I never met legendary reporter Richard Ben Cramer, author of perhaps the best campaign book of the modern era “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” but his is a huge loss for our national understanding of issues large and small.
Before he wrote What It Takes, which details six candidates in the 1988 presidential race — Bush Sr., Dole, Dukakis, Gephardt, Biden and Hart, names I recall from memory from his vivid descriptions in the book I read nearly 20 years ago — he penned a definitive piece for Esquire about baseball legend Ted Williams.
Writing for the Washington Post in 1992, David Streitfeld recalled:
“Several years back he did a profile for Esquire on baseball legend Ted Williams. It was the definitive piece, the first big interview in eons, obsessively researched and written. It was also 15,000 words, which is itself a fair distance to the length of a book.
“Esquire, however, had allotted space for only 13,000 words, and was standing firm. There was no room to print more. But as writers often do, Cramer felt that not one word was expendable.
“So here’s what he did: Went to the magazine at 7 o’clock one night when he knew the editor wouldn’t be there. Told the copy editing department he had been given permission to restore the deleted material. Told the art department that a decision had been made to shrink the size of the type. Went to the production department and made sure the finished pages were immediately shipped off to the printer.
“The next day Cramer sent roses to the three departments, thanking them all for grace under pressure. There’s now reportedly a notice in the Esquire art department forbidding the presence of writers.”
(Cramer said the story, put forward by those promoting his book, was a tad exaggerated. He noted that what particularly ticked off Esquire was that he included the roses in his expenses.)
What It Takes (which Jack Shafer in 1992 called a “swift and beautiful barge of a book”) was six years and more than one thousand interviews in the making. If you haven’t read it yet, buy it today.
“I never set out to write a book about how did they win and how did they lose?” Cramer told NPR in 1992. “What I was trying to cover was what kind of life brings somebody to the point where they think they ought to be president. And then once they get into the process, what happens to that life? And it’s in the nature of this process that every one of these men has put himself and his family into a roll of the dice where five out of six will lose. So naturally there are some painful conclusions. And how they deal with the necessity of coming off the certainty that they will be president is exactly the story I set out to cover.”
“I think it’s an open question whether they’re fit to be president at the end of the process we’ve put them through,” he said. “But it’s also a terrible milling down of the person. I remember so vividly the—the sight of Michael Dukakis at the front of his big plane in a terrible—what I—what I came to call the Mediterranean hunch, with his shoulders up around his ears, not wanting to hear from anyone else that day. There was one night when he sat in the front of his plane and balanced his checkbook, so lonely was he for—for the life he had left behind.”
Rest in Peace, Mr. Cramer.
- Jake Tapper