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Column: What It Took to Write a Masterpiece

It’s a shame that Richard Ben Cramer, the memorable writer who died Monday at the age of 62, isn’t around to read his obituaries. Somewhere in the afterworld, one hopes, he’s telling hilarious stories on the subject of vindication and how he came to need it.

Cramer wrote lots of interesting things over the years, but his masterwork was What It Takes, a thousand-page tome about the 1988 presidential election. Getting it written just about did him in, and by the time it reached the bookstores, the 1988 election was long over and the 1992 campaign was in full cry. The reviews were mixed, and some were cruel.

“Sad to say,” Time concluded, “Mr. Cramer topples over his own precipice of excess.” Maureen Dowd, writing in the Washington Monthly, said she’d read it but learned almost nothing. The Boston Globe derided it as What It Weighs. Sales were dismal, and the apparent failure left Cramer, as he said later, “dismayed, bereft, maybe clinically depressed.”

And yet, with the passage of time, people did read What It Takes. Influential people, apparently, because its reputation began to grow by word of mouth. Year after year, it kept growing until the present day, when — as the obits tell us — many consider it the best book ever written about a political campaign.

Cramer used to write for The Philadelphia Inquirer. I was the paper’s metropolitan editor in 1975 when he turned up as a job candidate, and an interesting one at that. He’d been working at the Baltimore Sun, where he’d had a quarrel with the managing editor over a factual issue in one of his stories. The managing editor wanted to publish a correction. Richard objected. When the correction ran against his will, he decided the only honorable thing to do was to resign. As I said, he was an interesting candidate, presenting both flashes of brilliance and certain question marks.

At The Inquirer, we got an early glimpse of his distinctive reporting style when he undertook a feature story about the life of an African-American family. I can’t remember the gist of the story anymore, but I’ll never forget the way he made himself a virtual family member. He was missing from the newsroom for days on end, and when he finally surfaced, he was sporting a new hairdo. Richard was the first white man I ever saw with cornrows.

This total-immersion approach was one of the things that set him apart. He simply couldn’t get enough of the people he was writing about. He wasn’t doing it just to get a story either. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that he loved them.

Love, as you may have noticed, is not fashionable in Washington. Reporters tend to use certain measuring sticks on the politicians they cover, including issues, ideologies, inconsistencies, and blunders. Where does the love fit in? It doesn’t, which may account for some of the visceral reaction to What It Takes.

The book’s assumption is that the people who run for president are actually human beings whose life experiences, starting in the cradle, determine who they are and what they’re likely to do in high office. It also assumes that declaring oneself a candidate for the presidency and enduring all that a campaign entails is an act of audacity that sets presidential candidates apart from just about everybody else — hence the title, What It Takes.

The portraits the book presents of Joe Biden, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, Gary Hart, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole are grounded in the same techniques Richard used in Philadelphia — going to their hometowns, getting to know their families, sitting down for unhurried talks with their old friends and schoolteachers. Since reading the book, I, for one, have always felt I knew the candidates personally, in a rewarding and indelible way.

It deserves mention that Richard wrote other notable books and articles. At The Inquirer, he won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Middle East. Esquire published his acclaimed profiles of Ted Williams, the brilliant but surly baseball star, and William Donald Schaefer, the wonderfully weird mayor of Baltimore. And, lest anyone think Richard was a pushover, his book on Joe DiMaggio pretty much stripped the bark off the Yankee Clipper.

The reason he was successful, I think, is that his work was so keenly attuned to who he was. We’ve read about Steve Jobs, a brilliant innovator but a miserable human being. Richard took another road. Had he not been such a generous spirit, so in love with mankind, we’d never have heard of him.

John S. Carroll is a former editor of the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, and Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, and current chairman of the News Literacy Project.