Joe Biden was justly praised for a speech he gave on the campaign trail in Iowa recently. He tried to take up the threads of all that had transpired in America in the days before. It was, he said, “a speech that I hope will set a marker for what we should be doing here.” It was a call to let Biden lead “a battle for the soul of this nation.” And it should not have been a surprise, that this former vice president and senator finally could rise to an occasion.
Anyone who read Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes: The Way to The White House” would have known not to count Biden out. The problem is that book is 1,047 pages, was published in 1992 and is about the 1988 race for the presidency – all reasonable strikes against it.
We recently reread it, looking for clues about what we can expect going into the 2020 race. It was a labor of love: “What It Takes” also may be the greatest book ever written about American presidential politics.
It principally follows the fortunes of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, duking it out in the Republican primaries that year, and, on the other side, Biden, Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis. Despite the tapestry of deep profiles, or because of it, nearly all the candidates are easily dispatched.
“A Dukakis campaign,” Cramer writes, “was never about how he saw the world so much as how he (and the voters) saw Michael Dukakis” – and Dukakis, honest to a fault, is despised by insiders for his sanctimony. Gephardt “could not impose himself on his own campaign.” And so on.
Biden, who was in his mid-40s then, is desperate to connect with audiences by relating his experience to theirs. He is an accomplished man, a senator – yet the need to connect is all he has in lieu of a reason he should be president, which, spoiler alert, is one thing it takes. But we shouldn’t be too hard on him. Almost all candidates struggle with this and the news media does not like to pursue it, perhaps fearful of uncovering a void. (Late in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, her senior staffers were still struggling with it; one actually suggested, “Because it’s her turn.”)
“Joe would get a crowd of Democrats,” Cramer writes, “and he’d work until he had almost every one... (about) how he started in the civil rights movement... remember? ... The marches? Remember how that felt? ... Trouble is, Joe didn’t march. He was in high school, playing football.”
But Biden has convinced himself he was there, so great is his need to connect. Something similar plays out in September, 1987, when he is caught plagiarizing an autobiographical speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, whom he credited on other occasions. Biden withdrew from the race in short order but it is too easy to say he was chased out.
At the time, Biden also was chairing the Senate judiciary committee. While he was chasing his presidential dreams, President Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. No one in the Democratic Party thought this was a good idea – Bork was an arch-conservative who believed Roe v. Wade could be undone – but no one knew how to stop it or wanted to be on the hook for letting it happen. So Biden threw himself heart, soul and intellect into doing it and did it cleanly. He rose to the occasion then.
Among the qualities we should seek in a leader is knowing how to duck a fight when you can and how to fight when you cannot. For all of the blemishes seen in a book as thorough as Cramer’s, Biden survives to fight another day. In a further mark of his strength, his ability to adapt, he said of “What It Takes,” when Cramer died, in 2013, “It is a powerful thing to read a book someone has written about you, and to find both the observations and criticisms so sharp and insightful that you learn something new and meaningful about yourself.”