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What It Takes: The Way to the White House

What It Takes: The Way to the White House

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What It Takes: The Way to the White House

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Aug 2, 2011


Before Game Change there was What It Takes, a ride along the 1988 campaign trail and “possibly the best [book] ever written about an American election” (NPR).

Written by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and New York Times–bestselling author Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes is “a perfect-pitch rendering of the emotions, the intensity, the anguish, and the emptiness of what may have been the last normal two-party campaign in American history” (Time).
An up-close, in-depth look at six candidates—George H. W. “Poppy” Bush, Bob Dole, Joe Biden, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, and Gary Hart—this account of the 1988 US presidential campaign explores a unique moment in history, with details on everything from Bush at the Astrodome to Hart’s Donna Rice scandal. Cramer also addresses the question we find ourselves pondering every four years: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that allows them to throw their hat in the ring as a candidate for leadership of the free world?
Exhaustively researched from thousands of hours of interviews, What It Takes creates powerful portraits of these Republican and Democratic contenders, and the consultants, donors, journalists, handlers, and hangers-on who surround them, as they meet, greet, and strategize their way through primary season chasing the nomination, resulting in “a hipped-up amalgam of Teddy White, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer” (Los Angeles Times Book Review).
With timeless insight that helps us understand the current state of the nation, this “ultimate insider’s book on presidential politics” explores what helps these people survive, what makes them prosper, what drives them, and ultimately, what drives our government—human beings, in all their flawed glory (San Francisco Chronicle).
Aug 2, 2011

Sobre el autor

Award-winning journalist and author Richard Ben Cramer (b. 1950) is one of the top writers of literary journalism today. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities, he began his career as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun in 1973 before moving to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he received the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Middle East in 1979. His work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Esquire. He has authored five books, including the bestselling classic What It Takes (1992), and Joe DiMaggio (2000). He lives Maryland.

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What It Takes - Richard Ben Cramer

What It Takes

The Way to the White House

Richard Ben Cramer

For you,

Carolyn White


Author’s Note


1 The Price of Being Poppy

2 The Other Thing

3 Flyin’ Around

4 1944

5 1945

6 To Know

7 1947

8 1948

9 God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen


10 Right from the Start

11 Don’t Tell Michael

12 Stelian

13 1951

14 The Diddybop Bostons

15 1952

16 1953

17 The Night of the Bronco

18 They Expect to Be Cold

19 1954

20 1955

21 Like They Always Did

22 Gary and Oletha

23 Family Values

24 1960

25 The Tinsel and the Tree

26 The Steaming Bouillabaisse

27 1961

28 No Choice, Mike

29 1964

30 1965

31 Saturday Night

32 Bill and Gary and Lynn and Donna

33 Saturday Night II

34 Sunday

35 Monday

36 Tuesday

37 Wednesday


38 Pukin’ in the Basket

39 Excessive Consultitis

40 Leadership!

41 The River of Power

42 Error-Free Ball

43 The Age of Dukakis

44 Their Kinda Guy

45 Shit Happens

46 There’s This Couple in Bed ...

47 A Platform upon Which to Stand

48 Six-Seven-One

49 The Secret Weapon

50 The Badge of the Big Gee

51 A Weanling Woodlouse

52 White Men at Play

53 Into the Death-Star

54 1968

55 1970

56 1972

57 Phyllis

58 1973

59 The Cavalcade of Stars

60 The Big Guy

61 What Sasso Loved

62 Destiny

63 What Perfect Was

64 Where Do They Stop?

65 Just, Why?

66 That Is the Process

67 Biden’s Waterloo?

68 Missss-ter Eagle Scout!

69 Matt

70 Happy to Be Alive

71 1974

72 Betrayed

73 Dr. Dukakis

74 Wilting from the Heat

75 Old Friends

76 Apology Weekend

77 It’s Hard to Smile

78 Jill

79 One of the Great Sins

80 I Am a Man

81 It All Began in Russell!

82 No Future at All

83 A Fight for His Life

84 1975

85 1976

86 Vision Music

87 What Else?

88 Bambi

89 God Is Doing It

90 Roll Up the Net

91 Gorby Juice

92 Like Old Times

93 Serious About the Business

94 Out of the Monkey Suit

95 Who Would Have Thought?

96 1978

97 Sasso

98 A Cornered Marmot

99 Hollywooood!

100 President Dick

101 Time’s Up!

102 Thermonuclear

103 Into the Bubble

104 Ucch, God ... Their Life Was Over

105 Juice

106 We Won the Bronze

107 President Bobster

108 White Men at War

109 Believe Me, Bob

110 Doing Damage

111 Sandbagged

112 What Joe Biden Knew

113 Dangerous Magic

114 Lobster Salad

115 The Plane from Hell

116 Back to the Bible

117 The White Lightning Curve

118 The Alamo

119 Tough Night

120 That Slow-Motion Horror

121 The Secret Plan

122 Jesseee!

123 The Priesthood Is Obeyed

124 1982

125 The Big Enchilada

126 Mercury in Retrograde

127 Science at Kennebunkport

128 Monos Mou

129 I’ll Take Care of This Guy

130 The Mission



Author’s Note

NONE OF MY FRIENDS ever thought he should be President—much less that he could be. Of course, we were all taught that it was possible (in America, God bless her). But our lives separated us from that notion by the time we left our teens. A President—the President—was someone altogether larger, and more extraordinary, than we. Though we might like or revile him, though we could judge him (and even send him packing) by and by ... though a million words were written each day on his policies and politics, though millions of people might listen to his speeches, or watch a TV tour of his house ... though his face and his voice, his wife, kids, and dog would be known to every sentient adult, though his name (or initials) would conjure up a time of our lives—for the rest of our lives ... still, I came of age knowing, somehow, the life of this figure must be something so foreign to mine as to render it, finally, unknowable.

Later, as a citizen and newspaperman, I learned what I could about the candidates and campaigns, and the Presidents they produced. I read a mountain of newspapers along the way, probably did irremediable damage to my eyes and brain, staring at TVs. When the campaigns were over I read books about them. I learned about the polls and ad campaigns, people-meters, direct-mail fund-raising, computer-targeted media buys, and all kinds of arcane wizardry that left unanswered the only questions that I (and, I think, most voters) ever wanted to ask:

Who are these guys?

What are they like?

I still did not know what kind of life would lead a man (in my lifetime, all have been men) to think he ought to be President. I could only guess at the habit of triumph that would make him conclude he could be President.

What in their backgrounds could give them that huge ambition, that kind of motor, that will and discipline, that faith in themselves? What kind of faith would cause, say, a dozen of these habitual winners to bend their lives and the lives of those dear to them to one hugely public roll of the dice in which all but one would fail?

What I wanted, what I could not find, was an account I could understand of how people like us—with dreams and doubts, great talents and ordinary frailties—get to be people like them. I wanted to know not about the campaign, but about the campaigners. Lastly—most important—I wanted to know enough about these people to see ... once they decided to run, and marched (or slid, or flung themselves headlong) into this semi-rational, all-consuming quest ... what happened to those lives, to their wives, to their families, to the lives they shared? What happened to their idea of themselves? What did we do to them, on the way to the White House?

So, in 1986, I set out to write it.

I meant to find a half-dozen candidates in whose lives I would see my answers. I thought to pick half Republicans and half Democrats, but as a reporter (not a political expert, nor certainly a political scientist), I had to let the story pick my subjects. So the finding was a matter of much trial and error. In the end, I chose two Republicans, Vice President George Bush and the Senate’s Republican Leader, Bob Dole; and four Democrats, former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

The final criterion for this choice developed in the course of reporting: I wanted the candidates who made that final turn in the road, who got to the point where they could say, "Not only should I be President ... I am going to be President." At that point, their idea of their own lives would change—had to change. They had to see in themselves a figure of size to bestride a chunk of history. And by the nature of the process, alas, five of the six would then have to come off of that; they would be thrown back on themselves, as they probably never were before, to examine how it was they saw so wrongly. The sixth, God help him, would be thrown back on himself in an even more fundamental way—he would have then to become the President he saw in himself. This is the drama I proposed to follow.

By its nature, then, the project had to exclude some credible and charming candidates, whose lives I dipped into but, ultimately, could not follow. The omission I most regret is Jesse Jackson, whose story is surely as fascinating as that of any man who has campaigned for the White House. Alas, I came to Reverend Jackson late, and I was never able to slow him down long enough to make him understand that help was required. We never got to the level of candor that was essential, and so, in the end, it seemed better not to write about someone I did not know well.

With the others, I have tried to tell their stories in two ways—as fairly as I could from the outside, and as empathetically as I could from behind their eyes. In doing so, I have tried not only to show them, but to show what our politics is like—what it feels like to run for President; what it requires from them; what it builds in them; what it strips, or rips, from them. The book begins with the lives of the two older men, the Republicans, Bush and Dole, and expands in Book II to include the four Democrats. By Book III, the stage is set, the race begins in earnest. The lives come together in one flooding tumble. The Epilogue tries to sketch the lives as they emerged from those rapids, to see what changes were wrought.

I would like to make note here of my reporting techniques. The narratives are based on interviews with more than a thousand people. Every scene in the book has come from firsthand sources, or from published sources that were verified by participants before my writing began. The narratives were re-checked for accuracy after the final words were written. Where dialogue is quoted, the quotes have come from a person involved in the conversation, usually the person making the statement. In most cases, the quotes have been read back word for word to the sources involved, to check them once again for accuracy and fairness. In every case, thoughts attributed to the characters in this book have been checked with them, or with the people to whom they confided those thoughts. Every section of this book has been read back to the candidate, to a family member, or to closest aides—whoever seemed likeliest to know about the events described, and who would give the time. Some family members and aides to these candidates have helped me, literally, fifty or sixty times. They know almost as much about this book as I do, and I will always be indebted to them for the time they gave, for the trust they reposed in me, for their patience with my urgencies, and the kindness with which they treated me.

A project of this size must progress with many hands on its back, and there are some who deserve more thanks than I can ever give. No author can have had better support from a publisher than I have had from Random House, especially from my editor, David Rosenthal, whose strength and intelligence helped propel this project from the first; and I have benefited from the counsel of his colleagues, Peter Osnos, Jason Epstein, Joe Fox, and boss of all, Harry Evans. So outrageously long has this project run, that I have also these chiefs to thank for support that was crucial in each case: Joni Evans assisted in shaping the labor to a book, and Howard Kaminsky gave the project its start. I also want to thank Julie Grau, Jennifer Ash, and Rebecca Beuchler for their help and good cheer; Ed Cohen and Amy Edelman for their careful treatment of the manuscript; Martha Levin, Dona Chernoff, Wanda Chappell, Mitchell Ivers, and Eve Adams for their counsel and their efforts to turn the great wheel of the mill.

In three years of reporting, there were dozens of institutions, more than a thousand individuals, who helped with information, advice, access, and interviews, and though I do not name them here (probably to their vast relief) I remember their help with gratitude and fondness. I do want to thank by name the members of one special subset of friends and family who lent their effort or advice, time, money, food, phones, guest bedrooms or living room couches in an effort to help the author keep body and soul together. My thanks, then, to Joe Bargmann, A. Robert and Blossom Cramer, Lina Cramer, Sara Crichton, Marguerite Del Giudice, Reid Detchon, Richard Dunning, Bill Eddins, Judy and Earl Fendelman, Neil Fitelson, Steve Friedman, Ken Fuson, Gerri Hirshey, Professor Christopher Janney, Elizabeth Kaplan, Sophie Lackritz, Terrell Lamb, Jeff Leen, Sarah Leen, Simon Li, Nancy McKeon, Patricia McLaughlin, Gloria Mansfield, David Maraniss, Bill Marr, Guy Martin, Joanie Miller, Jim Naughton, Michael Pakenham, Bob Peck, Chuck Powers, Gene Roberts, Mike and Jennie Roman, John Ryan, Stu Seidel, Steve and Sheila Seplow, Steven Tarshis, and Doran Twer.

Al Silverman, Robert Riger, and especially Brigitte Weeks supported this book in its formative stage, and I thank them for their interest and their faith.

Esquire did me aid and honor by purchasing three excerpts of this book to run in the magazine. I am grateful for years of support from my friend and editor there, David Hirshey; from the departed boss of bosses, Lee Eisenberg; and especially from the editor in chief, Terry McDonell.

Philippa Brophy, my agent, has been a friend to this book and to me in more ways, more ably, more constantly, and more avidly than I could ever have hoped. I have relied on, and I thank her for, her faith, good humor, and wisdom.

Mark Zwonitzer, my researcher, who stuck with this project for more than five years, was the best help and the best companion I could have had. Without him, this book would have been a poor porridge. Without him, a thousand times, its author would have been in the soup. This project had many hands on its back, but Mark’s were the strong ones bearing the weight from below.

Finally, I thank the woman who bore with me, through all. Carolyn White was my partner in this book’s first dreaming, my guide and my spur through all its doing. For her every line was written. And to her this book is dedicated.


Cambridge, Maryland

March 5, 1992



The Price of Being Poppy

THIS IS ABOUT as good as it gets, as close as American politics offers to a mortal lock. On this night, October 8, 1986, the Vice President is coming to the Astrodome, to Game One of the National League Championship Series, and the nation will be watching from its La-Z-Boys as George Bush stands front and center, glistening with America’s holy water: play-off juice. Oh, and here’s the beauty part: he doesn’t have to say a thing! He’s just got to throw out the first ball. He’ll be hosted by the Astros’ owner, Dr. John McMullen; he’ll be honored by the National League and the Great Old Game; he’ll be cheered by 44,131 fans—and it’s not even a risky crowd, the kind that might get testy because oil isn’t worth a damn, Houston’s economy is down the crapper, and no one’s buying aluminum siding (they’d move, if they could sell their houses). No, those guys can’t get tickets tonight. This is a play-off crowd, a corporate-perks crowd, the kind of fellows who were transferred in a few years ago from Stamford-Conn., you know, for that new marketing thing (and were, frankly, delighted by the price of housing), a solid GOP crowd, tax-conscious, white and polite—they’re wearing sport coats, and golf shirts with emblems—vice presidents all, but anyway, they’re just backdrop.

Tonight, George Bush will shine for the nation as a whole—ABC, coast to coast, and it’s perfect: the Astros against the Mets, Scott v. Gooden, the K kings, the best against the best, the showdown America’s been waiting for, and to cut the ribbon, to Let the Games Begin ... George Bush. Spectacular! Reagan’s guys couldn’t have done better. It’s Houston, Bush’s hometown. They love him. Guaranteed standing O. Meanwhile, ABC will have to mention he was captain of the Yale team, the College World Series—maybe show the picture of him meeting Babe Ruth. You couldn’t buy better airtime. Just wave to the crowd, throw the ball. A no-brainer. There he’ll be, his trim form bisecting every TV screen in the blessed Western Hemisphere, for a few telegenic moments, the brightest star in this grand tableau: the red carpet on the Astroturf; the electronic light-board shooting patterns of stars and smoke from a bull’s nose, like it does when an Astro hits a home run; the Diamond Vision in riveting close-up, his image to the tenth power for the fans in the cheap seats; and then the languorous walk to the mound, the wave to the grandstand, the cheers of the throng, the windup ... that gorgeous one-minute nexus with the national anthem, the national pastime, the national past, and better still ... with the honest manly combat of the diamond, a thousand freeze-frames, a million words worth, of George Bush at play in the world of spikes and dirt, all scalded into the beery brainpans of fifty million prime-time fans ... mostly men. God knows, he needs help with men.

So George Bush is coming to the Astrodome.

Disaster in the making.

The thing is, it couldn’t just happen. George Bush couldn’t just fly in, catch a cab to the ballpark, get his ticket torn, and grab a beer on the way to his seat. No, he’d come too far for that.

Weeks before the trip, the Director of Advance in the Office of the Vice President (OVP) had to tell the White House Military Office (WHMO) to lay on a plane, Air Force Two, and the backup Air Force Two. That meant coordination with the squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, for a Special Air Mission (SAM). Luckily, the trip was to Houston, where Bush went all the time, so the Air Force didn’t have to fly in his cars. The Secret Service kept a Vice Presidential limousine, a black, armored, stretch Cadillac, with a discreet seal on the door, parked and secured twenty-four hours a day in the basement of the Houston Civic Center. They wouldn’t even fly in a backup limo, they’d just use a regular sedan.

Of course, the Vice President would stay where he always did, the Houstonian Hotel (which he listed as his voting residence), and that would save effort, too. The White House Communications Agency (WHCA, pronounced Wocka by the cognoscenti) already had the Houstonian wired for secure phones, direct to the White House on land lines, so satellites couldn’t listen in. Still, the Astrodome would have to be wired, so that meant an Air Force transport plane to fly in the new communications gear and extra Secret Service matériel. That, in turn, required an alert for the CVAM at the Pentagon, the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff in charge of Special Air Missions, who would task the Military Airlift Command (MAC) with this Vice Presidential support mission, or in Pentagon parlance, a Volant Silver. (Presidential missions are Volant Banner.)

Meanwhile, in Houston, the local office of the Secret Service started looking over the Astrodome, picking out the holding rooms, secure hallways, choke points, command posts, and pathways for the Vice President. This information was bumped up the ladder to the Secret Service VPPD, the Vice Presidential Protective Detail in Washington, which in ten days would have its own Advance team on scene. When that team arrived, the Lead Advance man would convene his own staff of three Site Advance and a Press Advance, along with the four Secret Service Advance, the chief of the local office of the Secret Service, two Wocka Advance men and the captain of the Houston Police Department’s Dignitary Protection Division, to sit down for a meeting with the host of the affair, the Astros’ owner, Dr. John McMullen. The critical question: What kind of event did McMullen want the Vice President for? Sure, it’s the first-ball thing, but where would he make the throw?

McMullen said, Well, there’s a pitcher’s mound ...

The mound? The Service didn’t want him exposed on the field like a baited goose. Did McMullen want his 44,000 fans held at the gates and frisked for metal?

Absolutely not.

Still, the Lead Advance said, the political people might want him on the mound. You know, taller ... heh heh.

Well, said the Service, you got your choice: you want him on the mound, we put him in a vest. You might ask if he can throw in a flak vest. Heh heh.

The Lead Advance said this was a matter for Washington. He bumped it up the ladder to the Office of the Vice President—Washington HQ. Meanwhile, the Secret Service Advance bumped it up to his Washington HQ.

Now, what about the cocktail party?

These things had to be decided! If the Lead Advance changed the pregame cocktail reception from a simple Mix and Mingle to a ten-minute Brief Remarks, well then, this would have operational consequence.

Do you want him to talk?

"Should he talk?"

He talks, there’s press ...

No press.

Well, he doesn’t have to talk ...

Okay, Mix and Mingle.... Who’s got the motorcade?

In the course of the next two days, this dozen men would walk over every foot of ground that the Vice President would tread, scouting this bit of his future life. They were seeing it as his eyes might, then improving the view, imagining and removing every let or hindrance. They were determined that nothing would be unforeseen. And, of course, they were timing every movement. Then, for all the following days, and most of the nights, they would fan out to their respective turfs: the Site Advance to each location the Vice President would visit; the Press Advance to local papers, TV and radio stations, then to the sites to inspect for sound cables, platforms, camera angles, and backdrops; the Service to all the sites, for inch-by-inch security checks; the Houston PD to its command post; the WHCA to its phones, cables, switch-boxes, walkie-talkies, cellulars, and other wondrous gizmos the Vice President might require; the head of the VP’s Houston operation and the Lead Advance to the three-room office created for the occasion, fully equipped and volunteer-staffed, in a wing of the Houstonian.

From this office, day by day, the Lead Advance faxed to the Director of Advance and the Schedulers in Washington the minute-by-minute breakdown of the visit. With every transmission this was refined, by two minutes here, ten minutes there; a holding room added, an extra car in the motorcade ... And each day, by return fax, the Washington OVP sent out a new version, with its additions and refinements: Lee Atwater would be a guest aboard Air Force Two (need a guest car in the motorcade); approval on the interview with ABC in the broadcast booth (third inning) ... Then, each night in Houston, the Advance team reconvened for another Countdown Meeting, preliving the trip anew.

The ultimate product of this process was a sheaf of papers detailing not only the schedule, but a description (with diagram) of each event, the staffing (on the plane, on the ground), assignments for every car in every motorcade, and phone numbers (hardwire and cellular) for every division of the traveling party at every site. In Washington, the night before the trip, all this data would be printed in a booklet, four and a quarter inches wide by five and a half high, just the size of a suit pocket, with baby-blue stiff paper covers, the front one printed with a handsome black Vice Presidential seal. This booklet was called the bible, and in a sense, the making of the bible was the making of the trip: little that was not on its pages was going to happen in the life of the man. And with the bible’s completion, a certain psychic line was crossed: the trip to the ball game was no longer a plan. It was an Event of the Vice Presidency. It was at this point, with the final retype, that the first letters of words began to jump up and salute: in the bible, that is, in the life of George Bush, every noun he touched became a proper noun. So the pregame reception had to become the Reception; or that cheap molded plastic across a steel frame would become, with the brush of his backside, the Box Seat; even as his person, the locus of Veephood, the Big Gulp of this institutional juice, became, had to become, in the bible, a black-type-all-caps monolith that began every schedule item:

6:10 P.M. THE VICE PRESIDENT and Mrs. Bush arrive Astrodome and proceed to Astrohall to attend Reception.

Met by: Dr. and Mrs. John McMullen (Jacqueline)

Now, in the Countdown Meeting, the Lead Advance was reading from the latest bible-fax from Washington. Okay, we move him straight to the cocktail thing. Any other greeters? There were negative shakes of heads at the table. Okay, event ...





6:15 P.M. THE VICE PRESIDENT and Mrs. Bush arrive Reception.

6:50 P.M. THE VICE PRESIDENT and Mrs. Bush conclude Reception and depart Astrohall en route Astrodome.

Again, the Secret Service wanted to know: Is he gonna throw from the seats or the mound? We gotta know. It’s a different route. If it’s from the mound, we got a bathroom to put on the vest. ... It’s a different route! If ...

The Lead Advance cut him off with a glare: No word yet from Washington. ... Now, how’s he getting to the Dome?

We can walk him.

From the hall? How long?

Five minutes.

Give him ten. There’ll be people.

We can close the sidewalk.

What if it rains?



The Site Advance for the Astrodome bent to his legal pad and wrote: Walk to Dome: Umbrellas.

Of course, no storm could moisten or muss the Vice Presidential person in the Dome, where giant air conditioners maintained a dry and steady seventy-two degrees. It was the Secret Service Advance—specifically, the man from TSD, the Technical Security Division—who first divined that the Vice President might have to pass three of those air conditioners in his progress through stadium halls. Of course it was the later TSD team, the fellows who swept the whole Dome with dogs, just before arrival, who actually disassembled the machines’ steel covers, checked the works inside for untoward signs, and posted a man to guard each unit.

The air-conditioner guards were part of the Astrodome security force, as were the men in vigil at every janitor’s closet and bathroom he would pass, as were the men who closed off the hallways he would tread. For the evening, the steady complement of thirty full-time security personnel was swelled by ninety temporary hires, mostly off-duty cops from the Houston and Harris County forces. Each was paid eighty dollars for the evening, the cost defrayed by the Astrodome—a small price to pay for the honor.

Anyway, a drop in the bucket, compared to the public cost for the FBI and the Houston Police Department’s Special Ops. As there were no new threats, the FBI team had to locate only the kooks who’d made threats before, and all suspicious characters in the Houston area. Nothing intrusive or heavy-handed, just a check on their whereabouts. The Houston PD Motorcycle Squad had to cover the motorcade, but that was only thirty miles, easily handled by the normal team of twenty-two men and two sergeants. Of course, the department also had men on every bridge over the route, and officers at most intersections. Still, the bulk of the load fell to the Dignitary Protection Division, fifty men who guarded the Vice President inside and outside the Dome. The bible called for the Vice President to come off the field to the owner’s box, field level, on the first-base side. He’d only stay for a while, until they moved him up to a skybox. Fortunately, the command post was set up on the third-base side, up in the catwalks, where the HPD Special Ops, the Astrodome men, and the Secret Service could keep a minute-by-minute binocular vigil.

At least they could be sure the VP would stay where they put him. Some VIPs don’t, and then it’s white-knuckle city. Once, on a visit to Houston, Eisenhower snuck clean away; it turned out he went to play golf. Years later, the Houston force lost Dick Nixon for a panicky hour in the old Lamar Hotel; finally found him in the coffee shop, chatting up a waitress. John F. Kennedy was the worst: he’d throw himself right into a crowd; worst thing you can do to the cops, tears them up; someone could get him with a pocket knife, an ice pick ... anything ... no way they could see it. Thank God, George Bush wouldn’t do that.

He was good about being on time, too, which the motorcade fellows really liked. As it was, they spent half their lives waiting; it was dreariest when the schedule got busted and H-hour came and went and nobody even knew anymore what was supposed to happen. But with George Bush, they could fire up their gleaming Harleys at H-hour minus five, and he’d be there, with his crew in the cars, right on the hour. Then came the part that was their specialty, as they roared away from Ellington Field, southeast of town, and onto the wide open concrete of I-45, where seven or eight of their buddies had already closed the first few ramps and held back traffic on the northbound side. Not a car, not one truck in the way! And another half-dozen men in jodhpurs would peel away from the motorcade, and throw their hogs wide open—sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour!—roaring up to the next ramps to close them until the motorcade sailed by. And after the trailing Harleys passed, they’d open those ramps again and thunder on past the motorcade, with the wind keening off their farings and flattening their smiles inside their helmets—ninety, a hundred, if they could—past the motorcade again to block off the ramps and road ahead. Forty minutes! From the stairs of his airplane at Ellington to the door of the Houstonian. You couldn’t do it any faster at midnight Sunday—not legally, anyway. That limo was never gonna need a brake job. Never had to stop—not while these boys were around. And they knew the Vice President appreciated their work, the way he liked to see them lined up on the tarmac at Ellington, at the end of every trip. Always wanted them lined up there, even in the rain, when he’d get wet if he stopped to wave.

But that’s the way he was. Everybody who was in on the trip talked about it—the way he was. Like when they’d get the Army to chopper him from Ellington right to the Houstonian: he wouldn’t land on the hotel grounds—didn’t want to disturb the guests. They’d land him instead nearby, at the Polo Club. Of course, that meant another motorcade to move him a quarter-mile, across the road to the hotel door. But that wasn’t his fault. In Washington, when he went to the office, he wouldn’t let them block the streets, he made them stop at the lights! A whole motorcade pulled up, waiting for a stoplight! He didn’t want to disturb the other drivers. He’d tried that in Houston, too. But not tonight—forget it! He came in only three hours before the game, and that meant rush hour. They weren’t going to have him tied up in that—no way—not in Houston traffic. And if some drivers got hot and started honking, or jumped out of their cars to see what the hell was blocking the way—well, they could always stop traffic at the top of the ramps, so the Vice President wouldn’t be bothered.

No, from within the motorcade, you couldn’t see anything like that. There was just the calm, empty highway, and the soft hum of the tires on the asphalt of the center lane. With a little motorcade like this, there wasn’t even a press bus, diesel-rumbling behind. No, this one was short and sweet: only a couple of patrol cars, with the Lead Advance and the Lead Agent riding in the first one; and a lead Secret Service car, discreet, just a blue light flashing on the dash; and then the backup, which was only a sedan, carrying Dr. Gasser, the personal physician; and then the real limo, with the Vice President, and Mrs. Bush, and their old friend Jack Steel, the head of the Houston Office of the Vice President; and then the Secret Service wagon, the hulking black Chevy Suburban with the shaded windows and four agents, two facing front and two facing rear, armed with submachine guns and heavier weapons, as they were the CAT squad, the Counter Assault Team, which might have to stay and fight off attackers while the rest of the agents got the hell out with the Vice President; and then the Control Car, which carried the Chief of Staff, and the Director of Advance, and the Military Aide; and then the Support Car, with the Lead Wocka man, and the Press Secretary, and the Personal Aide, and the Vice Presidential Photographer; then, the first Staff Car, which carried the Staff Secretary and the Secretary to the Staff Secretary; then the first Guest Car, for Lee Atwater, the head of the Vice President’s political action committee, which was called the Fund for America’s Future, but was really his Presidential campaign in mufti; then, just one Staff Van, for the rest of the staff, typists and low-level Wocka geeks; and just one Press Van, for a few reporters who had to tag along; and then, of course, the ambulance, with its strobes flashing, red bubble-lights whirring; and another patrol car, or two at times, with their blue lights and strobes flashing, and a few of the men on Harleys, who were there in case any cars broke through the rear motorcycle cordon, a half-mile or more behind, and got too close to the Vice President ... and that was about all.

With the volunteer drivers for the Staff and Press vans, there were occasional gaps in the train, but mostly they stayed tight and smooth. Certainly, they did at the front of the column, with the Secret Service drivers, men who could handle a motorcade without any fits or starts. In Washington or anywhere near, the Vice President always had his own Secret Service men driving, or occasionally his Capitol office driver, the soldierly Korean, Mr. Kim. But even in another city, the Vice President was almost always driven by a member of his own detail. The thinking was, he’d prefer a man from his own world, a face he knew, and a name to go with it. He’d be more secure that way, more comfortable.

Those were the twin imperatives in the Vice Presidential motorcade, and in all the effort around the Vice President: security, and comfort. They were the givens of his life, along with the thousands of hours of intense unseen labor by others. In this case, some four hundred people, a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and a couple of hundred million dollars in government equipment got the Vice President to the ball game in perfect security, and comfort. They also made it possible for him to spend the better part of a day, leave his office, board an airplane, travel halfway across the nation, land in another city and travel overland thirty miles to a ballpark, and never see one person who was not a friend or someone whose sole purpose it was to serve or protect him.

This is living in the bubble, and George Bush had long since perfected the art. By this time, midway through his second term, he had almost ceased to note the special circumstances of his being. After almost six years as Vice President, the bubble was his milieu. He had learned to accept its cost, as he had its perquisites, as his destiny, even his due, owed not to him, as he’d sometimes point out, but to the high office he held. Actually, he was seldom asked about it anymore. The public and the press expected it. They seemed to like it, really, for the glamor they imagined therein. The few who asked were old friends who came to visit and saw what had become of his life. They’d inquire, in uneasy near whispers: Doesn’t it ... drive you nuts? And he’d shrug it off with a quick joke, which they’d retell, as evidence of his grace, his discipline under pressure, his will to serve. But, really, they didn’t see the half of it. No one who hadn’t lived in the bubble could know what it was like: a trip of a thousand miles, two thousand, or more, across a continent, around the globe, without one word exchanged with a stranger; a year, two years, four years, without driving a car, without being allowed to drive a car; instead, the hush of the limousine and the silent smile from the Service man at the wheel; the stewards in the plane, hovering to know his pleasure; the jacket with his name embroidered as memento of his visit to the ship or the plant, the campus or the launchpad; the visor, the ball cap, the golf shirt, the golf bag, tennis racket, squash bag, T-shirts, cufflinks, tie tacks, tie clips, memo paper, matchbooks, lighters, ashtrays, swizzle sticks, the coasters, glasses, mugs, china teacups, plastic drink cups, plastic bags, all with his name and seal upon them; the minute-by-minute schedule, instructing him where to stand, whom to greet; the men in suits and earplugs, always around, talking into their wrist microphones; the men in slightly better suits, handing him typed pages, telling him where he’d be going and whom he would see, who his friends were among the crowd and what he was supposed to tell those friends, what the press would be asking and what he ought to say in response; the simple, awesome fact that from the moment he opened his door in the morning until he retired for the night, no matter what he chose to do, or where he went, or what he wanted, he would never be alone.

By this time, by October 1986, he took it for granted; wouldn’t have said a word about it, even if he didn’t. The few hints to his attitude, the bright sparks of reaction, flashed only briefly, more than five years before, when the fact of his Vice Presidency began to sink in on him.

There was the first trip, to Massachusetts, 1980, even before inauguration, to represent the White House-to-be at the funeral of the venerable Speaker, John McCormack. It was as George Bush left the church, and all the other mourners were held at the door, as he was guided through a gauntlet of men to the limousine waiting in a ten-car train, as the agents closed him in behind bulletproof steel and glass, and stood round the car, scanning the sidewalks and the empty street ahead, as the motorcycles roared to life and George Bush could no longer hear the men and women with whom he had prayed only minutes before, and he could see only the backs of the agents and the streak of two-wheelers past his shaded window, as even the church was rendered invisible by the men and machines walling him away, then George Bush drew one deep breath, as he turned from the window, and he said to friends in the car:

"God! ... Isn’t it great? D’ya ever see so many cops?"

It takes a special man to enjoy the Vice Presidency, but George Bush was the man for the job. Didn’t matter that the writers and the pundits couldn’t see it—he had talent, and he knew it. It wasn’t brains, although he wasn’t stupid: Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, if anybody cared to look. Anyway, the job didn’t call for deep thinking: if you thought too much, brought your insight and intellect to bear on the problems of the nation, you’d get out front of the President, or worse still, off to the side. That’s the surest way down the trash chute in the White House. There’s only one question that the Vice President needs to ask: What’s the President saying on this? Anything else is begging for trouble, and George Bush had brains enough to figure that out.

A bucket of warm spit, was how Vice President Garner described the job. At least that’s how they wrote the quote from Cactus Jack, the first Texan to hold the position, as FDR’s Number Two (till Roosevelt dumped him in the 1940 campaign). Problem was, no Vice President was really Number Two, or even Three or Four: a Chief of Staff, Secretary of State—any Cabinet officer—a Senator, even a Congressman ... hundreds of people had more legal and practical power over how things went in the country, even how things went in the White House. In fact, Walter Mondale, the last man but Bush to sit this pointy flagpole, was the first Vice President to have an office in the White House. (Before that, VPs were warehoused safely out of West Wing earshot, in lofty and ornate offices across the street in a gray granite pile called the Old Executive Office Building, or in a suite even more remote, equally grand and futile, in the U.S. Capitol, the locus of their only Constitutional duty, presiding over the U.S. Senate, and voting in case of a tie.)

It also fell to Mondale to pioneer in the stately Victorian house on Massachusetts Avenue, NW, the Official Residence, provided for the Vice President’s use in 1974. Joan Mondale used to give over the whole ground floor to art exhibits and tour groups. It wasn’t enough poor Mondale’s job was to sit around in mothballs; now he was living in a damn museum! But that wouldn’t happen to George Bush—not with Bar in charge. When she took over, the tours stopped and the old wooden house got homey, with tablesful of framed family photos (kids at play on the rocks in Maine), funny hats for George and his friends in the front hall closet, and grandchildren pounding through the halls to the kitchen, to see if the stewards had cookies. (They did.)

Nelson Rockefeller wouldn’t even live in the house, or the bubble, they tried to make for him. He moved out after one day, said he had better security—and fewer fellas in the way—at his own home in Washington. But when George Bush began to live every minute surrounded by a half-dozen trim young fellows, he had ... six new friends! Every day! If only he could throw a horseshoe like Jimmy here, then his happiness would be complete. (But! Wait till the next match. There might ... be a surprise from the Veep ... an upset ... hah!)

Lyndon Johnson, the last Texan in the job, was never the same after three years as second banana to a glamor boy who disdained him. They mocked him, all those Kennedy guys. It ate at him like a worm inside, and it left him embittered. But when George Bush took the job, he decided Ronald Reagan was going to be his friend. George and Bar decided without even talking: they were going to like the Reagans. And they did, right away. They loved the Reagans. The only surprise, Bush told his old friends, was how easy it was. Reagan turned out to be a great guy! The way he told those funny stories! You had to like the guy.

But it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been no charming jokes, if Reagan had been a vicious drooler; just as it did not matter that Reagan had no talent for friendship, no personal connections apart from Nancy. In fact, Reagan couldn’t remember his grandchildren’s names, and he had no friends, only the husbands of Nancy’s friends. It didn’t matter! Bush had the talent, a genius for friendship. And like every genius, he worked at it: if Ronald Reagan connected with others solely by means of funny stories, George Bush would bring him funny stories. In fact, the Vice President’s staff knew he didn’t want briefing memos for the weekly lunch with Reagan: the way to earn a stripe in the OVP was to give him a joke for the President. This was no laughing matter to Bush. It was the core of his life’s method. Back in 1978, when George Bush was an obscure ex-CIA chief, just starting to run for President, someone asked him: What made Bush think he could be President? Well, Bush said, without pause, "I’ve got a big family, and lots of friends. Later in that campaign, he learned the proper" answer, some mumbo-jumbo about experience, entrepreneurship, philosophy of government. ... But the first answer was true. George Bush was trying to become President by making friends, one by one if need be, and Ronald Reagan was a Big One.

It certainly didn’t matter that they disagreed—that Voodoo Economics thing, and a few other differences, on civil rights, the environment, education, energy, and U.S. policy on Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Soviet relations. Of course they disagreed, because George Bush knew five times more about the governments of the world—his own included—than Ronald Reagan ever would. But it didn’t matter! The fact is, they didn’t disagree anymore, because George Bush would not disagree with the President. This was another of George Bush’s talents: accommodation. He had the capacity to act on the judgments of others, to live within the bounds of received wisdom. It was a talent that had smoothed his path from his parents’ home, through prep school and the U.S. Navy, where the lessons of life were delivered explicitly, and later through Yale, business, and politics, where things grew murkier, and the judgments one lived by had to be doped out. But he did divine them: he was always sensitive to the ethic around him. And to the extent he could accommodate himself, he flourished, and made friends every step of the way. In 1964, he first ran for Senate as a Goldwater man, and though Bush lost, Goldwater was still a friend twenty-two years later. In 1966, for a House seat from Houston, he ran as a Main Street Republican, then served and voted with the moderate mainstream, as a backer of Richard Nixon. And in 1970, when he ran and lost for Senate again (this time, slightly to the left of his rival), he asked his Big Friend, President Nixon, for a job at the UN, which he’d roundly reviled as a Goldwater man. By 1980, the accommodation to Ronald Reagan was just a walk in the park.

And it did not matter if the Reaganauts couldn’t see him as one of their own. They screwed most of his friends out of jobs, stopped talking when he came into the room, made jokes about him when he was absent. He knew it, just as surely as Johnson had known. Hell, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out, the way reporters would ask his staff: People, uh, in the Cabinet meetings tell me Bush never says anything. ... Is that true? Or they’d just print it: "Administration sources said the Vice President had nothing to contribute. ..." Of course he knew who the sources were. Some were the same hypocrites who came to his office before the meeting, asking him to back their schemes, talk to the President for them. ... Then, when he wouldn’t, they’d have some columnist in for breakfast and, just in passing, smiling, with a wedge of grapefruit on their spoons, they’d saw Bush off at the knees. Oh, he knew the game! Still, he never got into that White House cockfight: an eye for an eye, a leak for a leak. Could have had a pro, Jimmy Baker, do it for him. But he wouldn’t: it was a matter of loyalty to the team, loyalty to the President; most of all, a matter of discipline.

This was another of Bush’s great talents: personal discipline. There were no leaks from the OVP: there was not one story saying George Bush was unhappy with this or that decision, or the President overrode objections from George Bush. In fact, there were no stories suggesting Bush had opinions at all, even before a decision came down, even when it would have gotten him off the hook. It would have been so easy: when Ed Meese was filling Reagan’s ear with some Neanderthal antiblack screed, sticking the administration’s nose into a civil rights fight, putting them all in the soup ...on the wrong side of the issue! And here’s a reporter in Bush’s armchair, gently inviting: Mr. Vice President, it seems that you might be less comfortable with something like this. ... But Bush wouldn’t bite. Never. Christ, the reporters were easy. One of his own aunts came at him, drove him right out of his chair, trying to have a serious discussion—why Ronald Reagan refused to have arms talks with the Russians. Years later, she was still half-convinced Bush was willfully stupid, or had the attention span of an eight-year-old. Didn’t matter! They could all think so, and he wouldn’t lift a finger to prove them wrong. He wouldn’t even let his staff help. His first Chief of Staff, Admiral Murphy, used to haul every staffer in for a talk, to let them know they had only one job: to help George Bush do his job, and his job was to help the President. There would be no disagreement between members of the Vice President’s staff and the President’s staff. They could not argue with anyone in the White House. Admiral Dan had them all in, down to the girls who’d answer the phones. And with the same flair he’d once shown as Commander of the Sixth Fleet, he’d warn:

"Honey, tonight, you’re gonna go out with your boyfriend. And you’re gonna go to a bar, and you’re gonna have a drink. And you’re gonna want to tell him what a wonderful guy you’re working for, and what a great thing he did today ... and how he saved the President from the most awful thing that somebody else was trying to do. ... Sweetheart, you don’t know who’s in the next booth, do you? So ... DON’T SAY A GODDAM THING!"

It got so the whole OVP was a whisper zone in that gray granite building across the street from the White House. People and paper moved back and forth down the dark, lofty halls of the Old EOB—earnest young people, of good families, sons and daughters of George Bush’s friends, would run between the offices, flushed with the press of business for the Vice President. And nothing came out! George Bush would go out to speak, all over the country, twenty, twenty-five days a month (he wouldn’t duck a chance to help the Party, the President) ... and nothing would be heard of him! True, the speeches weren’t about George Bush, or what he was doing, or what he thought. They weren’t about anything, really, except what a great country, and a great President, we had. That was fine with Bush. All the positions, all the speeches, were just politics to him. The rest, the friendships, or loyalty to the President, those were personal matters—matters of the personal code. That was where Bush’s talents lay, and the only thread of steel running through his life to his seventh decade. He wasn’t going to let politics change the way he was. God forbid! It was all personal with George Bush. He couldn’t see things any other way.

Of course, he would accommodate. After he came off like such a stiff in the ’84 reelection, and his personal polls took a dive, and reporters on his plane got so nasty, then his friends ganged up and made him change the staff: they told him he had to, if he ever wanted to be President; they called it a more political support team. That’s when he signed on Lee Atwater—neither son nor friend to any old Bush-friend—to run the PAC and the campaign to come. That’s when he had to let Dan Murphy go, and hire Craig Fuller as the new Chief of Staff. Fuller was a young White House pro: neat, calm, organized, and people said he knew how to stick the knife, if he had to. But he was another stranger. Jeez, Bush would call the office now, and half the people who answered were strangers! He’d live with it, if that’s what it took. But it just wasn’t ... friendly. And it wasn’t really fair to Dan. Those rules weren’t Dan’s rules, they were Bush’s. Bush told him just how he meant to do the job, even before he got elected. It was the fall of ’80, at the same lunch where he offered Dan the job. Murphy had been his deputy at the CIA. They could talk frankly. And Bush told him point-blank, wanted him to know how it was going to be, had to be ...

I’ve thought a lot about it, Bush said. "I know I’m not gonna have much input on policy, nothing substantive to do at all ...

And I’ve decided, I can be happy with that.

And he had been happy. That’s what no one could get through their heads, except Bar, of course. That’s one of the reasons he loved her: she understood things without talking. She was better at it than he was!

What was the Vice Presidency?

A wonderful adventure.

He had decided—they had decided—that it would be, just as he had decided how he was going to do the job. This was the ultimate triumph of discipline, and George Bush’s greatest talent: the power of mindset. He could decide—they could decide—how it was going to be, and then it was that way ... because no one, no one, would ever see them treating it any other way.

They loved the Reagans.


Because they loved the Reagans. They had decided.

And it didn’t start in 1980. Talent like that comes from a lifetime. There was the time George Bush’s career picked them up and moved them to Houston, and the wife of a business friend gave a tea for Barbara, to show her off to the ladies.

So they came to meet her, and one after the other, they asked: "And where do you come from?"

Bar said sweetly: I live in Houston now.

"Oh. Yes, but ... where do you come from?"

And Bar, with her smile still placid, beatific, replied: Houston is my home now.

They weren’t going to put her in that box, thank you. And they weren’t going to hand her husband a carpetbag, either. She had decided.

But the brilliance of it was, it wasn’t one party, one lunch with Admiral Dan, or one talk to the staff. It was there every day, unwavering.

What is the Vice Presidency?

A wonderful adventure. Every day.

So, every day, he did a little more, made another friend, signed more photos, wrote more notes to people he’d met ... every day. If no one could see that ... it didn’t matter! He had it in the bank. And every day, he did a little more.

Fly across the country and back for a ball game?

A wonderful adventure! He’d get his son Jeb to fly in from Florida, and bring his son, George P. ... And he’d call his eldest son, George, too. George and Laura were in Midland, just across the state, they could fly in, with friends. ... He’d make it a friends-and-family thing. Bar’ll come. Sure, she’ll come. It’ll be fun!

So the kids flew in to Houston, and they all met at the Astrohall, at the cocktail thing, before the game, and it was fun, sort of ...

But then they walked to the Dome, and the Service whisked the VP away to some bathroom downstairs, or some damn place, and the others were led to their seats in the park, the Vice President’s party to the owner’s box on the first-base line, and the others to seats somewhat removed. And that was the first bit of trouble: George W. Bush, George Bush the Younger, who’d gotten his wife and a couple of friends, and the friends’ private plane, and had flown across the state from Midland, Texas, to be with his father and mother at the ball game ... Georgie Bush, the firstborn, first son, the biggest and most jagged chip off the old block, Junior, as some friends now called him, George W. Bush ... along with his wife and friends, whom he’d roped into flying across the state, five hundred statute miles, and back, in the same night, for this game, to be with George H. W., and Barbara Bush ... was sitting off behind home plate.

These our seats?

Junior’s voice was mild, but the Advance man hastily checked the envelope to make sure. There was edge on that word, our ... there was a hint of ominous meaning in the glance Junior cast to his right, toward the field, toward the biblical Box Seat. Suddenly, there was more than a whiff of trouble in the air. This almost subsensory impression was reinforced a moment later, as Junior added quietly:


The Advance man decided he’d better run off and check.

What the fuck is GOING ON here? They were screwing around with the wrong guy. Junior was now standing, staring at the Box Seat, watching who sat down behind Barbara Bush and the seat reserved for his father. There was Jeb, and his boy, P. They got seats with the old man. ... And a lot of them were Service. Most of them would leave. Anyway, they had to be there. Wait a minute! There was Fuller, the new Chief of Staff, and one of his paper-pushers. Are they sitting DOWN? ... Well, wait just a damn minute!

Fuller! There he was, with every damn oily hair in place, and his Washington suit stretched across his back like aluminum siding. It wasn’t enough that he wouldn’t return a damn phone call. He’s going to sit right behind them, right in the front-row box! We’re being moved out! Maybe he doesn’t know Junior’s here—the hell he doesn’t, he oughta—or that he might want to sit with his parents, have a few laughs with the family ... or that he likes to be seen in Texas, might want to run in Texas someday. What would that asshole know about running? Never ran for Sheriff! Tell you one thing: that sonofabitch doesn’t know the old man, if he thinks he can move the family out. The old friends were right: This guy’s an asshole! ... I’ve been replaced by STAFFERS!

I’m goin’ down there.

Laura’s voice was urgent: George!

But Junior was gone.

They were screwing around with the wrong guy. Junior was the Roman candle of the family, bright, hot, a sparkler—and likeliest to burn the fingers. He had all the old man’s high spirits, but none of his taste for accommodation. In fact, he was more like Bar, the way he called a spade a spade. But it wasn’t so easy for him to do it in the background, the way she’d done it all these years. No, he didn’t mind being up front. But he’d learned

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  • (3/5)
    Not really the way to the White House, more like the way to win the primaries as the 1000 page book ended at the conventions. Way too large of a book to leave out Jesse Jackson...the guy did finish second in the primaries you know. Lots of great information written informally which distracts and detracts at times.
  • (4/5)
    Massive book about the kinds of people who have the unusual drive to enter politics on a national scale. Not about campaign strategy so much as personal motivations and biographies. Very interesting for anybody interested in politicking.
  • (5/5)
    An in-depth and exhaustive (but incredibly well-written) account of presidential campaigns, both successful and not-so-much.