WASHINGTON — REMEMBER the men who ran for the White House in 1988? George Bush and Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart and Richard Gephardt, Bob Dole and Joseph Biden. Author Richard Ben Cramer loves them all. He cares about them, worries about them, admires their families, and argues that they get a bum rap from the muck-raking national news media and the omniscient Washington pundits.
If anyone knows, Mr. Cramer should. He's spent the past six years trying to get inside the heads of these six men. He's traveled to their hometowns, talked to their friends, interviewed their wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and just about anyone else who knows - really knows - something about them.
Cramer's obsessive drive to understand these men reportedly consumed all of the $500,000 advance he got for his new book, "What It Takes: The Way to the White House" (Random House, 1,047 pp., $28). He conducted thousands of interviews. He flew all over the United States in 1987, 1988, and 1989, one year seeing his wife for only 50 days. Cramer is an insatiable reporter, but he nearly ran out of money because of all those airline tickets, hotels, and restaurant meals. Once, after a couple of days with Kit ty Dukakis on her private jet, a bill showed up for $9,500. He paid it with his Visa card.
All this effort produced a whopping, 1,047-page book, a dictionary-sized volume. Wrapped in its silver dust jacket, it was compared to "the bumper of a Cadillac" by the Washington Post.
Getting to know all about the candidates brought Cramer to conclusions that may surprise cynical, turned-off voters. He thinks these six fellows - every one of them - are heroes, genuine national heroes, who got chopped and diced by the political system. All are wonderful, decent men, he says.
But their goodness gets lost in what Cramer calls the "vicious milling down" that grinds presidential candidates into the dirt.
Cramer argues that one cannot know these men without going back to their roots. He goes to Missouri to look over Congressman Gephardt's Eagle Scout medals. And he goes to Kansas, where he learns that after Mr. Dole got shot up badly in World War II, he was forced to give up his dreams of being a doctor and worried that someday he would be reduced, like some other wounded war veterans, to selling pencils on street corners.
He also learned from relatives and friends of these men that each was considered special - right from the beginning.
In a lengthy interview with the Monitor, Cramer explains:
"They are powerful men. People change their lives for them, and this starts very early in their lives, before they can talk sometimes.... Everything bends around these people like they're the heavy lump of iron [in a] magnetic field. And this isn't just one family. In Bush's family, he was always marked as the star. From the time he was just the littlest kid, he was the star, and it was very clear to the other children."
Cramer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked for the Baltimore Sun and the Philadelphia Inquirer before beginning his book odyssey, says the news media miss the mark when covering presidential politics. He says passionately:
"Certainly no man could be such an irredeemable `schlub' as the American press portrays its losers." He charges that reporters write about candidates "in terms that bear no relation to any other human being that we know. We would never think these things of our neighbor, or our brother or sister, or a guy who's the head of our church." But where politicians are concerned, we ascribe to them "such base motives," Cramer observes.
This includes Gary Hart. Despite all the terrible things the press said about him, Cramer says, "He is a very serious and dedicated man." But by the time he dropped out of the 1988 campaign, "He was just about pulling his hair out." And what did the press do when he quit? Cramer points with dismay to the reaction of one leading Washington political reporter, who wrote afterward: "A story was really the furthest thing from my mind at that point. I was too busy feeling triumphant."
Cramer says, "The idea that any reporter would find that he had driven this guy out of the race and therefore was triumphant - a guy who had given his entire adult life to try to do something for the republic, right or wrong, whether you like his politics or not - seems to me to be a perversion of a fundamental sort."
Cramer blames two things for the souring of American politics. One is the press. The other is what he calls, at various times, "the thing," or "the system," or "the attitude."
As for the press, the problem goes back to the Watergate scandal. A whole generation of young reporters came of age just as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post were pulling down President Richard Nixon.
"That became the way in which one made one's name in this trade," he says. "It seems to me that all of the generation my age and younger - I'm 42 - of political reporters come in with the assumption that these guys are all bums. It's just our job to explain in which particular way this guy happens to be a bum. It's very destructive."
But Cramer also worries about "the system," which puts the stain of dishonor on honorable people. He cites the case of Senator Biden.
Biden is, says Cramer, "a guy who has the largest, most humane, most generous instincts toward his fellow man. He has striven his whole life to be the one they can count on because he's a guy with real character."
So what happens? The political community concluded that "here was a guy with no character" because he quoted a British politician without giving him credit in a speech.
"The process attacked [Biden] at his point of particular pride and vulnerability - that is, his basic character," he says.
A similar process brought down Senator Hart, Congressman Gephardt, and Senator Dole.
Cramer concludes: "The thing goes for a point of pride and vulnerability with such uncanny accuracy that it's almost like a Greek play in front of your eyes. It's remarkable."
Remarkable, indeed, as is Cramer's book.