Listen up. It’s not for the squeamish, this business of looking closely at the Bush family definition of “what it takes” to succeed in politics. “You know, the family is ferocious from start to finish,” says my foremost living authority. Richard Ben Cramer is the author of the classic What It Takes about the candidates who did and didn’t have it in 1988: especially Richard Gephardt, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush.
Ben Cramer is a reporter like no other I know. A sponge of nuance and off-hand remarks, he seemed to have the run of the Bush estate in that ’88 campaign, and he put it all in the book, with the bark on. The Bush family model, he recalls, was “Poppy” Bush’s maternal grandfather, George Herbert “Pop” Walker, who gave the H. W. and then the W. to the Presidents Bush. Pop Walker was “as hard a chunk of iron as ever came out of the Midwest,” Ben Cramer reminds me in conversation. “They were a family of strivers,” he says. “The whole image that the Washington press corps came down with about the Bushes–of New England gentility–doesn’t quite fit. The joke in the family was about those genteel New Englanders. The ethic of the family was: ‘we’re not like them.’”
George W. Bush was nicknamed “Junior,” not “Dubya,” in that ’88 campaign, in Richard Ben Cramer’s peerless account. He was the beloved bad boy in the family, nasty with the vice presidential staff, and ever in league with attack dog Lee Atwater among the campaign tacticians. The “Senator Straddle” ad against Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary of 1988 was a tarbrush tipping point for the Bushes. The candidate winced at what he knew was borderline unscrupulousness in the ad, but Roger Ailes & Co. told him it was precisely what was required to undo Bush’s defeat in Iowa and to croak Bob Dole, all of which it did. The “what it takes” question had been answered, once and for all.
Richard Ben Cramer segues to the 2004 campaign: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he chuckles. “George W. will do what it takes, and ‘Senator Straddle’ is an ad that may well show up against Kerry. They’re going to take him to the cleaners if they possibly can.” Expect more Swift Boat ads. “Yes, you’ll see more of this,” Ben Cramer says.
“W is a wonderful guy to sit with,” Ben Cramer observes, “but he’s very decided. He’s not working out his plans. He’s executing them. He is a man of execution. He will order his world to exactly what the plan is, and he doesn’t cavil about executing it.”
Richard Ben Cramer has more than presidential races in his notebook. He caught the roaring fishing genius of Ted Williams in an Esquire profile a decade ago, and wrote a heartbreaking biography of Joe DiMaggio. More to the point, his new book this summer, How Israel Lost: The Four Questions, is a densely reported cri de coeur about the country Ben Cramer thought he understood, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting in 1979. “I went to do the book about Israel and the Palestinians,” he tells me, “because I was reading stories I couldn’t reconcile with the country I knew.” What had happened to Israel, he found, was that the occupation of Arab lands won in the 1967 war had “subsumed the country” over 37 years. “Israel’s preoccupation is the occupation,” he says. “The whole society is organized around it.” It’s a process and a mentality, Ben Cramer feels, that is engulfing American politics as well.
“I think there are a lot of dots to be connected,” Ben Cramer continues eagerly. “Let me tell you a little about W,” he says. “He’s a guy who gets his information face to face. He listens to the people he can sit down with. He listens to people he likes. And the only guy in the entire Middle East conflict that he does like and he does listen to is Sharon.” Ben Cramer does not hold that Sharon talked Bush into the Iraq war–only that the two leaders (who love to banter, Ben Cramer says, like a couple of old farmers about calving and rain on their respective ranches) are both desperately deep in comparable quagmires. We are seeing, Ben Cramer says, that “American troops will do things we never thought we would see them do. Just as in Israel, the occupation has its own momentum and its own ethic, and it’s an ethic that inevitably corrupts the occupiers as well as the occupied.”
Connecting some more dots, back to our US presidential decision. Neither George Bush nor John Kerry, Ben Cramer says, “has distinguished himself for clarity or toughness” on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “They seem to be in a contest as to who can woo the established Jewish organizations with more bloodthirsty rhetoric about Arafat.” Bush’s view is more or less Sharon’s view, going back to 1948. John Kerry has at least a chance to start fresh. Ben Cramer says: “I think that bitter experience will have to teach [Kerry] that he cannot equate being a friend of Israel with being a friend of Sharon. The current politics of Israel is so twisted, the country is unable to act in its own interest. So if you are trying to put the US on a policy of agreeing with Israeli policy, it’s a dead end for the US and for Israel.”
Here, then, in Richard Ben Cramer’s resonant, nicotine-stained delivery that I’ve always found compelling, is the hard judgment that makes our conventional wisemen and politicians quiver. “The president who’s going to get something done,” Ben Cramer concludes, “is probably going to be regarded, at least at first, as some kind of terrible anti-Semite or terrible enemy of the Jewish people and of Israel. He’s going to have to take a lot of heat,” a lot more heat even than Richard Ben Cramer has taken for his new book.
“Chris,” he says, “there’s only one way this story in Palestine can come out. There are two people. There are going to be two countries… It’s not going to work otherwise. It will never finish otherwise. And that’s not good for them. That’s not good for us. And that’s not good for the world as a whole.” Listen here.