Remembering — and honoring — Richard Ben Cramer

January 8, 2013

Richard Ben Cramer, author of "What It Takes," died in Baltimore on Monday night. He was 62.

If there's a single book that changed the course of my life, it was "What It Takes." When I say "changed my life," I'm not being hyperbolic: I read Cramer's book in college. It got me interested in Gary Hart, which was, to say the least, an unusual interest for freshman in 2003. But Hart, as it happened, was considering a presidential run. I worked a bit for his pre-campaign, and by the time it folded, I'd attracted the attention of Joe Trippi, a former Hart staffer who was now running Howard Dean's rocket-fueled candidacy. Trippi kindly invited me to Burlington, Vt., where I learned that I hated working for politicians but loved blogging. If I hadn't read "What It Takes," my life might have taken a very different path.

The solace here is that while Cramer's life was cut short by lung cancer, he lived long enough to see his work appreciated for the masterpiece it was. "What It Takes," arguably the single greatest piece of campaign reportage ever published, was met with dismissive reviews and slow sales upon its release, and the cool reception eventually drove Cramer from politics.

But as time passed, the book's reputation grew. In 2010, Ben Smith wrote an article calling it, rightly, the "The book that defined modern campaign reporting." The New York Times, which had initially panned "What It Takes," recently named it “the last truly great campaign book.” NBC's "First Read" wrote today that "we believe there’s just one book every aspiring political journalist and operative ought to read if they want to know whether or not they are serious about this profession: it is 'What It Takes.'"

The pity of "What It Takes" is that to spawned so many shallow, superficial imitations. Cramer drew out the humanity of the 1988 candidates, but he also saw the seriousness of their purpose, and the weight of their quest. Too much of the campaign reporting that has followed has sought the personality quirks without delving into the details.

The result is that, even today, "What It Takes" is a bracing, insightful read, thick with themes that have come to define modern campaign reporting -- the bubble of organization and entourage that descends as candidates become more successful, the relationships between politicians and their advisers, the way luck and fortune are as important or more important than any constituency group. You might not think you want to read a 1,072-page doorstopper on the 1988 election, but believe me: You do. You really do.

More than that, there's a historical injustice to correct. "What It Takes" has apparently never made a bestseller list. It's never had its day in the commercial sun. But it still can. As I write this, "What It Takes" is No. 3 in Amazon's U.S. Politics section, and No. 596 on the entire site. So to resume a campaign I started in 2010, when I read Smith's article, there's no reason it can't have a day at No. 1. In fact, it deserves a day at No. 1.

So if you think you might enjoy this book, buy it today. And if you've read the book before, and you already know how good it is, encourage some of your friends to pick it up, or post about it on your blog, or put it on the Twitter, or whatever it is kids do these days.

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Neil Irwin · January 8, 2013