BOOK REVIEW / Trapped in a bubble with the Karacter Kops

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'What it takes' - Richard Ben Cramer: Chatto, 20 pounds

WHAT IT TAKES, if we get right down to it, is about a week of round-the-clock, prop-your-eyes-open reading. Richard Ben Cramer has constructed a massive and extravagant thousand-page account of America's most recent presidential race. It's half a dozen books in one: zippy biographies of the candidates are wrapped around a bruising account of a famously dirty campaign.

It begins with Vice-President George Bush flopping baseballs about and saying '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'. It climaxes by snapping a baffled Gary Hart with Donna Rice on a yacht called - how could we forget? - Monkey Business, and watching the press: 'WhaddaboutDonnaRICE?DonnaMRSHARTonnariceWhaddyathinkayerHUSBAND?'. And it ends, puzzled and apologetic, with Bush striding off towards the White House.

No review of this length can do justice to the cascade of detail and dialogue the author has collected or improvised: any synopsis is obliged to summarise at the rate of one word per page. But in the course of 130 chapters we learn that Bush sends 30,000 Christmas cards (probably more, by now); that Bob Dole is colour-blind and has numbers sewn on to his ties by a helpful Brooks Brothers tailor, so he can pick out one that matches; that Joe Biden once ran under a lorry as a dare; and that Michael Dukakis is crazy about his cucumber patch.

We learn that Dole often sits in limousines humming 'Yuuoooh, yut-dut-dut- dut-dah . . . yut-dut-dah. . .'; that Hart was too excited to eat one of the blueberry pastries offered by Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow; that Bush's putting went all to hell during his vice-presidency, but improved when he bought one of those new, longer-shafted clubs; that Biden planted hemlock bushes round his swimming pool . . . and so on.

The entire saga is written in the hectic, Jesus-Christ-Almighty style invented and exploited to the full by Tom Wolfe. If you took away all the italics and rows of dots, it would be a book of almost routine length. As it is, it goes like this:

'Thing was, if you had a half-hour, Lee could explain why he (and Bush) had nothing to apologise for . . . how this was not really sucking up to the nuts, but the appearance of an effort to suck up to the nuts . . . an elaborate Sun Tzuian feint - see? . . . which would make the other candidates think that Bush thought . . . that the right wing was still the muscle of the party . . . so they'd all run to the right, see? . . .'

See? How could we not? The trouble with this style is that it needs to be, as it was for Wolfe, especially discriminating. All that snazzy punctuation can make the most banal disruption seem like, I dunno, Vesuvius or something. Bango]]] It is not only that it gets right on your wick - that's the idea - but that after 600 pages or so you suddenly realise that all these guys sound . . . exactly the same]

Well, almost everyone. Dole says 'Aghh, lotta moneyyy]' and 'How's it lookinnn'?. . . What's cookinnn'?'; Bush says 'Isn't it great] D'ya ever see so many cops?' or 'Come on over, play some tennis, it'll be fun]'; Biden says 'Let's go] Let's roll the dice]'; Hart goes 'I love it. I'll stick it in their faces]' and Richard Gephardt hits the jackpot by exclaiming, over the phone: '. . . fuck . . . you . . . to . . . death]'.

Michael Dukakis, winner of the democratic nomination, is the only one who stands out. He just says things like: 'The Port Authority should work for the people . . . People should have decent housing.' One of his big interests is transportation - 'and not just urban transit, but interurban, too.' No wonder George Bush was driven to tell smutty jokes in restaurants: 'What's 14 inches long and hangs in front of an asshole,' he asks Mabel, owner of the Lobster Claw. 'Oh, George, I heard that,' she replies. 'Dukakis's tie]'

We have to be impressed by the sheer doggedness that has trawled up so much yucky stuff from the great river of American politics. The author must have been hiding in that lobster's claw, must have sneaked on to Air Force Two as it sprang from state to state in search of votes and money, must have ridden the lift that jammed at Bush's big speech, so that a clever stunt - four side-by-side elevators were meant to stop simultaneously and spell out BUSH - came out saying:

B

USH

But the really odd thing is that a book so proud of its iconoclastic vitality should be so - literally - monotonous. All the candidates are hijacked by the same vocabulary: any one of them (except Dukakis himself) could have told that 14- inch tie joke in one of the thousands of off-the-cuff moments to which Richard Ben Cramer seems to have been party.

Still, it remains a monumental guide to an amazing race. Ironically, given that the book hardly flinches from sticking its nose into financial advice of all types, Cramer presents the election as a gauntlet run past a cynical, lazy, man-eating press. The 'Karacter Kops' see off Gary Hart by catching him with Donna Rice; they push Biden over the edge by noticing the way he stole not only Neil Kinnock's speech but his life-story too; they even have a go at George Bush, calling him a wimp. On the front page] 'He couldn't even understand what they meant] Did that word mean coward? (He didn't see any air medals on their chests) . . . Did they think he was a weakling? (Let's play two sets, see whose ass is dragging]) . . . God] They didn't mean he was a uh, homo - did they?'

Plenty of What it Takes is great fun, in a teasing, voyeuristic kind of way. But in defending most of the candidates (he reserves a special scorn for Bush) against the rigours of 'life in the bubble' he softens the bite that his rhetoric urges him towards. A book dedicated to demonstrating the awful perils of excess should not, perhaps, so thoroughly dull the appetite of even the most voracious reader; and a book about politics could afford to dedicate a few pages, when there are so many available, to political ideas rather than just public relations.

That's Cramer's point, of course. Most of the guys in the book turn out, at some time or other, to have been whizz kids - A-grades all the way, captain of everything. It is 'the system', the need to memorise the names of all those fund- raisers, the need to light candles to the occult cant of family values and so on, that burns off the best candidates and turns the rest inside out. But this book ignores the 'issues' as strenuously as the most gossipy newspaper; and in focussing so exclusively and extensively on the medium rather than the message, it risks becoming the very thing it seeks to satirise: huge, unwieldy, exhausting and neurotic. What it Takes is something more - or maybe less - than this.

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