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Posted at 9:03 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

Richard Ben Cramer appreciation day

By Ezra Klein

whatittakes.gifI'm horrified to learn that "What It Takes," arguably the single greatest piece of campaign reportage ever published, was met with dismissive reviews and slow sales upon its release, and the cool reception eventually drove its author, Richard Ben Cramer, from politics.

For various reasons, "What It Takes" is a particularly important book to me. But it's also just a truly great book: a joy to read, and a uniquely insightful look into presidential campaigns and campaigning -- the bubble of organization and entourage that descends as candidates become more successful, the relationships between politicians and their advisers, the way luck and fortune are as important or more important than any constituency group. You might not think you want to read a 1,072-page doorstopper on the 1988 election, but believe me: You do. You really do.

More than that, there's a historical injustice to correct. "What It Takes" has apparently never made a bestseller list. It's never had its day in the commercial sun. But it still can: As I write this, "What It Takes" is No. 15 in Amazon's U.S. Politics section, and No. 3,780 on the entire site. There's no reason it can't have a day at No. 1. In fact, it deserves a day at No. 1.

So if you think you might enjoy this book, buy it today. And if you've read the book before, and you already know how good it is, encourage some of your friends to pick it up, or post about it on your blog, or put it on the Twitter, or whatever it is kids do these days.

And just for the record, I don't know Richard Ben Cramer and I have no financial incentive in any of this. I simply believe that though the arc of the publishing industry is long, it bends toward justice.

By Ezra Klein  | January 3, 2011; 9:03 AM ET
Categories:  Books  
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Next: Think about conditions, not candidates


Sterling endorsement, ok I'll read it. If it isn't as insightful as promised, I'll blame you.

Posted by: RisingTideLiftsAllBoats | January 3, 2011 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Unlike the Constitution, this book is less than 100 years old, so it could be understood by Ezra.

Posted by: cummije5 | January 3, 2011 9:50 AM | Report abuse


It also wasn't written to be intentionally ambiguous on the relevant point(s). That probably helps him too.

Posted by: eggnogfool | January 3, 2011 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Amazon is also running a special price on Cramer's great book on Ted Williams:

Posted by: bdballard | January 3, 2011 10:47 AM | Report abuse

--*It's never had its day in the commercial sun. [...] In fact, it deserves a day at No. 1.*--

More evidence of things Klein doesn't understand, in this case: Markets. Imparting moral urgency to the status of inanimate objects is the stuff of immaturity and ignorance.

Posted by: msoja | January 3, 2011 10:54 AM | Report abuse

One more nonfiction classic that you can't get for the Kindle.

Posted by: rt42 | January 3, 2011 11:47 AM | Report abuse

cummije5, in the event that you are relating your honest reading of Ezra's comments re: the Constitution, I will inform you have you are mistaken as to his point. If you are already aware of this, I ask: do you have to work at twisting what other people say into propoganda talking points, does it come naturally, or do you slyly copy from others?

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Everyone: please ignore the ad hominem attacks on Ezra and consider reading this stellar book, really one of the great dissections of what a Presidential campaign is about, how candidates think and why campaigns do what they do. My husband and I read this out loud to each other on a long camping trip a year after it came out, and my view of presidential campaigns has never been the same. It isn't a liberal book, nor a conservative book. It's a history book, albeit in a New Journalism style. (e.g. It's even more readable than The Right Stuff, considering the subject matter doesn't seem like it would be as thrilling...) It's worth reading just for the opening story about G HW Bush throwing out the opening pitch at the Astrodome, and the many weeks of "advance" work that went into it... The collapse of Gary Hart, the rise and fall of now-VP Biden's hopes. Really, an incredible read. We, too, were dismayed that Richard Ben Cramer left political history - his insights are remarkable. So even if you hate Ezra, believe me, that does not mean you can't enjoy this great book.

Posted by: jkeller4 | January 3, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse


How could I be mistaken about Ezra's point when he said exactly this: "The issue with the constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than a hundred years ago."

How is it propaganda to point out that he made an airhead statement? If Sarah Palin had said this would you be defending her?

Posted by: cummije5 | January 3, 2011 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and interpret their statements, even if they're awkwardly worded, in the most reasonable light. Ezra intended, as he explained here, that it's a document whose age and writing style have led to a wide variety of interpretations.

And he quoth: "The initial interpretation was that I'd said the Constitution is too complicated to understand because it was written a long time ago, and then, as the day went on, that I'd said the document itself is nonbinding. I went back and watched the clip -- or at least the part someone clipped and sent me, which is above -- and thought I was clear enough. But when a lot of people misunderstand you at once, the fault is usually yours. So if I was unclear: Yes, the Constitution is binding. No, it’s not clear which interpretation of the Constitution the Supreme Court will declare binding at any given moment. And no, reading the document on the floor of the House will not make the country more like you want it to be, unless your problem with the country is that you thought the Constitution should be read aloud on the floor of the House more frequently. In which case, well, you're in luck!"

So people that continue the "Ezra says old documents can't be understood" meme either A) haven't tried to figure out what he really meant from that very short clip, or B) are purposefully ignoring what he meant because it's funny to post somewhat pithy comments about how his understanding reaches only X number of years into the past. If you're in group A, then that's a small, but all to common mistake made by people, in which case I'm sure you'll thank me for setting you straight and we'll part ways happy as such an amicable resolution. If you're in group B then it's just trolling, and you would be, in that case, rather a foolish person whose thoughts are of little or no consequence.

Either way, Ezra didn't say what you said in your original post.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 3:51 PM | Report abuse


So your point is not to pay attention to what Ezra actually said in his MSNBC interview, only pay attention to his contorted explanation of what he supposedly meant.

Ezra said something stupid in his attempt to bash the new Republican congress. Why does it bother you when people point that out?

Posted by: cummije5 | January 3, 2011 4:18 PM | Report abuse

He said that reading the Constitution aloud is a gimmick. Guess what? It *is* a gimmick. Ezra's point beyond that one sentence was that reading the Constitution aloud doesn't change anything regarding what legislation will be proposed nor what legislation is passed. It's a purely symbolic and political move, and that's fine as far as it goes, but we should be honest about it.

And yes, I understood Ezra to mean that the Constitution is old and written in a style which has led to multiple opposing interpretations, not that old things are impossible to understand. There is a very small window for having misunderstood what he meant because he wasn't as clear as he could have been. Still, it was a brief segement on TV, and once it became clear that people were misunderstanding what he meant, he explained here on the blog. Simply refusing to accept his explanation isn't some kind of gotcha moment, it's just trolling.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I should say, for my second paragraph, that I understood Ezra to mean what I said he meant when I saw the video clip. That is, I didn't think he meant that old things are impossible to understand.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 5:00 PM | Report abuse

I LOVED that book.... read it when it first came out and have re-read at least parts of it over the years (especially as the major players continued to be in the news). Glad you're plugging him & the book and I'd be oh so happy to see him do another... maybe next election?

Posted by: anntoms | January 3, 2011 8:08 PM | Report abuse

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