Richard Ben Cramer in the Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom, celebrating his 1979 Pulitzer Prize
By Charles Layton
Let me tell you about a guy I knew, who died this week.
The papers ran obits on him, and the Internet has been burning up with commentary about his wildly original accomplishments as a writer. But none of the obits even mentioned that he and a girlfriend once brought a camel into the Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom as a practical joke on one of our editors. And very little of what’s been written so far quite captures the delicious hash of qualities that was Richard Ben Cramer, his mix of hilarious eccentricity, enormous ego strength, superhuman energy and originality as a writer.
At the Inquirer, we all knew Cramer was going to be big. He won a Pulitzer Prize for us in 1979 for his reporting on the Middle East – reporting that included an account of an audacious two-mile walk Cramer took across the no-man’s-land between the Israeli and Egyptian armies. His story simply described what he saw on that little hike; it emphasized not the conflict between the two hostile forces but rather the humanity of the ordinary soldiers on both sides. It was unlike any other battlefield account ever written.
He developed into a brilliant writer for national magazines, which eventually led to a publisher’s contract for a book about the lives of six candidates in the 1988 presidential race. That book, What It Takes: the Way to the White House, is acknowledged now as one of the two or three best books ever written about American politics. Some say it’s the very best.
After Cramer’s death became known this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney called him the greatest political journalist ever, and Joe Biden, who had been a featured character in What It Takes, 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.” Working politicians do not speak that way about any other reporter I can think of. Only Richard Ben Cramer.
In a talk in 2011 to a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania, Cramer explained how he – a writer with no previous experience covering Washington – convinced Random House to give him a book contract. He said he told the editors, “Look, I don’t know who the cast of characters is yet, and I can’t tell you exactly what the story line is going to be, but you just give me a boatload of money and I’ll see you in a few years, and don’t worry, it’ll be fine.” That is Cramerspeak. I cannot verify that those are exactly the words he used in negotiating with the editors, but they do pretty much describe the deal he came away with. His advance, he has confirmed, was in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. Cramer was one persuasive customer.
Having struck that deal, he then had to go out and produce, which proved to be a problem. He arrived in Washington in late 1986 with no contacts and no clout. Most of the politicians who were going to be candidates in the 1988 race had never heard of Cramer. And when he started calling the offices of these bigshots – Bob Dole, George Bush, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt – he couldn’t get an interview with any of them. He was put off, evaded and ignored. Even with his silver-tongued powers of persuasion, he couldn’t get the access he needed to these men.
“So I went to their home towns,” Cramer recalled, “and I talked to their mamas. Because who knows these guys? Their mamas. And I said, ‘Tell me about this kid, who thinks he is so great that he’s gonna be president.’ And they would bring out the photo album and the report cards and all their essays from school, and we would begin to discuss their son.”
After he talked to the mamas he went to see the candidates’ brothers and sisters, and then the mamas’ brothers and sisters, and the dads, and the candidates’ first-grade teachers and college roommates and first employers for summer jobs. And next-door neighbors, and roommates, and old girl friends, “and everybody they ever knew.”
Only after all that did he begin to follow the candidates around on the campaign trail. And by then, after all his meticulous background work, he said, “I wasn’t just another guy on the campaign bus, I was the guy that their Aunt Sarah had been calling them about. In fact, I was their only link to Aunt Sarah… So I was giving them news of their aunts and their cousins and their best friends and their old college roommate who they hadn’t seen for 30 years. And I knew more about their lives than they did at that point.”
Thus did he burrow his way into a deeper access to the candidates than any of the seasoned Washington reporters could ever dream of. He had simply outworked those other reporters. He understood the candidates far better than they did. Hell, he was practically seeing the world through the candidates’ own eyes. And he wrote a book that explained, in glorious depth of detail, how these extraordinary men got to be who they were and what motivated them to take up the most difficult task in politics: running for president.
The book came out in 1992 at 1,047 pages, a daunting length. Also, by the time it was published, the 1988 campaign was long over and a new campaign was under way. Perhaps for those reasons, What It Takes didn’t sell well. Which was a shame, because by the time the book was done Cramer had about burned through his entire publisher’s advance.
Sometime in the ‘90s, after his book was out, Mary and I spent a day and an evening with Cramer and his wife at an old farmhouse property they had bought in Chestertown, Maryland. He showed us around this large, weedy, unkempt place, explaining how he was going to have every room of the house wired for Internet access (the Internet was new then) and fix up one of the outbuildings (some old, falling-down chickenhouse or barn) as a writing office. He seemed almost as expansively enthusiastic about that money pit of a property as he was about his writing. He had grand (maybe grandiose) dreams.
Cramer’s next book would be entirely different; it would be about Joe DiMaggio. He was just starting to work on that one, and when I asked him what his vision for it was, he said he wanted it to be “tissue thin,” in contrast to the brick-thick political book. That notwithstanding, he was already growing obsessed with the research and maybe a little frantic, as was his wont. I came to think that his style of operation was to rope himself into commitments that put extraordinary pressure on himself to do the exhausting work those commitments required.
Published in 2000, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life did indeed turn out to be a much shorter book than What it Takes, but it was, like all Cramer’s work, comprehensively researched and gloriously well-written. It became a New York Times best seller. And although What It Takes failed commercially, it became, after 15 or 20 years, extravagantly praised by writers, literate politicos and, for all I know, scholars. It is still in print.
Cramer always said that what interested him most about presidential candidates was their willingness to pour every milligram of energy into this soul-crushing, family punishing, long-shot gamble to be president. He said he wanted to understand why a person would do such a thing.
But in my opinion Cramer was just exactly that type of person himself – a man who cultivated huge dreams and ambitions and then gambled the whole hacienda to make them come true.
When I think about Cramer I usually think about what Jack Kerouac wrote in On The Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
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