Readable remembrance of things passed

Russell Baker

July 28, 1992|By Russell Baker

IN HIS 1,047-pager, "What It Takes," Richard Ben Cramer does for American politics what Marcel Proust did for the cookie. After dipping his madeleine in tea, you remember, Proust experienced total recall of French social and cultural history from Charlemagne to Maurice Chevalier. It took him 1.5 million words to get it on paper. Some say more like 2 million.

Mr. Cramer has ambitions to play in Proust's league, but he has handicapped himself by choosing politics for his explorations. Thus, as of this morning, after just five weeks of reading, I was up to Page 635, Chapter 63.

Reaching Page 635 of Proust's masterpiece, "Remembrance of Things Past," took me seven years. Admittedly, I spent three or four of those years struggling through a passage about hawthorns, an experience reminiscent of that passage in "The African Queen" where Humphrey Bogart has to wade out into that reedy swamp and tow the boat by hand.

Still, Mr. Cramer's exploration of the hearts, minds and souls of America's ambition-crazed presidential candidates moves ahead at a pace that feels childishly frantic to anyone who has journeyed on Proust's stately galleon.

To put it more plainly, there are times when the reader absolutely hates this book. This is not just because it keeps referring to Senator Robert Dole as "the Bobster." Not just because it rarely lets Dole speak a line of dialogue without first having him issue Conan-the-Barbarian grunts, like "Aagh" or "Nnggh."

No, not just because of these occasional nutty strainings for a distinctive style, you also hate the thing because it almost always works. I mean: I just cannot stop reading the thing. It consumes weeks of my life, drives me up the wall every time it calls Mr. Dole "the Bobster," yet I can't stop turning pages.

With Proust, weeks might pass with scarcely a page fluttering in hands gone lifeless in Mme. Verdurin's dining room.

With Mr. Cramer the mind sobs for mercy: "All right, Richard Ben Cramer, one more 'Aagghh' out of Bob Dole and your book goes out the window!" but fingers have minds of their own about this book. "Let's just see what's on the next page," they insist, and on they plunge.

What makes it even odder is that it's about a remarkably dull assortment of presidential candidates, the gang who went for the job in 1988: Bush, Dole, Dukakis, Hart, Biden and Gephardt, as of Page 634.

Of course nobody who wants to be president can be truly dull, for as Mr. Cramer's book and the present campaign year make abundantly clear, only a freakish human being could even be tempted to seek the job, and only an authentic freak can possibly win it.

Still, there have been more interesting freaks than the 1988 crop. (Examples: Reagan, Nixon, Johnson, Humphrey, the Kennedys Three.) Mr. Cramer succeeds in making most of his flimsy cast seem fascinating by using the novelist's technique. This way he can write from inside his politicians, creating them as original characters.

Sure the accuracy of such stuff may be doubtful. It is especially dubious when he tells us what Mr. Bush is thinking as he faces death in the Pacific and when he tries to recreate the agony of Mr. Dole's struggle to overcome his shattering war injuries.

Still, plausibility usually prevails, maybe because there is so much exhaustively researched data that the skeptical reader finally yields in admiration for Mr. Cramer's dogged pursuit of a zillion boring facts.

What is finally irresistible, however, is the alarming picture of what goes into the struggle for an increasingly curious and unattractive office. In Mr. Cramer's portrait, what astonishes one who antedates the age of media politics is the immense power demanded by and given to people with no ideas about nor interest in government, but a childlike devotion to election campaigns as games.

Mr. Cramer's candidates are all either overawed or overwhelmed by these campaign engineers, "handlers" as they're called this year.

The media role is almost as terrifying. Press and TV people will not like the bloody portrait Mr. Cramer paints of them.

Though I like to think "the media" unjustly maligned by people who ought to know better, I'm not so sure anymore after reading Mr. Cramer's persuasive tale of bigfeet and frenzy feeders. That's unusual: a book that reopens a closed mind.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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