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Richard Ben Cramer

cramerThe Best Political Book No One Bought

Before Richard Ben Cramer, the campaign political book genre was dominated by the great Theodore White and his remarkable Making of the President series. That changed after the appearance of Cramer’s monumental door stop of a book on the 1988 presidential campaign.

Now every book about American politics is measured against Cramer’s masterpiece – What it Takes: The Way to the White House. Cramer’s book, a classic piece of “new journalism,” not only provided the inside account of the campaigns of politicians like Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden, Gary Hart, Bob Dole and the eventual nominees, George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, but also offered fascinating, in depth profiles of the candidates. It was a book about character as much as politics and it has become a classic for political junkies and Cramer and his approach have become a role models for a new generation of writers who see politics as less an insiders game and more a study in character and motivation.

[One might argue that the 1988 campaign did a great deal to shape the current presidential campaign environment. Just remember some of the moments: Biden’s plagiarism, the Willie Horton ad, Dukakis is a silly helmet in a tank, Bush 41’s “read my lips” and Lloyd Bentsen’s put down – “you’re no Jack Kennedy” – delivered at Dan Quayle expense.]

Politico has produced a must read profile of Cramer with insights into his book – the book was panned by reviewers when it came out years after the ’88 election and never sold well – that is also a great look into what now passes for political reporting. Most big-time Washington reporters continue to focus their political coverage on the inner workings of the campaign. It’s reporting analogous to covering a baseball game – report on the balls and strikes, throw in a little strategy, compose a clever opening graph and you’re good to go.

Cramer’s book – he claims to have done more than 1,000 interviews – concentrated instead on why these remarkable men came to be where they found themselves in 1988. He was interested in who they were as people and what made them tick. This approach – the motivations of people, their background and the details of their lives – is vastly more enlightening to voters than most of what we get in more standard political reporting.

I suspect that one of the reasons we don’t get more of the kind of reporting Cramer does, in addition to the fact that it is darn hard work, is that candidates generally hate this kind of reporting. As Cramer told Booknotes interviewer Brian Lamb in 1992, most politicians aren’t introspective. They never spend 15 minutes thinking about who they really are and what they really hope to accomplish. Cramer’s book gets to these questions.

The big book of the 2008 campaign was Game Change by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, a book full of gossipy detail and the interesting, but not always insightful, “inside baseball” of politics. Cramer, never one to mince words, is dismissive of Game Change because, as he told Politico, it “almost religiously eschews any understanding of who [the candidates] are.”

Cramer became disillusioned with reporting on politics after the initial tepid response to What it Takes – he still owes his publisher $200,000 from the advance he received – and hasn’t written about politics or candidates since. Instead, Cramer has produced books on baseball, including a book on Ted Williams and a devastating biography of Joe DiMaggio, and is now at work on a book on Alex Rodriquez.

It’s never too early to get ready for the next presidential election – candidates are already planning trips to New Hampshire and Iowa – so, if you haven’t read What it Takes, haunt a used book store and lose yourself in one of the best political books ever written. What it Takes is a classic.

And thanks for checking in here during 2010…a Happy New Year to you and yours.

A Good Movie

kings speechThe King’s Speech

In a year of generally lackluster output from Hollywood, there comes at the end of the year a truly exceptional film from – England.

With inspired performances from Colin Firth as the second prince and future king, George VI, and Geoffrey Rush as his Australian-born speech therapist, The King’s Speech provides a mostly historically accurate period piece look inside the British monarchy in the days leading up to World War II. The would-be king, called Bertie by his hard and cold family, has been a life-long stutterer. The thought of standing at a microphone and proclaiming is mostly unthinkable. Until, that is, having exhausted other avenues of professional help, he turns to a small-time actor turned speech therapist who helps unlock the mystery of the stutter.

The movie really works on several levels. It is a look at England in the run up to the war. The bit roles for three British prime ministers – Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill – are just right.

The film also, in a tight and believable way, provides insight into the still scandalous affair Bertie’s older brother, the eventual King Edward VIII, had with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward, who abdicated in 1936 for the “woman he loved,” is portrayed, as he was, as a selfish, boorish cad with apparent pro-fascist sympathies. Edward’s shocking decision to give up the throne made the not terribly well prepared Bertie the king.

The movie is also about the breakdown of class and social lines in the 1930’s that allowed a outwardly rather stuffy and shy member of the royal family to engage a long-term friendship with one of his subjects, an outgoing and very worldly man.

Maybe the best scene in the movie is when the King and Queen, played with perfection by the superb British actress Helena Bonham Carter, show up at the speech therapist’s flat. Its funny, insightful, clever and played just right.

Should you think nothing good is coming from the big screen these days, take heart – England rules with The King’s Speech. Here’s the trailer. Go see it.

On This Day

FDRFDR’s Arsenal of Democracy Speech

Seventy years ago this evening – December 29, 1940 – Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered one of the most important speeches of his presidency and helped set in motion a vast expansion of presidential power in the realm of foreign affairs.

Fresh from re-election a month earlier to an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt used one of his tremendously effective “fireside chats” via radio to proclaim America “an arsenal of democracy” determined to aid a beleaguered Great Britain that seemed to be on its last legs against Hitler’s powerful army and air force.

Speaking from the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House, Roosevelt said this would not be “a fireside chat on war,” but rather “a talk on national security.” He proceeded to lay out what he saw as the threats to the United States if the British, blockaded and bombed, were forced to capitulate to the Germans. While the speech was widely praised and well accepted, not everyone, to say the least, agreed. [You can hear the full speech, including the fascinating CBS announcer’s introduction here.]

The non-interventionist bloc in Congress remained very strong in 1940 and 1941. Roosevelt was concerned enough about the anti-war sentiment in the country that he made comments near the end of his 1940 campaign against Republican Wendell Willkie that he would have to eat. He famously said “our boys are not going to be sent into a foreign war.”

Montana’s progressive Democratic Sen. Burton K. Wheeler condemned Roosevelt and his advisers as “warmongers” and Wheeler urged the president to utilize his position and leverage to seek a negotiated end to the fighting in Europe. (Idaho’s William E. Borah, a Republican, who had died in January 1940, surely would have agreed with Wheeler and other leading non-interventionist like Ohio’s Robert Taft and California’s Hiram Johnson, both Republicans.)

Roosevelt followed up his “arsenal of democracy” speech with legislation – forever known as Lend-Lease – that gave the president, in Wheeler’s view and it was a credible view, vast new powers – even dictatorial powers – to aid those countries, debt free, that the president deemed vital to America’s national security. By the end of the war in 1945, Lend-Lease had supplied $50 billion (more than $750 billion in today’s dollars) in material to Britain, the Soviet Union, France and China.

There is little debate that the aid was essential to the war effort. No less an authority than Josef Stalin confirmed that when he told FDR that American equipment had allowed the Allies to win the war. There is also little debate around the fact that Lend-Lease, and Roosevelt’s administration of the program, finally and forever shed the American foreign policy cloak of non-intervention or isolationism. With Lend-Lease, the country was committed to full and unrelenting international engagement and the country has seldom looked back since the act was signed into law in March 1941.

Fundamentally, what Montana’s Wheeler and Idaho’s Borah, among others, were objecting to was the inherent expansion of presidential power in the realm of foreign policy. Wheeler repeatedly warned of the rise of “an American dictator” who would run over the top of the Congress in the establishment of foreign policy.

History has recorded that FDR, while not always candid or even completely honest about his intentions, used his vast foreign policy power with restraint and with a deep commitment to democracy. But those who opposed Roosevelt, even if now mostly forgotten, have also been validated by history. The steady expansion of presidential power in the area of foreign policy that, in many ways, began on a December evening 70 years ago continues to this very day.

The United States has spawned no dictator as Sen. Wheeler feared, but we do have a commander in chief whose power to involve the country militarily in every corner of the globe is routinely unchecked and often not even really debated by the Congress. Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy is well recognized for its sweeping impact on domestic policy, but the 32nd president’s legacy in foreign policy is just has profound and it began with a speech on this day seven decades ago.

To Be Thankful

Grand CanyonA Grand Canyon

Looking for something to be thankful for this holiday season?

Lift a glass to the memory of the 26th President of the United States. He saved the Grand Canyon – saved it, I’m convinced, so that I could have the marvelous experience of standing at its rim on a cold, clear Christmas Day knowing that there are some things too perfect to let the heavy hand of man intrude.

Theodore Roosevelt called the Grand Canyon “the most wonderful scenery in the world” and compared it to “ruined temples and palaces of bygone ages.” It is a temple and thank God Roosevelt had the vision and grit to protect it from the zinc and copper miners who were – its hard to believe today – determined to exploit the Canyon in the early days of the 20th Century.

On May 6, 1903, as part of his celebrated “loop tour” that took Teddy to Yellowstone, Yosemite and eventually the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt stood at the south rim and spoke words that still ring with universal truth and his vision. TR’s trip, the longest and most ambitious ever taken to that point in presidential history, is recounted beautifully in Douglas Brinkley’s fine book The Wilderness Warrior.

Reflecting on the majesty of what the locals called “the big ditch,” Roosevelt said simply, “You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. Keep it for your children and your children’s children and all who come after you as one of the great sights for Americans to see.”

When Congress failed to act on his request to protect the Canyon as a National Park, Roosevelt took his own action on January 11, 1908. Now, there’s something to be thankful for.

Merry Christmas

Christmas TreeGhosts of Christmas Past

I was blessed as a kid growing up with a big and diverse extended family. I loved all my aunts and uncles and many cousins were great friends and playmates.

I remember that one uncle, one of my mother’s brothers, always seemed to have the latest gadget or the newest must have thing. When digital cameras were still a distant dream, my uncle had the 1960’s version of instant photography gratification – the Polaroid Land Camera. Make a picture, wait 60 seconds and like magic you had a small, square color picture.

This uncle had an American Motors Rambler, a mostly forgettable automobile that nonetheless was a bit of a novelty when it was introduced. And, apropos to Christmas, uncle had the first aluminum Christmas tree I ever remember seeing.

The shimmery, silver tree came in a big box. You had to assemble it limb-by-limb and once fitted together you could switch on a rotating light with three colored gels that, when positioned just right, constantly changed the tree color from green to red to gold. My mother loved her brother, but was appalled by that tree.

Only one type of tree ever graced my mother’s living room – a real, “live” tree, dripping with tinsel, many, many uniformly sized colored ornaments and tiny little colored lights. Mom was fastidious about most everything. She ironed the dish towels, never, ever left a bed unmade and never went to sleep with a dirty dish in the kitchen sink. Christmas trees in her world were natural, green and, if not just perfect in size and shape, subject to certain engineering modifications. I can still see her cutting off an unneeded lower branch of a big tree and grafting it into a naked spot higher up that just didn’t quite conform to her notion of what a proper tree looked like. She would use black sewing thread to hold the grafted branch in place. Not a chance that this woman would embrace the artificial tree movement.

It’s funny the things you remember from long ago. I certainly remember that cutting edge aluminum tree, but also can see mom standing on tip toes hanging long strands of tinsel, insisting that each piece be absolutely straight. I once offered to help, but was politely and firmly told there was only one way to decorate a Christmas tree and I was welcome to help, if I did it her way. I watched.

While I did not inherit mom’s fascination with Christmas tinsel, I did get her natural tree dominate gene. And like a visit from Marley’s ghost, all these years later, I can see clearly the living room, mom’s tree, my Christmas stocking and my brother’s and the little Christmas figures she would haul out every year.

Memories – those ghosts from years past – are the real joys of Christmas now. No coal for me and no fake tree. Just a lifetime of memories and mother decorating her tree.

Merry Christmas and happy memories.

Net Neutrality

plugsMessing With a Good Thing

I remember years ago interviewing then-Idaho Public Utilities Commissioner Perry Swisher, a smart, opinionated and cantankerous former state legislator and newspaper editor and reporter. Federal Judge Harold Greene had just issued his landmark decision – we are still living with the consequences – that “broke up” Ma Bell. I wanted to know the Commissioner’s view.

Swisher, an old school kind of guy, said of the 1984 break up of AT&T, and I think I can quote it correctly after all these years: “Judge Greene took the only perfect thing in the world and screwed it up.”

Swisher may or may not have been correct about the big break up of the phone company. After all, that decision arguably sparked decades of innovation in how we use telecommunications, but it also vastly complicated for the technically challenged among us the range of options, approaches, gadgets and applications.

Still in all, the change was probably inevitable. The famous Judge Greene, for example, often observed, as the The Washington Post noted upon his death in 2000, “that the telephone industry grew up in the copper wire days when it was a natural monopoly, and that when microwaves made it possible to bypass the wooden pole network, the monopoly could not last.”

I couldn’t help but think about former-PUC Commissioner Swisher and Judge Greene as I’ve read the avalanche of coverage around the Federal Communications Commission decisions on “net neutrality.” I don’t pretend to be an expert, or even a reasonably well-informed observer, of what role the FCC should play in managing access to the web. I do know, like Judge Greene in the early 1980’s, that FCC commissioners can make decisions that fosters innovation, access and nearly unimaginable new applications, or they can “screw up” something that seems to be working pretty well as is.

The FCC’s decision seems to have something for everyone to dislike.

National Journal and PC Magazine have good summaries of what the FCC rules mean. One thing it surely means is that the political, regulatory and economic debate about how to run the Internet is really about to get very heated and very interesting.

My requirements are pretty basic, if the FCC is listening. I want equal access from my desk top or my wireless device and I don’t mind paying reasonable fees for that access, but I don’t want my Internet provider deciding I can’t access some other providers content. Like the Judge Greene decision, as complicated as it once made the simple act of finding a long distance carrier, I want to unleash the marketplace, but I also want a tough cop, sort of like we need on Wall Street, making sure my access is secure.

In other words, I want the best of the capitalist approach with just the appropriate delicate balance of regulation and oversight that protects the user and not just the provider. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask.