Richard Connor: Looking for insight beneath the campaign babble

It’s not literature but it is exquisite reading and it has stood the test of time – Richard Ben Cramer’s book, What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

Cramer, who died in 2013 at the age of 62, was among the best journalists of the last several decades, maybe more, and he wrote the definitive account of what drives those who run for president.

The book chronicles the lives of six men involved in the 1988 presidential campaign – George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden and Michael Dukakis – and gives readers an insider’s view into the psyches of individuals whose unique combination of ego, ambition and sense of purpose drives them to seek a job that by many measures is the most important and difficult on earth.

The voting public would be well-served by such insight in the coming months as a historically large and disparate field of candidates spreads across America in pursuit of the presidency. More than a dozen men and at least one woman are expected to seek the 2016 Republican nomination; on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is generally viewed as the nominee-in-waiting, although the independent-socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has thrown his hat in the ring as a long-shot hope for Democrats who might want to thwart Clinton’s coronation.

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Analyzing the motives of candidates who have little or no chance of winning – and that describes most of the field – would be a challenge even for the likes of Richard Ben Cramer. But whether they are driven by unbridled optimism, unconstrained delusion or unmitigated gall, all the would-be presidents are determined to make their voices heard above the babble that often defines the early stages of a presidential race.

Among the officially announced (so far) candidates for the Republican nomination, two have been down this road before: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was a thorn in eventual nominee Mitt Romney’s side in 2012, winning the Iowa caucuses and 10 other states before throwing in the towel; and ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee chased John McCain in the 2008 primaries and parlayed his unsuccessful White House bid into a talk show on Fox News.

Neither Santorum nor Huckabee looks like a major contender in 2016 – and neither do most of the others who have announced or may soon announce official forays into the presidential fray. Does former New York Gov. George Pataki, just to name one no-hope hopeful, really think he has a chance to be the Republican nominee for president?

We might get a better idea what some of these candidates are thinking when the first Republican debate is held on Aug. 6 – or maybe we won’t. Fox, which is hosting and televising the debate, has announced that only the top 10 candidates in presidential preference polls will be allowed to participate. That could very well put Santorum on the sidelines as well as former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and several other candidates whose qualifications may or may not exceed their poll numbers.

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With so many candidates sniping at each other, the eventual winner of the Grand Old Party’s nomination will be a chewed-up carcass by the time he or she faces Hillary in November (just ask Mitt Romney). But for the voters, there could be a benefit to the size of this gaggle, which will be bigger that the eight-horse field American Pharoah crushed in the May 16 Preakness Stakes and maybe as large as the 18-entry stampede that ran for the roses in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier.

The good news about the crowded presidential horse race is that it will be almost impossible to run in it and avoid the press. The candidates need name recognition and a conduit for their ideas, and with all due respect to Facebook and Twitter the press can give them the exposure they need and crave.

That’s refreshing because it appears that ducking the news media is a popular campaign posture these days; Clinton, in fact, has turned inaccessibility into an art form. Politicians may believe – or hope – that the press is not taken seriously and no longer matters but a vital and credible press is among the foundations of liberty in this country.

No matter who’s in and who’s out when the candidates line up for the televised debates, voters will find ways to evaluate the folks who want to lead the country. And one way just might be the old-fashioned way: reading about the candidates in the newspaper.

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Richard Connor is chairman of the Business Press’ parent company, DRC Media. Contact him at