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Richard Ben Cramer (1950–2013) was an award-winning journalist and author of five books, including the bestselling classic What It Takes (1992). 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 appeared in Time, Newsweek, the New York TimesMagazine, Rolling Stone, and Esquire.
As he recounts the frenzied course of the 1988 presidential race, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Cramer penetrates the riddle at the heart of American politics: How do presumably normal people acquire that mixture of courage, ambition, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate?
"The ultimate insider's book on presidential politics...an unparalleled source book on the 1988 candidates."
— San Francisco Chronicle
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?
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 ..."
"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 ..."
EVENT: HOUSTON SPORTS ASSOCIATION OWNERS RECEPTION
MIX AND MINGLE
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?"
"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.
Excerpted from What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer. Copyright © 1993 Richard Ben Cramer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 1, 2003
Wow, I never knew >1000 pages could go by so quickly! It's written with clarity and humor... absolutely great. If anyone hasn't developed a deeper respect for all of 88's candidates (Especially Bush and Dole... their WWII stories were INTENSE..) after reading this, then, uh, you should read it again... i dunno. hehe. An absolute classic-I enthusiastically recommend it to political junkies of both the left and right.
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Posted February 4, 2013
This book certainly gave a look at the candidates that I had not seen before. It changed my opinion of some of them, not for the better, and left me wondering why I had not been aware of what he was describing for others. Having followed the primaries and general election that year (as always) I wonder why my perception of the candidates was so different from what the author described. As an independent I have a pretty objective view which is how I make my decision for voting.
The chronological order was a big distraction in my opinion. Changing from candidate to candidate was not a problem, but hopping back and forth in years for the same candidate was very distracting. I had to go back to see what the time-frame was for the earlier section and sometimes re-read parts to make sense of it. He could have still changed from candidate to candidate but have kept the time frame in chronological order for each of them. It would have been more readable.
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