Richard Ben Cramer: An appreciation

    Richard Ben Cramer, a legendary journalist who died all too young yesterday at 62, wrote a book about presidential candidates that will endure for generations. Read it. You’ll be amazed how fast 1000 pages can fly. Put simply, What It Takes is the Citizen Kane of political writing.

    Just as Citizen Kane shattered all the conventions of filmmaking, Cramer’s book throws out the political reporters’ rulebook. Just as Orson Welles indulged his wildest cinematic ambitions, Cramer reported deeply and wrote boldy, in a style best described as iconoclastic grandeur. Just as Citizen Kane was often reviled or ignored after its 1941 release, What It Takes was widely attacked by campaign-trail journalists after its 1992 release. The book sold poorly, and Cramer barely saw a dime. But just as Citizen Kane came to be viewed as a classic, What It Takes during the past two decades has similarly cemented its timeless status. (And how fitting it was that when PBS aired its 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, it was narrated and co-written by Cramer.)

    Cramer broke all the political coverage rules because he was never beholden to them in the first place. He had never been a journalistic grunt on the campaign trail. He had previously worked as a foreign correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer (back when the paper had money for such things), and as a general-assignment magazine freelancer with an abiding interest in sports figures. Indeed, shortly before embarking on his political book, he profiled baseball great Ted Williams for Esquire magazine, capturing the ornery guy as nobody else ever had or would. (I teach the Williams profile at the University of Pennsylvania.) So when he turned his attention to politics, he was able to approach the topic as an outsider, freed of its journalistic conventions.

    Nobody today would be able to write about politics the way he did. The contemporary news cycle spins too quickly, and it’s too hooked on buzz and heat. Cramer, back in the pre-Internet days of 1987 and 1988, didn’t care a whit about speed – an editor once joked that Cramer took a year and a half just to write his name – and he wasn’t interested in that era’s buzz and heat. He wanted to know what the ’88 candidates were really like deep down – where they came from, what their families were like, what drove them to believe they should be president, “what it takes” to pursue the dream. And he wasn’t cynical about the candidates. He had empathy for all of them – just as a novelist has empathy for his characters, warts and all.

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    In 2010, I decided that Cramer should visit Penn to talk about his unusual process, and about how the book had risen from dud to classic. He was tough to reach. He lived quietly in rural Maryland. He didn’t have a cellphone, and he didn’t have an email account. But with the help of his wife Joan, and a year’s effort on my part, he finally came. During his hour-long talk, on November 9, 2011, he told listeners that he didn’t even hit the 1988 campaign trail until he had first exhausted every possible source in the candidates’ home towns. That process alone took nearly a year. He wanted to know the candidates as people, not as news-coverage caricatures. And when he finally met the candidates, they were stunned – and appreciative – of his efforts.

    “I wasn’t just another guy with a notebook that gets his 15-minute interview,” he said at Penn. “I was the guy that their Aunt Sarah was calling them about. In fact, I was their only link to Aunt Sarah anymore….I knew more about their lives than they did at that point. Which led me to an important truth of the book – which is that, when you run for president, your life is gone. (Your previous life) is completely wiped out by the process of getting that job.”

    Cramer had disdain for conventional reporters who never try to humanize the candidates. In a forum at New York University a decade ago, he said that his stints in the home towns had been “incredibly valuable. What amazes me is that most journalists won’t bother talking to the people who love these guys. They only want to talk to the critics, or at the very least, people who have political reservations about him. Journalists think, ‘What the hell is his sister going to say? She’s going to say that he’s wonderful. Big deal!’ But they are missing the point. The important question is how is he wonderful! If you want to understand how someone got to the point where he is a credible candidate for president of a nation of 250 million people, you’d better damn well know how he is wonderful. But most journalists don’t care about that.”

    You can see why most journalists panned or ignored What It Takes, when it finally appeared after four years’ gestation. An outsider was presuming to tell them how to cover politics. And his conversational neo-Tom Wolfe style turned them off. Maureen Dowd wrote at the time that this prose style was “more annoying than entertaining.” But you be the judge. Here’s just one small passage, about the Scranton misadventures of gutsy “Joey” Biden, three decades before he first ran for president in 1988:

    “There was nothing he wouldn’t do. There are still guys in Scranton today who talk about the feats of Joey Biden. There was, for example, the Feat of the Culm Dump. Culm is the stuff they pile next to the mine after they’ve taken out the coal. Every mine shaft in Scranton had a mountain of culm, and in the fifties, when people weren’t so picky about the air, the stuff was aways on fire. There was just enough coal carbon left in the soot to cause spontaneous combustion; pile would burn for 20, 30 years. So what you had for instance, at the Marvin Colliery, down the hill from Green Ridge, three or four blocks from Joey’s house, was a mountain on fire, lava-hot on the surface, except where it burned out underneath, and then there’d be a pocket of ash where you could fall right into the mountain, if you stepped on it…but, of course, no one was going to step on it…until Charlie Roth bet Biden five bucks that Joey couldn’t climb the culm dump.”

    One paragraph later: “To this day, Joe Biden has never seen the five bucks. Of course, by the time he got to the top, the five bucks wasn’t the point anymore. It was more like…immortality.”

    Vice President Biden, reacting today to Cramer’s death, remembers well how the author portrayed him. He said, “It is a powerful thing to read a book someone has written about you, and to find both the observations and criticisms so sharp and insightful that you learn something new and meaningful about yourself.”

    Cramer got that Scranton material because he had the job he loved. As he said at Penn in 2011, “There’s nothing like it in the world. That notebook in your hands gives you license to ask questions.” He said this, hoping that the students in the audience would follow his lead and keep the flame burning. That would be a fitting legacy.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1 


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