There’s a reason that a certain kind of journalist makes a quadrennial habit of reading “What It Takes,” Richard Ben Cramer’s gonzo classic about the 1988 presidential primary. It’s catnip to prose snobs. It’s a New Journalism masterpiece, freckled with ellipses, popping with sound effects. And it shows, better than perhaps any campaign book in the last half-century, what metabolically and psychologically distinguishes those who seek the presidency from those who consider eight nonspectacular hours at their day jobs triumph enough.
But today, this minute, there’s an even more compelling reason to read it. Cramer followed just six candidates that season, seemingly with full-saturation access. One of them happened to be Joe Biden.
During this pandemic season, when the former vice president only periodically heaves to the surface before sinking away from public view, it is awfully powerful to see him not just on the campaign trail, but also on the campaign trail while still in the prime of his life. There’s now a whole generation that looks at Biden and sees only a ragged lion in winter. To them, Cramer’s portrait will be a revelation, like stumbling on a picture of a young Betty White.
It will also explain who Biden is — and why, 33 years after his first presidential run and 48 years after his debut in national politics, his moment may finally be now.
Much of what we see in the Joe Biden of “What It Takes” is pleasantly familiar — the doggedness, the sloppiness, the charm, the irrepressibility, the occasional gusts of temper. None of this is surprising, unless you believe in big discontinuities in people’s personalities over time. Then, as now, he was an Olympic schmoozer and a screaming engine of chatter. His handlers — Cramer called them “the gurus” — often had no idea what to do with him. “Even his own guys,” he wrote, “talked about him like a wild stallion who’d never felt the bridle.”
But what is no longer evident today, probably because Biden is 77 years old, is that the former vice president was once a furnace of ambition. He was a young man in a hurry who very much saw himself in this way; his self-image seemed to rest on the idea of being the whippersnapper in the room. It’s what emboldened him to run for president at 44, surely, and it’s what gave him the audacity to take on a 63-year-old Senate incumbent, Cale Boggs, when he was just 29.
“Joe could see it,” Cramer wrote, “how Joe would be, how he’d look: young, handsome, smart, self-assured. And the way he’d act, toward Senator Boggs: respectful, friendly, fond, like a grandson … who knew the old man wasn’t quite up to it anymore.”
But here’s the paradox about Biden, the one thing “What It Takes” makes abundantly clear: His youthful energy never came from his ideas or any particularly revolutionary philosophy. Rather, it came from his hustle, his sociability, the way he locked in with people and related to them — “the connect,” as Cramer called it. “You were more likely to hear from Biden what Jill said the other day about teaching … what his mother used to say … or a wonderfully embroidered story about a nun in Scranton … than you were about his five-point education plan,” Cramer wrote.
This personal preference — a preference for the personal — was true in 1972, when Biden was the one who kept his Senate campaign from “sliding into liberal orthodoxy,” though the country was still humming with protests; and it was true when he first ran for president in 1987, when his gurus were leaning on him to assume the mantle of the slain heroes of the 1960s. As Biden had to repeatedly explain: He didn’t really do the ’60s. He was square. “By the time the war movement was at its peak,” he explained to reporters in 1987, “I was married. I was in law school. I wore sport coats. I was not part of that.”
It drove his gurus nuts. They’d hitched their wagon to Biden, knowing he was a natural politician, the kind of man who should and could be president. But he could never articulate, as Cramer wrote, “what he was going to be President for.”
Which may sound familiar. No one looked at Biden this primary season and said, Wow, what an unusual message. Innovation was not part of his appeal.
But that had nothing to do with his age. He was the same way in 1987. “You think this is some kind of [expletive] crusade” Biden screamed at his storied pollster, Pat Caddell. “It’s not. We’ve got to talk to regular Americans.”
So what was Biden sure of in 1987? What was the one bedrock of his conviction?
His decency. His identification with ordinary, bone-weary, underappreciated Americans. His commitment to them, his compassion for them. The connect. “The whole thing would come down to character,” Cramer wrote. “One thing he knew: They would never take him apart on character — his basic honesty — his fabric as a man.”
Years ago, Gary Hart told me that in order to run for president, you have to be “whatever the sane side of messianic is.” I loved this answer, the casual and perfect economy of it. (Hart, too, is profiled in “What It Takes.”)
But in Donald Trump, we got the insane side of messianic, and we’ve had it now for almost four years. When Democrats chose their presidential candidate this spring, they clearly decided they wanted sanity, hold the messiah.
So they chose Biden. The one who didn’t have grand plans for government, but could certainly run one, certainly respect one, certainly improve one. The empath who could identify with the working class and precarious middle class, but wasn’t selling any revolutionary plans to them, at least compared with his colleagues; he just wanted to make the system work better for them. It’s the message he’s been trying to sell his whole political life. It never quite took — not in 1987 (he dropped out before the year of the actual race), and not in 2008. “The connect” may be one of his great strengths. But at the national level, he never quite seemed to manage it.
It was only during the Obama years that Americans truly made the connect with Joe Biden. He suffered a devastating personal tragedy during that time, with the loss of his son, Beau, to cancer, and the country suffered with him; he talked openly and movingly of his grief. He served Barack Obama diligently and faithfully during those eight years, always in good humor, and the public noticed that, too, African-Americans in particular. They sensed Obama’s affection for him — those two clearly had a connect, a bond, something easy and unspoken. So much so that Obama called himself a Biden at Beau’s funeral.
When The Weekly, The New York Times television show, did its episode about who the editorial board was endorsing in the Democratic primary for president, the most riveting scene with Biden happened not in the conference room with my colleagues, but in the elevator, where he met a Black security guard named Jacquelyn. “I love you,” she gushed. “I do. You’re like my favorite.” Biden was delighted. “You got a camera?” He posed for a selfie.
He’d made the connect. With Jacquelyn, and finally with enough voters to win him the Democratic presidential primary.
Writing in these pages four years ago, David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former senior strategist, offered his personal theory of open-seat presidential elections: Voters generally aren’t seeking a replica of the last person to occupy the Oval Office; they’re seeking a remedy.
This year isn’t an open-seat presidential election. But it is an election with an unpopular, insolently demagogic incumbent. What it seems to have given us, in the Democratic nominee, is a remedy, certainly, but also a replica in a few peculiar ways — ones I hadn’t considered until rereading “What It Takes.”
Ever the car salesman’s son, Biden expressed, throughout his first primary, some level of cultural estrangement from the elite, just as Trump does now; he just did it without the hate. He was hellbent on showing voters he wasn’t “a whiz kid from Harvard, come to straighten them out.” (And who won that primary? Michael Dukakis, Harvard Law ’60.) Today, Biden is the first Democratic presidential nominee in 36 years not to have an Ivy League degree.
“He was so sure he knew where the people stood,” Cramer wrote. “They were like him, he was like them.”
Of a piece with this unpretentious instinct, you could argue, is Biden’s unvarnished, corkscrew speaking style. People take it as a sign of his authenticity, just as they do with Trump — and both men have faulty filtration systems, though neither of them drinks. It’s not a secret that Biden is a popcorn maker of gaffes. The difference is intent. For all his klutziness and indiscretions, Biden’s overall message appeals to our better angels and hopes, while Trump’s appeals to our demons and fears.
Which brings us to the remedy part of this discussion. This country clearly requires a restoration, stat. Of democracy, of common decency. Biden has been in government for nearly half a century, and he spent eight years as a loyal, capable vice president in an administration for which many now have nostalgia. Primary voters could have chosen another moderate. But they chose Biden.
He’s like your favorite cover band. He knows all the songs.
That Biden chose Kamala Harris, a biracial woman of Jamaican and Indian descent, as his running mate — this, too, is an obvious remedy after three and three-quarter years of floridly racist policy and rhetoric. And it comes at a moment of profound moral and historical reckoning, and it offers the prospect of picking up where Obama left off. That he speaks kindly about Republicans — also a remedy, after Trump’s three and three quarter years of fomenting division.
But you could argue that the biggest Biden/Trump contrast, the mother of all remedies, is his capacity for compassion, identification — the ability to make the connect, the very thing he’s been peddling from the start. Biden is the empath to Trump’s narcissist-shaped-by-a-sociopath. He would be the remedy for a nation bereft of jobs, of common kindness, of lives snapped away by a global pandemic. People are starving for sympathy right now.
Biden has spent much of his life reckoning with grief, having lost not just his elder son, Beau, but also his first wife and baby girl in a car accident some 48 years ago. He’s famous for giving out his cellphone number to those in mourning, and he nearly blurted it out to Anderson Cooper a few months back, offering to console those who’d lost someone to the coronavirus.
The night his older brother, Freddy, died in the hospital, Trump went to the movies.
When Biden finally did find a message that resonated with him in his first presidential campaign, it wasn’t his. It was that of Neil Kinnock, then the Labor Party leader in Britain. Biden was fond of quoting one of Kinnock’s political ads — with attribution at first. Then he forgot, which became pretty evident when he said his ancestors were coal miners. (They weren’t.)
But that was what was so interesting: The stolen parts of Kinnock’s speech were mainly biographical, not ideological, describing what it felt like to struggle as a working-class guy. They spoke to Biden. They made the connect. “That was his life: he was just a middle-class kid who’d got a little help along the way,” Cramer wrote.
This act of plagiarism — in combination with other discoveries of intellectual theft, some conscious and some not — cost Biden his candidacy. But in Cramer’s view, and in his gurus’ too, these reckless moments weren’t about a failure of imagination or moral recklessness. They were about Biden’s doglike desire to please, about that “death-defying-Evel-Knievel-eighty-miles-an-hour-over-twenty-five-buses leap he would make to get the connect.”
Even if it meant exaggerating, even if it meant stealing other people’s words (they resonated with him!) even if it meant (and this was prescient) putting his hands on an unsuspecting woman’s shoulders in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and keeping them there as he addressed the crowd, because she wouldn’t face him when he spoke. (“The woman looked like she’d swallowed her tongue,” Cramer wrote. Well, yeah. Only in the last year or two was Biden forced to reckon with this behavior, and he vowed to change his ways.)
There’ll be little campaigning on the hustings this season. For a politician who cherishes the connect, social distancing could be politically fatal; but for Biden, it could be a gift. He’ll have fewer chances to get carried away as he speaks, to overhug, to stick his foot in it (and he’s done quite a bit of that already). More important, this arrangement protects him in the pandemic: He’s old, at risk.
In 1987, if he’d remained in the race, Biden might well have died. Roughly five months after he dropped out, he was rushed to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center all the way from Wilmington. He had a brain aneurysm, the first of two. If he’d remained on the stump, Lord knows where he would have been at the time.
A priest gave him his last rites that day. Biden gathered his family around, not to tell them that he loved them, which they already knew. “He wanted them to know what he’d found out fifteen years before: They would go on,” Cramer wrote.
If Biden loses the presidential race, the same will be true: He’ll go on. He’s survived far, far worse. The real question isn’t about him. It’s about us. Can we?
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