Biden’s 50 Days. And 50 Years

FDR had his 100 Days. Joe Biden did it in 50.

More than 113 million Americans have been vaccinated (as of Thursday) for Covid, the vast majority since Biden was inaugurated. A $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was passed over unanimous Republican opposition.

David Brooks of The New York Times and Thomas Mills of PoliticsNC both called Biden a “transformational” President.

Which led me to pull off the shelf a dog-eared book – the best, I say, ever written about politics: “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” by Richard Ben Cramer.

It’s a 1,047-page, exhaustively researched, brilliantly written dissection of the 1988 presidential campaign and six of the candidates: Republicans George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole and Democrats Biden, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt and Gary Hart.

Their names evoke ancient political history. Yet now Biden is President. And the book, though published in 1993, is timely.

Cramer, who died in 2013, was a legendary reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in the Middle East. He also wrote a great biography of Joe DiMaggio.

Richard Ben Cramer

“What It Takes” took prodigious research; Cramer interviewed more than 1,000 people, talking to some of them 50 or 60 times. He bored into the candidates, their families and their campaigns to answer two questions: “Who are these guys? What are they like?”

(I love that the book doesn’t have an index. Cramer knew that Important People in Politics always opened a book first to the index and looked for their names. They couldn’t with his book.)

Of Biden the boy, he wrote, “Joe Biden had balls. Lots of times, more balls than sense.” Like the time a friend bet $5 he wouldn’t run to the top of a lava-hot mountain of culm left over from a coal mine. Joey did it. Or when Joey, who was eight or nine, took another dare that he wouldn’t run under a moving dump truck. Joey was small and quick; he did it.

He was quick with his fists:

“Most guys who got into a fight, they’d square off, there’d be a minute or so of circling around, while they jockeyed for position. Joey didn’t do that. He decided to fight … BANGO – he’d punch the kid in the face.”

Biden stuttered, “a cruel affliction for a kid.” Schoolmates mocked him: “B-b-b-b-b-b-Biden.”

But he had self-confidence. He met his first wife Neilia’s mother when he was at the University of Delaware. She asked what he meant to become:

“’President,’ Joe answered. For a moment, she just stared. Joe added helpfully, ‘Of the United States’.”

Biden’s 1988 campaign for President flopped. He had no clear message and too many big-name consultants arguing with each other. Plagiarism charges forced him out of the race.

Bidens campaigning, 1988

Biden returned to the Senate, where he was Judiciary Committee Chairman. President Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Biden (Syracuse Law ’64) took on Judge Bork (University of Chicago BA and JD; Yale Law professor). Biden called in experts from Chicago, Harvard and Duke Law to school him on constitutional law. Cramer wrote:

“Biden ran a long and serious hearing, the best discussion (and a high enactment) of the Constitution in the TV age….”

He won. He led Bork to say he saw no right to privacy in the Constitution. The Senate turned down his nomination. Biden stopped Reagan’s ideological transformation of the Supreme Court.

Months later, at 1 a.m. in a hotel room in Rochester, NY, after a speech, Biden was hit with a crippling headache that wouldn’t stop. He managed to get on the plane the next morning, then get home to bed. His family made him go to the hospital; doctors found an aneurism on his brain. He was in surgery for nine hours.

When he woke up, he told a friend, “Now I know why the campaign ended like it did.” If he’d been on the campaign trail, he’d have died.

Later he realized what he should’ve run on, Cramer wrote:

“…(T)hat’s what Americans wanted from their government: just a helping hand, to make the fight for a better life for their kids, just a platform to stand on, so they could reach higher….

“He should have just listened to the truth in himself. That was his life: he was just a middle-class kid who’d got a little help along the way…. (T)hat’s what connected him to the great body of voters in the country.”

Even after 50 years in Washington, it still connects him.

“What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” by Richard Ben Cramer

A good article about Cramer and his book: “’What It Takes’: A true political classic”

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