Remembering Richard Ben Cramer and his magnum opus

Jules Witcover says the former Sun reporter wrote perhaps the best book on a presidential campaign

January 10, 2013|By Jules Witcover

An old reporter often begins his daily routine by turning to the newspaper's obituary page with mild trepidation, fearing another friend has gone to that great newsroom in the sky. So it was this week in reading of the death in Baltimore, at only 62, of Richard Ben Cramer, arguably the best writer of a presidential campaign chronicle ever.

That would be his 1,047-page opus of one of the less memorable contests, in 1988, among six less-than-heroic candidates: Republicans George H.W. Bush, the eventual winner, and Bob Dole; and Democrats Michael Dukakis, the eventual party nominee, Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden and Gary Hart. The book was called "What It Takes: The Way to the White House," and it came out four years later. By then, the political world had moved on to another presidential campaign starring the same Bush, this time a loser to Democratic upstart Bill Clinton.

Mr. Cramer's book didn't ignite any fires immediately, because the supposed highlights of the 1988 campaign — Mr. Bush's "Tension City" debate with Dan Rather, the self-destruction of Mr. Hart by way of Donna Rice, a helmeted Mr. Dukakis in an Army tank, Dan Quayle as no Jack Kennedy — had all long since been reported to death.

Mr. Cramer, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, took a different, unorthodox but brilliant approach by examining at uncommonly close range the six men themselves and the people around them. He did so in encroaching yet delicious detail, describing what it really took, and took out of, the six in the course of the grueling quest for the Holy Grail of American politics. Only after the book was out awhile did discerning readers realize what he had wrought.

Through anecdotes beyond end, the author told with the bark off what made each of the six vulnerable to the vagaries of their personal vanities, weaknesses and shortcomings as they strove valiantly if often desperately to "connect" — to strike a chord individually with millions of fellow Americans in a mad exercise of mass communication that increasingly relied on impersonal television while dragging the candidates through countless rallies across a vast nation.

The Cramer style was the antithesis of that of the heralded creator of the presidential campaign chronicle, Theodore H. White, whose "The Making of the President 1960" won the Pulitzer Prize and whose three sequels were all huge best-sellers. While White burrowed into the candidates' inner workings to produce the inside stuff, Mr. Cramer worked what was visible to all but perceived revealingly best by his eye, and reported with the same piercing truth that had earlier won him a Pulitzer on real battlegrounds in the Middle East.

Teddy White, a most cordial superstar always generous with helpful observations to younger reporters but notably cozy with the candidates, was once described as a reporter "who could always go back to his sources." It unkindly conveyed that he wrote to please, not only the readers but the candidates. He reportedly once met a less-connected reporter at the door to a Kennedy suite and told him: "Sorry, no press." He was known to say optimistically that American voters in their innate wisdom always managed to make the right choice.

Richard Ben Cramer could and did go back to his sources, but not because he had written only what they may have liked. He wrote what they doubtless hoped would escape his searchlight into not only their outward behavior but what within them made them behave as they did. And he put them under his microscope long before the campaign officially began, to discern what made them tick from the start.

In each, he found the source of their hunger for acceptance at the core of their quests. (No free samples of the Cramer cornucopia are offered here. The reader needs to find the book and taste the nonpareil for himself.)

It took Mr. Cramer those 1,047 pages to capture what he was after — to tell what it takes within a presidential candidate to muster the sheer will, energy, endurance and conviction that winning the White House was possible, or just to try. In the process, he disregarded chronology (the standard straitjacket for White and later followers) and wheeled the candidates into surgery willy-nilly, finding the answers that made "What It Takes" unique — as was the author.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is

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