Richard Ben Cramer, a journalist I knew and admired greatly, has passed away at the age of 62.
He will be remembered among political sorts for his magisterial work about the 1988 presidential campaign, What it Takes. I spent a lot of time with Richard that year, riding the buses, talking about books and politics–especially about the risk v. reward calculus when it came to writing books: “Books will break your heart” became our shared mantra, and What it Takes broke his, under-appreciated by his jealous colleagues and under-read by a public too busy and carefree to digest 1000 pages about one of the more boring political races of the past 60 years.
But what a splendid 1000 pages it was! Beautifully written, precisely observed–and with a larger point that beggared the cheap cynicism that had become, and remains, the default position for so many political journalists. Cramer actually dared to appreciate the incredible intelligence, hard work, courage and, yes, character that went into running for President. At a time when most of his colleagues were calling the Democratic candidates for president “the seven dwarfs,” he found a blissfully compelling Irish champion in Joe Biden and reported the anguish of the impassive midwesterner, Dick Gephardt, as the Congressman and his wife struggled with their son’s cancer.
But it was on the Republican side that Cramer found his two classic heroes–George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. Both of them combat-scarred veterans of World War II, both dedicated to service, both easy to weep, both open to making political judgments that might harm their careers. Cramer’s account of Dole’s remarkable recovery from a grievous wound and the post-traumatic stress that accompanied it was the heart of the book. (I’ll never forget one precious detail: As he struggled to rebuild muscle strength, Dole listened to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over and over again.)
Cramer defiantly became friendly with his subjects, especially Biden, Bush and Dole. That may have been a bridge too far for those of who of us don’t dive in, as Richard did, and then leave the political scene. It’s hard to criticize politicians who are also friends (as Daniel Patrick Moynihan became for me). But Cramer’s appreciation of these politicians’ skill and humanity became an example I tried to follow in subsequent campaigns, a crucial antidote to the wall-to-wall ugly that corrodes the political process. (Thus, in 2012, it was important for me to write about the incredible strength of Rick Santorum’s family, even if I disagreed with him on almost everything.)
Cramer’s clear-eyed fairness is a quality badly needed now. A new generation of journalists, without the time or budgets to get to know the people who would lead us–and a new generation of politicians, burned by the gotcha TV reporting and tweeting of the moment (and over-protected by their handlers)–have taken the juice and joy, and a larger accuracy, out of political journalism. There are exceptions. But if you don’t know Mitt Romney, and all he’s willing to say in public is pablum and baloney, it is extremely easy to assume the worst. The hardest story for any young political journalist to write is a positive one about a politician.
It is ironic that Richard passes away as his heroes, Bush and Dole, struggle, in and out of hospitals. But What it Takes will live on and be read, with wonder, by generations of journalists and politicians to come. The book that broke his heart is Richard Ben Cramer’s legacy.