quiet, private, alone parts? What kinds of obstacles are there along the way? What is it really like to be completely surrounded by the press and by other people, and by the public? How often do people crack under the strain and what is that like? All these questions and more get raised and answered, but one can't help but be unsettled by the process, and ask why the public tolerates this kind of spectacle. I'm a politics junkie, which is why I picked up the book in the first place, but while I do care most of all about the nuts-and-bolts policy aspect of politics, I freely admit to also enjoying the horse-race side of things to some degree. It's no coincidence that many people who are heavily into politics are also heavily into sports, because they both offer thrills, ups-and-downs, dramatic upsets, and questionable Narratives that are as much fun to invent as to tear down. Politics is a sport, sometimes a literal blood sport, and that attracts a certain sort of thrill-junkie who gets a kick out of a state changing color on a map or a cell on a spreadsheet of polling data bouncing over the 50% mark. But if politics has a bloodless wonk side and an energizing combat side, there's also a sappy, gauzy, human-interest side that by all logic should be completely irrelevant, yet somehow remains the dominant filter through which most people see the candidates (does it really matter what John McCain does for fun, or if Mitt Romney isn't always the world's greatest pet owner, or which teams are in Barack Obama's March Madness bracket, or how many shots Hillary Clinton can knock back, or who is or isn't wearing enough flag pins?). How many people were inspired about politics by JFK or RFK's biographies, even though LBJ had the real domestic achievements? I usually try to act like those biographical elements of candidates' stories are irrelevant to me, but I respect Cramer for getting me to admit to myself that I care about that stuff as much as anyone else. Like it or not, it's impossible to avoid empathizing with these five guys at one point or another in their lives, even the comparatively more charmed existence of George Bush. While Cramer regrets that he wasn't able to cover Jesse Jackson as well (since that election featured a large number of still-influential people, I also miss the inclusion of Al Gore and Donald Rumsfeld, and even Pat Robertson), the book doesn't seem to suffer for their absence in terms of readability or detail. It turns out that it really does seem to matter, somehow, if Dukakis' brother once tried to commit suicide, or that Biden's family was poor when he growing up and he had to overcome a stutter, or that it took Dole quite a while to recover from his war injury, or that Bush had a magic touch for making friends, or that Hart had an extremely religious upbringing, or that Gephardt acted oddly mature for his years as a child. The differences between a rich kid like Bush, a rich-turned-poor kid like Biden, or a just plain poor kid like Dole are very apparent, and that affects how they go about pursuing their goals. Each seems to involuntarily fall into a sort of archetype like the Front-Runner, the Underdog, the Wild Card, the Insider, and so on, which makes the reader ponder the boundary between the media's forced caricaturing and the true nature of these guys. Do we truly get the candidates we deserve? Cramer obviously did endless interviews to unearth these kinds of personal touches, delivering each anecdote in a chatty, almost New Journalism/gonzo-ish style with plenty of exclamation points. He never simply says "And then candidate X gave a speech...", instead he'll go on for paragraphs about how the speech was constructed, who it was to, what everyone thought about it, etc. That helps to, yes, "humanize" these people, which is welcome since the book spends a fair amount of time on backstory (the results of the election they've all been working towards - and that the reader has been patiently waiting for - is relegated to a brief epilogue). But the ride is enjoyable enough that so much exploration is welcome. If Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography series is all about the nature of power, taking it as a given that LBJ cares about nothing else and will do anything to get it and use it, then Cramer's work is about personality, exploring what forces act on these people from such wildly different walks of life to get them to consider answering the impossibly hubristic question "Could I really become President?" with a "yes", and then try to actually accomplish that goal. A lot of questions come to mind along the way, however. America's presidential system of government is not unique in the world, but it is rare, and our electoral system, with its almost unbearably prolonged campaign "season", is almost without peer. Most parliamentary systems feature fairly quick elections where the campaign season is about a month or two long, and their parties vest power in a leader who isn't even popularly elected but chosen by the party. They seem to do just fine, and while biographical details obviously play a role in those countries' elections also, foreign party leaders typically don't receive anywhere near the amount of scrutiny that American presidential candidates do. Why is that? To put it another way, what does it say about America that a book where five out of six main characters don't manage become President is publishable, salable, and even enjoyable and laudable? To put it yet another way, why am I reading this, and what am I supposed to take away from this lovingly detailed analysis of presidential pageantry? A defender of the current system might say that America is such a large, diverse, and powerful country that it's important that whoever ends up leading it have something special. The lengthy Walk to Canossa that each of the candidates endures is just a series of Feats of Strength, a hazing ritual with meaning. So the endless fundraising they have to do is a proxy for how acceptable they'll be to the financial powers that really run the country; their pandering to voters in lightly populated and not terribly vital states like New Hampshire and Iowa proves they can appeal to the Common Man; their endurance through a year-long marathon under the microscope reveals their resilience; their skill at hiding or explaining away past misdeeds, ethical lapses, and peccadilloes indicates their discipline; and their ability to survive endless rounds of aggravatingly pointless and inconsequential questions from the press showcases their fortitude. At the end, the field having been cleansed of all candidates insufficiently orthodox and nonthreatening to the existing power structure, somebody wins, and America can be assured that the winner had the Right Stuff, whatever that means. The system works! Personally, I would much rather have the parliamentary style of leadership selection, not only because I don't think the presidential system delivers optimal policy results due to the democratic legitimacy problem, or because it just takes way too damn long, but also because our system feeds into what Gene Healy memorably termed The Cult of the Presidency, where people are trained to tune into the world's most expensive reality TV show every four years and then tune out with the assumption that problems will be solved, because the other branches of government don't exist. The quest for the presidency is really a quest to amuse, entertain, and delight the public, and the fascination with personal details that this book is emblematic of is fun, yes, and makes for very entertaining television, but it's also hopelessly superficial and leads to depressing absurdities. That feeling is due in large part to the press' ability to decide who's a serious candidate and who's not, which comes off as by far the worst part of the process. While Cramer is able to present all these candidates as fairly normal, relatable people, their every action becomes magnified and distorted by a completely incompetent, dangerously trivial press corps that jumps on the slightest whiff of "scandal". Maybe this aggressive press interrogation is another essential round of preparation for the high stakes of international diplomacy - maybe it just means or media culture is broken. Most depressingly, maybe the media is just responding to people's innate love of tabloid trash. Regardless of what you think of the media (from this campaign alone, their mishandling of the Biden-Kinnock speech quote, their bloodlust over Hart's relationships, and their stupidity over Dukakis and the tank picture are legendary) and their gatekeeper role, it would be a mistake to look at presidential politics solely through that lens. Beyond the cameras, beyond the fundraising, beyond the backroom deals, and even beyond the structures of partisan politics, there are a bunch of people who want to be President of the United States, and will do just about anything to get there. This book is one of the best looks at what happens to that dream from conception to the often harsh light of reality you can find. I was only 4 years old when this election happened, but since many of its key players are still around in one form or another, it's still a surprisingly relevant guide to who these people who show up on TV every four years are, and how they get there.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Alex Abboud

    A brilliant work about politics, the people who seek high office and what drives them to do it. Built around the 1988 presidential campaign, this works in biographies of many of the contestants - who were all significant figures in their era (Bush, Dole, Dukakis, Hart, Biden, and Gephart). A lengthy, thorough work, and a must read in my opinion for anyone interested in the subject.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Stewart Mitchell

    The fact that I’ve never taken so long to read a book, or that I’ve never felt so mentally exhausted at the end of one, is a testament to how brilliantly Cramer is able to make his audience feel like they’re right there, in the thick of the campaign. It’s a fantastic book about politics that makes me never want to pick up another one.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Neil Pierson

    When I picked up this book, two things happened: (1) I strained my back--it's 1047 pages. (2) I gave myself permission not to finish it--it's 1047 pages of pretty small print!) But no problem--I enjoyed reading every page, and my back... is getting better. This book reminds us that 2016 isn't the first time the national electoral process has failed us. The worst campaign I can remember was 1988--George H.W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis. This was the election that brought us Gary Hart, Donna Rice, and t When I picked up this book, two things happened: (1) I strained my back--it's 1047 pages. (2) I gave myself permission not to finish it--it's 1047 pages of pretty small print!) But no problem--I enjoyed reading every page, and my back... is getting better. This book reminds us that 2016 isn't the first time the national electoral process has failed us. The worst campaign I can remember was 1988--George H.W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis. This was the election that brought us Gary Hart, Donna Rice, and the Monkey Business; Willie Horton; Joe Biden claiming someone else's family history; and breaking-news coverage of which candidate showed the most public affection for his wife. One of the campaign issues was the Pledge of Allegiance, though I don't recall any of the candidates being opposed to it. In short, it was an election where neither candidate had anything of substance to offer but provided months of content-free politics anyway. In the primary season leading up to the election, the author closely followed 4 Democratic and 2 Republican contenders. His purpose was to discover what makes someone willing to undergo months or years of a merciless, grueling, dehumanizing process in order to be elected president. Since these guys were seeking the same goal, I thought they would have a lot of character traits in common. There are a few: Incredible motors (a high octane blend of drive and energy); intelligence and the ability to absorb, retain, and recite massive amounts of information; and great expectations by their parents. But mostly, they're all over the place. The answers to the question, what do you really want? are varied. George Bush: To be considered the most splendid fellow by everyone who met him; to be the individual they would recognize--it would be obvious--as the most qualified to lead them. Robert Dole: To show that he was up to the job, whatever the job was, whatever its requirements; even moreso after his right arm became painful and useless. Michael Dukakis: To earn the esteem and respect of everyone, especially his family, by being steady, reliable, and right about everything. Joe Biden: To toss a marker so far down the field, no one could even see it; then to astonish everyone by landing on it. Gary Hart: For the world to understand and totally commit to his ideas with absolutely no attachment to or interest in him as a person. Dick Gephardt: He wanted... whatever you wanted, no matter who you were; no matter what you wanted. The author's writing style has been compared to Tom Wolfe, and I can see it: Transcriptions of the inner monologues of each candidate, repetition of a point, liberal use of italics for emphasis, fast pace. Richard Ben Cramer is a superb mimic. (How does one mimic oral speech in a book? Read any quote in the book by Bob Dole.) Maybe there's a little Hunter S. Thompson here, too. Cramer wanted to figure out why someone would be willing to run for president. I don't believe he found an answer that satisfied him. (The title of the book hints of a change in direction.) He says he did not set out to write a behind-the-scenes account of a presidential race. But he wrote one of the classics of the genre. If you're a political junkie, this book gets 5.5 stars.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Maggie Cleary

    Synopsis: Cramer follows all of the Democratic and Republican candidates during the 1987 primary. The book doesn't even cover the election post-primary. But it does do a deep dive into the early years and personal lives of each candidate. This is widely viewed as the best book on campaigns of all time. My first takeaway: I'm partisan BUT it BLOWS MY MIND that one of the main subjects of this book--Joe Biden--who was not exceptionally young in 1987--is AGAIN running for President!! What!! I learn Synopsis: Cramer follows all of the Democratic and Republican candidates during the 1987 primary. The book doesn't even cover the election post-primary. But it does do a deep dive into the early years and personal lives of each candidate. This is widely viewed as the best book on campaigns of all time. My first takeaway: I'm partisan BUT it BLOWS MY MIND that one of the main subjects of this book--Joe Biden--who was not exceptionally young in 1987--is AGAIN running for President!! What!! I learned a lot about Biden and his backstory, but the fact that he's still the party's pick in 2020 is just shocking. It's been over 30 years since his first Presidential run! My GOD. There are also almost no women featured who aren't spouses. A very select few get a shout out. But clearly 1987 was a man-heavy year in politics (as is 2020). One of my favorite books is "All the Truth is Out," also about the 1987 primary, but focused exclusively on the Gary Hart / Donna Rice scandal. Cramer covers the story well, but not nearly as articulately as Matt Bai. I'm glad I got Cramer's perspective, but I would still encourage everyone to start with All the Truth is Out. Cramer does the ultimate showing and not telling. I can only imagine what a beast this was to write--including the research, which I assume involved a lot of digging around in the candidate's closets. You've got to read this if you want at all to be in the conversation about candidates, politics, and books about the two. It was a 54 hour audiobook that took me exactly 2 months to slog through. It's worth it, but get ready to dedicate months of your life to Cramer's Bible.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Shaffer

    IT TAKES LONGER TO READ THIS BOOK THAN THE ENTIRE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN TOOK IN 1988

  23. 5 out of 5

    Colin

    This book sustained my interest and really humanized the candidates. It follows a presidential election I lived through in high school, so my personal memories fell into some of the events. It does leave the reader wondering what kind of idealism is required to live the life of a candidate - and who has that much idealism that can withstand the cynical press and the petty judgements of the mob?

  24. 4 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    For the foreseeable future, this book will remain the best depiction of the brutal process of becoming the President of the United States. Its author, Richard Ben Cramer, not only tries to convey the sheer insanity of the struggle, with all its intricate details and turns, he also tries to convey two profound and contradictory truths about it. One is the real and raw humanity of the candidates, people otherwise so swaddled in press and handlers and polls that they can seem like distant automaton For the foreseeable future, this book will remain the best depiction of the brutal process of becoming the President of the United States. Its author, Richard Ben Cramer, not only tries to convey the sheer insanity of the struggle, with all its intricate details and turns, he also tries to convey two profound and contradictory truths about it. One is the real and raw humanity of the candidates, people otherwise so swaddled in press and handlers and polls that they can seem like distant automatons to most Americans. The second is that running for President does dehumanize and rip apart those who embark on it, in a process that can only be described as heartbreaking. The six candidates Cramer focuses on in the 1988 race, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Mike Dukakis, Joe Biden, and Richard Gephardt, are all portrayed with uncommon empathy, since Cramer embedded himself with them and their families for years before the actual election. Even when he draws attention to the ridiculous things they must do, it's from a perspective of love and concern. Bush's failed first pitch at a Houston Astros game, which became an exhibit in the media's case against a wimpy George Bush, is told as a tragedy of over preparation and overprotection (he had to wear a bulletproof vest on the field, along with his blazer, and no chance to practice), for a still athletic man who was once almost a professional ballplayer. Yet Cramer's real aim is not to explain events, but personalities, and he has a wonderful eye for the telling anecdote. The fact that Bob's mother Bina Dole used to wax her garbage cans as part of her manic perfectionism conveys the familial strength it took him to overcome his arm's injury in Italy. The fact the Joe Biden would spend six hours driving his staff around Delaware in the middle of the night to convince them he really could buy and rebuild a new mansion right before running for President gives a glimpse of his fanatic drive to convince others of his dream. The fact that Dukakis took over the intercom of an airport to tell his beloved Kitty to get off the plane because he knew she was smoking and she could already be with him RIGHT NOW, conveys his surprising neediness. Cramer does hammer home, perhaps overly so, the character traits of each candidate. Bush is a inveterate collector of friends; Dole is pure grit; Hart is lost in his own policies and ideas; Dukakis is by-the-book in every case; Biden is lost in dreams of his own future; Gephardt is the classic political compromiser and glad-hander. Cramer shows that none of these supposed waffling politicians can ever escape themselves, even for a moment. Bush can't stop seeing everything through the lens of friendship, Biden can't stop focusing more on the future than on the present, and so on and so on. These people simply are who they are, and, like a Greek tragedy, they can't change themselves, even to win the most important job on Earth. But they do all get caught up in "the bubble," which becomes more suffocating as the campaign rolls on. The prevalence of "Advance men," people who scout the next campaign stop to pick the precise route, the precise persons to talk to, the precise store to enter, the precise item to buy, and the precise thing to say, is astounding. As are the importance of the schedulers, the communications officials, the spokespeople, the speechwriters, the office managers, the fundraisers, and, eventually, for some, the secret service, which surrounds every major candidate in its all-encompassing embrace (but also saves them money on security and scouting). Finally, the press pushes them further into the bubble by hounding the candidates as a mob at every event until they can't even see their destinations or their friends. In the end, these most watched people on Earth also become the most hunted, and are further isolated into themselves. In a way, they become both more themselves and less independent people. And that's Cramer's extended lament. His breezy, gonzo reporting style can sometimes drone on, or grate (what are "diddybops," or "Big Feet" reporters?), but on the whole he gives the reader an amazing glimpse into the costs of a contest like none other on the planet, thank god.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Wesley Roth

    "What it Takes" is the GOLD STANDARD for presidential political reporting. 5 stars. Richard Ben Cramer had unbelievable (by today's standards) access to six presidential candidates for the 1988 election: George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis and Joe Biden. This tome, which clocks in at 1,047 pages took over two years to write! But as all political junkies know, THIS is the book that all other campaign books are measured against. Printed in about 9 point font with "What it Takes" is the GOLD STANDARD for presidential political reporting. 5 stars. Richard Ben Cramer had unbelievable (by today's standards) access to six presidential candidates for the 1988 election: George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis and Joe Biden. This tome, which clocks in at 1,047 pages took over two years to write! But as all political junkies know, THIS is the book that all other campaign books are measured against. Printed in about 9 point font with no pictures, Cramer provides an intimate look at these six campaigns for president, trying to get at the core issues: WHAT makes them KEEP GOING, HOW do they FEEL running, WHY do they think they can LEAD the country of millions of people? Cramer tries to answer this. It was fascinating to read about each candidate and just the insane schedule that awaited each one as they decided to run for POTUS. You come away sympathetic to Dole and Gephardt the most, as Cramer unravels. The media "freak show" that awaited a Hart presidency is clearly articulated. Biden and Dukakis are given fair treatment and Bush in my opinion is not portrayed in the best light at all (along with Reagan). Overall, you can't call yourself a presidential history buff or a true political junkie if you haven't read this book. Bravo to Richard Ben Cramer for writing this book!

  26. 4 out of 5

    C. Scott

    Like running for president, it takes a lot to plow through this massive tome about running for president. I shared some of my fellow reviewers' apprehensions about tackling this 1000+ page epic but found it well worth the effort. The prose is lively, very enjoyable, and sails by at a very brisk pace. Cramer is up front about the biggest piece missing from this book: Jesse Jackson. The absence of both Jackson and Pat Robertson from the narrative are huge gaps in the story of 1988, especially since Like running for president, it takes a lot to plow through this massive tome about running for president. I shared some of my fellow reviewers' apprehensions about tackling this 1000+ page epic but found it well worth the effort. The prose is lively, very enjoyable, and sails by at a very brisk pace. Cramer is up front about the biggest piece missing from this book: Jesse Jackson. The absence of both Jackson and Pat Robertson from the narrative are huge gaps in the story of 1988, especially since these outsiders played such a huge role in the horse race that year. But we have to cut Cramer some slack because when he started the book years ahead of '88 it was impossible to read the tea leaves about which players would end up being be most important - and he did have plenty on the desperate-to-be-liked George Bush and the sanctimonious prig Michael Dukakis. Still, it would have made a rich book much richer if Jackson and Robertson were in with the rest. Aside from that criticism this book is a remarkable exercise in reportage. Cramer weaves an epic saga out of this moment in time exposing both "what it takes" and what it's like to live through a presidential run. I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for the achievement that is this book.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Grace Hoffmann

    I'm going to be reading shorter books for a while. This book is unbelievably long. The guy clearly used every note he took from this campaign. Amy Chosick referenced it in Chasing Hillary several times, and I remember this campaign (first one I voted in), so I was interested. It only covers the primaries!!!!!!!!!!!! Very lengthy and pretty interesting profiles of Dole, Bush, Gephardt, Biden, Dukakis and Gary Hart. Gephardt's economic nationalism is still with us -- via Trump. That's pretty inter I'm going to be reading shorter books for a while. This book is unbelievably long. The guy clearly used every note he took from this campaign. Amy Chosick referenced it in Chasing Hillary several times, and I remember this campaign (first one I voted in), so I was interested. It only covers the primaries!!!!!!!!!!!! Very lengthy and pretty interesting profiles of Dole, Bush, Gephardt, Biden, Dukakis and Gary Hart. Gephardt's economic nationalism is still with us -- via Trump. That's pretty interesting. I do think Cramer shows the candidates as actual humans -- full of vulnerabilities as well as their strengths on the national stage. Definitely shows that political life is not for everyone. I could have done without all the jokey language especially re: Dole and Bush, but I get that it's dated. It's also a testament to a lost time when Biden had to leave the race for plagiarism and Gary Hart for personal issues relating to his marriage. No longer! Definitely a book for political junkies with a lot of time on their hands.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    Well, it's pretty amazing (1,047 pages of amazing, though). It's highly readable and does a fantastic job of depicting the interplay between presidential candidates, the media, and the public. The book covers 2 republican contenders and 4 democrats during the 1988 presidential primary season (from nomination to general is barely covered). Cramer, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, goes into the candidates upbringing and family backgrounds, political histories, claims-to-fame, and personalities Well, it's pretty amazing (1,047 pages of amazing, though). It's highly readable and does a fantastic job of depicting the interplay between presidential candidates, the media, and the public. The book covers 2 republican contenders and 4 democrats during the 1988 presidential primary season (from nomination to general is barely covered). Cramer, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, goes into the candidates upbringing and family backgrounds, political histories, claims-to-fame, and personalities. More than any issues of policy, the book is a survey of personalities, which makes a whole lot of sense when you think about our presidential campaigns. Both sad and exhilarating, entertaining and informative, this book is a fascinating tale of what the US public demands of its chief executive, and what it takes for them to give it. (The book was written in 1992. I imagine we've only gotten more demanding.)

  29. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    A commitment (over 1000 pages!) that is well rewarded. I don't know what Cramer's book has to say about our political era which seems so much more mean and angry than they one he wrote about in 1988, but I do know if you care about American history or American politics you must read this book at some point in your adult life. It's that brilliantly written. (and reported) On a sadder note, Richard died just yesterday. He was a giant in my eyes. A man who change the room just by walking into it. I A commitment (over 1000 pages!) that is well rewarded. I don't know what Cramer's book has to say about our political era which seems so much more mean and angry than they one he wrote about in 1988, but I do know if you care about American history or American politics you must read this book at some point in your adult life. It's that brilliantly written. (and reported) On a sadder note, Richard died just yesterday. He was a giant in my eyes. A man who change the room just by walking into it. I was blessed to have known him and to have learned from him. I will miss him terribly.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Todd

    According to Rob Lowe's Reddit AMA, "West Wing fans should all pick up the book What It takes by Richard Ben Cramer, it was source material we all had to read for the show." So I did. You failed me, Rob. To be fair, Cramer probably wrote a fantastic book, but holy nuts did it need an editor. I hate putting books down without finishing, but I only made it a third of the way through before I gave up. At times it was like slogging through a pool full of warm tar. Interesting, but 1072 pages was way to According to Rob Lowe's Reddit AMA, "West Wing fans should all pick up the book What It takes by Richard Ben Cramer, it was source material we all had to read for the show." So I did. You failed me, Rob. To be fair, Cramer probably wrote a fantastic book, but holy nuts did it need an editor. I hate putting books down without finishing, but I only made it a third of the way through before I gave up. At times it was like slogging through a pool full of warm tar. Interesting, but 1072 pages was way too much.

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