An Encounter With Greatness
Washington — The first time I met Richard Ben Cramer, who passed away Monday at age 62, I thought he might shoot me.
That wasn’t Cramer’s fault but rather the circumstances. I had come to Cramer’s farmhouse at the end of a dirt road in a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on a sweltering summer day at the behest of a college-aged kid I had never met named Jack Bohrer.
Jack had noticed that myself as well as the three other political reporters in the car — Politico’s Jonathan Martin, Slate’s Sasha Issenberg and Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith — regularly mentioned our reverence for What It Takes, the 1,000-plus page masterpiece that Cramer had written about the 1988 presidential campaign, in our own work.
He said he knew Cramer, had met him while attending Washington College, and that the author wanted to meet us. So, we trekked out there — Politico editor John Harris compared the trip to Bob Dylan going to bow at the altar of Woody Guthrie — without knowing whether Bohrer really even did know Cramer or whether the legendarily idiosyncratic man even wanted to meet us.
As Jonathan pulled his Jeep Cherokee into the driveway, someone joked that Cramer would greet us with a shotgun and demand we get off his property. Everyone laughed — nervously.
That — as you have now surmised — didn’t happen. Instead, Richard, baggy cargo pants bulging, beard scraggly, glasses slightly askew, greeted us at the front door of the house and invited us in.
We spent the next five hours grilling him about how he executed What It Takes and what he was working on now. (If you have ever seen the Saturday Night Live skit of Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney, you get a sense of what we were like with Richard.)
Richard’s girlfriend, who became his wife on Valentine’s Day 2012, served us homemade soup. Richard told us about how good a real estate guy Joe Biden was and how he thought Martin O’Malley would make a good president. He told us about the difficulties of the book he was currently working on about Yankees Star Alex Rodriguez. He told us about how he had won over the notoriously press-shy Ted Williams by moving to the town where the Splendid Splinter lived in Florida and making enough friends that they wound up pressuring Williams to give him an interview. (The result of that interview was a 1986 Esquire profile of Williams that remains one of the most insightful things ever written about the enigmatic Red Sox great.)
And he told us — without actually saying it — about how much it had hurt him that What It Takes had been received so poorly at the time of its publishing in the early 1990s. The Boston Globe slammed the book as “What It Weighs.” Maureen Dowd, writing in Washington Monthly, said that after reading the entirety of Cramer’s work “I can’t say I’ve learned anything fundamentally new about any of the candidates.” The New York Times review was the one, however, that irked Cramer the most; “What it takes to navigate What It Takes is a great diligence and a tolerance of all manner of distracting mannerisms,” wrote Time magazine’s Laurence Barrett.
What we four were doing then was reclaiming and reshaping Richard’s memory of the book. Not only was it not bad but an entire generation of political reporters had grown up regarding it as the Ur-text of campaign coverage.
After that night, I knew I wanted to do more on Richard and his book. So, when I finally decided to write a book of my own, a venture he aggressively encouraged, I decided that one of the chapters would be a profile of Richard.
On the first day of my book leave, I made the two-hour drive to the Eastern Shore and spent an afternoon with Richard in his writing shack, a small building behind the main house where he did most of his work. Richard sat behind his desk and chain-smoked cigars, dressed in a huge, white wool cardigan sweater. Again we had soup and bread. We spent an hour talking about the state of political reporting and the people we both knew and liked (and those we didn’t).
Then I walked Richard through his life story and how he came to write What It Takes. He was generous, honest and, at times, ruthless. I left that afternoon exhilarated and as soon as I got home I knocked out the first words of The Gospel According to the Fix — a chapter entitled “What it Takes to write What It Takes.”
When the book came out last summer, I sent Richard an autographed copy thanking him for opening up his home and himself to me. He sent me an email back, an email I saved and read occasionally when all of the negativity of covering a presidential campaign weighs me down.
Here’s what Richard wrote to me:
“So, thank you for the book, which looks great, and reads with grace. And thank you for the inscription, which is too kind by half. And thank you for the profile (see grace, above) of me and the big, fat book, which is too kind by something close to 7/8ths, but I’m delighted with it, and I’ve only read it three or four times, but it seems to cover the ground I hope, when I croak, they find your book.”
I am thankful for the time I got to spend with Richard and glad that he knew that there were a whole lot of us in the political world who didn’t just like What It Takes but revered it. Richard, like all great writers, leaves his work behind to be enjoyed. And, I will enjoy it right along with everyone else.
But, what I will really treasure is sitting across from him on a chilly February day, cigar smoke wafting all around him as he expounded on “these guys” — politicians — and what made them tick. Richard Ben Cramer was one of the true greats. I will miss him.