Richard Ben Cramer, who died yesterday at the age of 62, spoke of the work of reporting in 1992 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.: "I think it's the most important, most rewarding, and most honorable thing that an adult can do on this planet is give us the stories that help us understand our own world." And it's for his reporting — particularly his seminal book What It Takes, on the 1988 presidential election, and his reporting in the Middle East at the Philadelpha Inquirer — for which Cramer will be remembered. From Cramer's obituaries so far:
"He had raw talent for writing and reporting and was just so damn good," said Tom Horton, former Baltimore Sun environmental columnist and a newsroom colleague. "He was born to be a journalist and a writer."
[What It Takes] is in many ways the product of a bygone era, before quote approval and a micromanaged press corps, and when minute-by-minute coverage of a presidential campaign or anything else was a technological impossibility.
His book What It Takes is the first book I tell anyone interested in American politics, American culture, and American journalism to read. It is timeless and yet timely, since its cast of characters — those competing for the presidency in 1988 — includes our current vice president, Joe Biden. It is also a remarkably empathetic and humane look at politics and politicians. If you want to understand what keeps these people going, how they can stand it, what they have to endure and why they endure it, this is what you should read.
Journalists aspiring to be great writers still marvel at the opening paragraph of Mr. Cramer's 1981 Inquirer report from Belfast, Northern Ireland, about the funeral of Bobby Sands, a volunteer for the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died during a prison hunger strike:
"In a grimy gray drizzle, under ragged black flags that lifted and waved balefully in the fitful air; to the wail of a single piper, on streets winding through charred and blasted brick spray-painted with slogans of hate; by silent tens of thousands, past fathers holding sons face-forward that they might remember the day, past mothers rocking and shielding prams that held tomorrow's fighters, past old men who blew their rheumy noses and remembered their own days of rage . . . Bobby Sands was carried yesterday to a grave of raw Ulster mud."
Richard cared far more about the people he wrote about than about party or policy. In fact, he unabashedly loved many of the people he wrote about, perhaps because he had worked so hard to understand them: The crooked Maryland politicians he came up with; the misunderstood Ted Williams, whose secret kindness he exposed in an Esquire piece you should read immediately; Bob Dole!; and George W. Bush, who had been a great source of his on the 1988 campaign.
What It Takes is now regarded as the greatest campaign book ever written, but when it was released it was greeted with a collective shrug, coming almost four years after the main event. The book’s timelessness was not yet apparent, let alone an asset. But its reputation has grown as it inspired a generation of journalists who only dimly remember the1988 election in real time.