Cramer finds his way into political minds and lives Unorthodox Writer

June 14, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Cambridge --

There's this story about Richard Ben Cramer . . .

And another.

And another.

And another.

In fact, there are as many stories about this guy as there are stories he has written. And that's saying a lot.

There's the Richard Ben Cramer who was plopped into the Middle East by the Philadelphia Inquirer on a day's notice to cover Menachem Begin's trip to Cairo. A total rookie to this arena, and lacking any access to traditional diplomatic sources, Mr. Cramer covered stories by talking to people in bazaars and such. Such an unorthodox approach helped win him the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. He was 28.

There's the guy who has written some of the most memorable magazine pieces in American journalism, full of fact and incision and great writing -- like the one he did on William Donald Schaefer for Esquire in 1984. He called Mr. Schaefer "Mayor Annoyed, the best mayor in America," and wrote of the then-chief executive of Baltimore: "As most cities learned hard in the last twenty years, you don't need a charming, wavy-haired talker for a mayor. You need the toughest, canniest, most obsessive sonofabitch in town."

And he throws himself into it so much: To write a story for Esquire on Ted Williams, Mr. Cramer hung around with the friends of the notably press-shy baseball Hall of Famer for a month before approaching the great man himself. He worked so hard and so long on his Esquire and Rolling Stone pieces of the 1980s, Mr. Cramer tells you now, that "I lost money every year."

It's no surprise, then, that his first book, the just-published "What It Takes: The Way to the White House," brings with it a chock-a-block of stories about the writer to go along with the many jammed into its thousand-plus pages. Like how, in the six years from inception to conclusion, it nearly busted his health (bouts with pleurisy and Bell's palsy) -- and his bank account, too, despite an advance his editor says was "in the middle six figures."

Like how he came back to six of the biggest movers and shakers in American politics time and time again, got to sit at their knees. And how he got Bush and Dole and Dukakis and Gephardt and Biden and Hart to open up and tell him, yes, this was what it was really like to run for president in 1988.

A storyteller's acumen

It is the biggest story in a series of memorable stories for Richard Ben Cramer, and one he tells with a storyteller's acumen. On this warm June day, he is sitting on a chair on the front porch of his 60-year-old farmhouse outside Cambridge, which he shares with his wife, Carolyn White (a former editor at the Inquirer), and their 23-month-old daughter, Ruby. They've been living in the house for three years now, both to save money after living in Washington and to give Mr. Cramer the opportunity to write in peace. He can look from his porch and take in a majestic view of the broad Choptank River -- "When the storms come in off the river from the north, it's like nothing you've ever seen."

He's 42, from Rochester, N.Y., and a 1972 graduate of Johns Hopkins University. He is big and easygoing, with a deep voice enriched by countless filtered cigarettes -- his chain-smoking betrays the nervous energy behind his casual, folksy demeanor and dry wit.

Mr. Cramer began covering politics as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun from 1973-'76, before moving on to the Inquirer and then to magazine journalism in the mid-'80s. But he concedes that "What It Takes" "changed the way I looked at politics altogether. I thought I knew a lot, but it turned out I knew nothing."

He emphasizes, though, that "What It Takes" is not meant as another campaign book. "The question that I started out with was, why do all of these fellas seem cut off? Why do they look like they don't know what's going on in normal American life? I wanted to know how these fellas got the way they are, and so what I set about trying to do was not actually write about the campaign but the lives that brought these guys to the campaign. And then, once I got in, what happened to those lives?"

He never got Jesse Jackson to agree to the project -- "He was getting into the bubble in a way he had never done before, and it was impossible for him to slow down and deal with someone on any level of candor" -- but through months of persistence he persuaded the other six candidates to talk an hour here, some moments there, during the hectic campaign and afterward. It was a difficult task: They were men who were always looking outward at the world, as if life was nothing but a series of challenges. But he got them to look deep into their souls and tell their own stories.

He got them to open up about divorce, and the death of a wife and daughter, and war wounds, and the most abject disappointments and failures. And in relating all this to an interviewer, he tells of these encounters with a storyteller's adept pacing, and with -- what else? -- one story piled atop of another.

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