Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes is a sweeping account of the ‘88 presidential primary. It captures the travails of a presidential campaign along with the ambition, energy and audacity needed to survive one. Though vastly underappreciated when it was published in 1992, What It Takes introduced us to Joe Biden and remains the most comprehensive portrayal of him available. It also provides insights into his personality that will prove relevant to tonight’s debate. Here are the five big ones:
- He’s the consummate salesman: “When Joe Biden gets going on a deal, he’ll talk that deal until it’s shimmering before your eyes in God’s holy light…like the Taj Mahal…Where do I sign?”
- He doesn’t let facts and figures stand in the way of a “good deal”: “Joe did a $200,000 deal for the house. That was more than he had, of course. But Biden never let money stand in the way of a deal. He got in the developer’s face and started talking – fast. Joe can literally talk fast. It’s like the stutter left it all pent up, and when he starts talking deal, he goes at a gallop. But the beautiful thing is the way he talks deal. By the time Joe’s finished talking, it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t have a thousand dollars cash…in fact, that no one would see any cash, for years.”
- He’s gutsy. “There was (to be perfectly blunt, as Joe would say) a breathtaking element of balls. Joe Biden had balls. Lots of times, more balls than sense. This was from the jump – as a little kid. He was little, too, but you didn’t want to fight him – or dare him. There was nothing he wouldn’t do.”
- He has imagination – and sometimes, the ability to turn seemingly far-fetched dreams into reality: “Imagination was the essence of his method, the first and most crucial step: Joe got the picture in his head, like he was already there and he knew how it was going to be…and most important, how he would be. Joe was continually creating himself. This was how he made things happen…Then, once he made that imagination into fact, once he made his move…BANGO – that defined the game. Others could only react. Same in fights, games, politics, real estate, love – imagination.”
- He likes a showdown: the staging, the drama and the conflict: “The pieces were locking into place…he could feel it. He could see the thing – how it had to look, every detail: just a few days before the hearings, he decided that the dais for the committee had to come down. He had the same hearing room they’d used for Iran-contra…but he didn’t want the Senators up on a platform, staring down at the witness – making a martyr, like Ollie North. Hell, no!…They’d have to get the backdrop right. And no staff whispering into Biden’s ear. Keep it clean: Bork and Biden…toe-to-toe.”
The book contains similarly revealing portrayals of George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart and Bob Dole. Ben Smith profiled Richard Ben Cramer in Politico back in 2010. Cramer writes about Biden’s bizarre obsession with buying and selling real estate, tearing up and rebuilding his own homes. Smith notes that before Cramer bought his Maryland farmhouse, he called in “the best real estate guy I know” to take a look – Joe Biden.