Although I didn’t know Richard Ben Cramer well, I admired him greatly. Every political junkie should read “What It Takes,” his masterpiece about presidential campaigns. It’s immersion reporting. Cramer got to know his characters and the incredibly drive it takes to seek the presidency. Cramer’s portrait of Bob Dole was particularly powerful. His opening scene of George H. W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game is a classic set piece — something like 35 pages of dazzling description that culminates in a pitch in the dirt.
Cramer, who has passed away at the age of 62, was a hero to many of us. We could imagine that someday we might write something Crameresque. You have to understand the mentality of people coming into the business in the 1970s and 1980s: There was no limit to our ambition. Perhaps it was delusional, but we believed that someone might put literature into a newspaper or a magazine. We believed that long-form, narrative journalism could have as much power and beauty as the best works of fiction. We aspired to be like Wolfe, and studied the craft of John McPhee, and collected the best magazines stories by Gay Talese and, of course, Richard Ben Cramer. There was no limit to what you might achieve in non-fiction literature even if you were, like Cramer, a mere “newspaper reporter.”
There’s not much of a business model these days for long-form journalism, though it still soldiers on, mainly because people really love narrative and are desperate for a good story. And there are still people who are great at telling those kinds of stories. The truth is, there wasn’t much of a business model for Crameresque journalism back in the 1980s, either — because Cramer was the kind of reporter who had to go all the way, who didn’t know how to say “this is good enough, let’s hit the done button and move on.” I dimly recall that Cramer spent six years on “What It Takes,” and that could not have been easy on anyone involved. What he was, I guess, was an artist, and artists don’t compromise. They also don’t spend a lot of time trying to get Twitter followers.
Cramer gave us great stories. Here is a site with links to many of them. And don’t forget to read his classic piece in Esquire about Ted Williams — one of the greatest Esquire stories ever, by the magazine’s own judgment. Here is Matt Schudel’s obit on Cramer in the Post today.