What he gave: Richard Ben Cramer
When Richard Ben Cramer died Monday, at 62, of lung cancer, the outpouring of grief and gratitude began immediately. It’s hard to find a narrative journalist or a serious political writer that Cramer didn’t influence with What It Takes: The Way to the White House, his 1,047-page saga of the 1988 presidential race, or with his newspaper and magazine stories. A 1979 Pulitzer winner for his coverage of the Middle East, Cramer went on to magazines and book authorship with a reporting depth and storytelling style that has influenced countless journalists. “…What It Takes is the first book I tell anyone interested in American politics, American culture, and American journalism to read,” The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote on Monday morning, after hearing the news. The Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten tweeted, “Read his diMaggio and know awe.”
Everyone has a favorite Richard Ben Cramer piece. Esquire’s Tom Junod called his “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” the greatest magazine profile ever written. Here’s Cramer:
He does not go to restaurants, and the reasons are several: They make a fuss, and the owner or cook’s on his neck like a gnat. Or worse, it’s a stream of sportsfans (still Ted’s worst epithet) with napkins to sign. At restaurants you wait, wait, wait. Restaurants have little chairs and tables, no place for elbows, arms, knees, feet. At restaurants there’s never enough food. Lastly, restaurants charge a lot, and Ted doesn’t toss money around. (A few years ago he decided $2.38 was top price for a pound of beef. For more than a year, he honed his technique on chuck roast and stew meat. Only an incipient boycott by his friends, frequent dinner guests, finally shook his resolve.)
Junod’s colleague Mike Sager described Cramer’s 1984 profile of Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer as the piece that “anointed him as the leading member of a new generation of muscular literary journalists.” Cramer’s opening:
I admire “The Ballad of Johnny France” (Esquire, October 1985) because it’s a character-driven narrative with an unexpected protagonist and a campfire-tale voice that complements, without mocking, the subject matter. Excerpt:
By dawn, there were fifty people on the trail or on their way: her parents from Montana State U, all hangs from the dude ranch where she worked, dogs, helicopters, lots of lawmen, Sheriff Onstad from Bozeman. This was tough country, steep and wild, and you couldn’t see ten yards through the timber. Sure enough, two searchers from the dude ranch would have walked right past Kari and her captors. But then they heard the shot.
They busted in on the campsite. Kari was chained up and bleeding. The young Mountain Man was crouched near the campfire, holding a gun, crying: “Oh, God, I didn’t mean to shoot her. Oh, God…” Kari had taken a .22 slug through her lung and out her back.
It was the largest spectacle Belfast ever saw. There was no way to count the crowd that started as a file 10 abreast and a half-mile long, then grew with every passing block to a surging, spreading flood that washed up and broke, finally, amidst the drizzle-darkened stones of a rundown graveyard.
Ryan Lizza, of The New Yorker, wrote about an intimate dinner with Cramer and his wife, wherein Lizza found “Cramer was sickened by the lack of long-form journalism about Mitt Romney and the G.O.P. candidates.” Lizza wrote:
I’m thirty-eight, and, like many writers my age who cover Presidential politics, I first encountered “What It Takes,” Cramer’s magisterial account of the 1988 campaign, as a college student. It was a dangerous book to read so early in one’s career—like falling in love with the idea of becoming a novelist after reading “Finnegans Wake.” Cramer did not really write about politics. He wrote about people who happened to be involved in politics. It was a revelation to learn that campaigns could be covered through deeply reported studies of the characters who inhabited the campaign trail. Though no campaign book has come close to accomplishing what Cramer’s did, he taught a generation of political writers that the two pillars of great nonfiction—immersive reporting and expert storytelling—could turn even a mediocre campaign into high drama.
John Avlon, of The Daily Beast, put the loss in social media terms:
News that Richard Ben Cramer died swept through the Twitterverse on Monday night, even before a hint of his passing hit major news outlets.
It was oddly appropriate, because the cult of Richard Ben Cramer was always first a word-of-mouth initiation, as in: “You’ve got to read this.” Journalists passed his work among them like samizdat, old articles referred to more than read, finally put online after persistent if not widespread demand. He was just that much better than anyone else.
Jonathan Martin at Politico praised the power of Cramer’s craft choices:
The best authors put you in the room and this, above all, was Cramer’s gift. And not only could you see the scene, but you could hear the voices. I still can’t listen to Bob Dole speak without envisioning one of Cramer’s “aghs.” Even if you were 11 in 1988, my goodness, you felt as though you had lived through that campaign after reading “What It Takes.” It’s a political junkie’s best fix.
Even Cramer’s story subjects lauded his methodology. Salon talked to Richard Gephardt and Gary Hart:
Hart described how Cramer slowly earned his trust.
“That was a great part of his methodology. He ingratiated himself in the best sense of the word. He doesn’t push his way into the center, he’s on the fringe, he’s observing, he’s to a degree participating. His style was very rumpled, and almost absent-minded. So you kind of wanted to take care of him.
“He was so gentle and polite to my wife and my kids. My kids liked him an awful lot. And you understand that he’s not doing daily journalism, that he’s not looking for a headline. So as time went on, you just learned to open up to him.”
And here is Cramer himself, on what it took to get the book and, perhaps, the stories that came before and after:
“You cannot overestimate my ignorance at the start of this process. I started out doing it as I thought Washington big-time political reporters do these kind of things – calling up important people in Washington whom I had seen quoted in the papers or seen as talking heads on TV. I wanted to ask them about these candidates because I didn’t really care that much about the campaign – how did they win and how did they lose, etc. I really wanted to know these men, and I wanted to know what kind of life brought them to the point where they could be candidates.”
Thanks, Richard Ben Cramer, and goodbye.