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The Man Inside the Hopefuls’ Heads

By Martha Sherrill,

If you glanced across a drawing room at Richard Ben Cramer at his Washington book party recently, to see his rumpled and harried countenance, his easy smile, his good humor, his generosity spilling out everywhere -- the man makes friends as easily as Poppy Bush -- you’d feel a bit bad for him. You have to feel bad for him, if you’re sensitive at all. Six years. Six years, writing about six men running for president in the 1988 election. Brave man, Richard Ben Cramer. He suffered a heart attack that turned out not to be a heart attack, but looked for a while as if it might have been lung cancer instead, but turned out to be pleurisy. There was a liver cancer scare too. And a touch of phlebitis. When his back went out, he had to lie on the floor and write with a space pen. He got off unfiltered Camels with nicotine patches, then smoked when he got nervous. He turned 37, then 38, then 39, then 40, then 41. He got married. He became a father. He was running out of money. He was gaining weight. And last summer, after he had all four wisdom teeth pulled, there was a bout with Bell’s palsy that lasted six weeks. Half his face froze up stiff. His smile became tragic.

One is tempted to conclude that Richard Ben Cramer, or at least the miserable flesh that is Richard Ben Cramer’s body, did not wish him to write this book.

This very thought has occurred to him. “When I would get really feeling horrible and sorry for myself,” Cramer says, “then I’d get back to thinking about one of the guys in the book, and their stuff was so much worse than anything that I’ve ever gone through. I felt like, stop whining, you pathetic little creep, just write the goddam book.”

He lets them be heroes. He wants them to be heroes, by fate or fluke or fortune or good genes. Tragic flaws too, larger than life. The book is larger than life too. “What It Takes: The Way to the White House” is more than 1,000 pages. It has the feeling of a masterpiece. It looks like the bumper of a Cadillac. So thick, when you open it, the new-book smell is almost overpowering.

So are the stories. Fast-paced profiles in courage, PT 109-style ... 19-year-old Lt. George Bush being shot down, parachuting out of his TBM Avenger, then getting picked up by a U.S. submarine. Gary Hart’s transcendence over his nerdy childhood in Ottawa, Kan. -- not allowed to smoke or drink or dance or go to the movies. Stuttering Joey Biden, at 8 or 9, being dared to run between the wheels of a moving dump truck -- and doing it. Bob Dole, an infantryman in Italy, spending a month in foxholes under fire, watching the men in his platoon fall, then his own right arm and shoulder being blown up, his spinal cord “knocked out.” Dole’s left for dead, with a big M written on his forehead in blood, so anyone who finds him would know he'd been given one dose of morphine. Two medics get killed trying to get to him. While he waits for others, he doesn't cry -- just moans with his teeth clenched.

"They are all big, extraordinary men," Cramer says. "They are heavy lumps of iron in the magnetic field -- bending everything around them. Their families changed when they were born. Everywhere these guys have gone, the field has bent around them. They are big, big winners. And this goes on today. I mean, they meet people who drop their professions of 20 years to follow them."

Cramer fell in love with George Bush. He fell in love with all the guys. "You start to love them and hate them and worry about them and care for them and all those wonderful things," says Cramer.

"I have no claims to objectivity," he says. "I'm not objective. I never was objective and I'm never going to be objective. Is anybody? I just hope I'm fair."

Most of 1987 and 1988 and 1989, he spent flying around. One year, he was home with his wife, former Rolling Stone editor Carolyn White, a total of 50 days. There were thousands of interviews. Long, formal ones in the Oval Office. Quick ones, a couple of cracks at some advance guys during an event.

He moved in with relatives of Dole's in Russell, Kan. -- who still call the senator Bobby Joe. He pored over Dick Gephardt's Boy Scout troop stuff, and describes Gephardt's mother as "just a fantastic, formidable woman." Cramer flew around with Kitty Dukakis in her private jet for a couple of days, was billed $9,500. "God, it was extreme," he says, "but you had to pay or you couldn't go back." He played horseshoes with Bush, the veep. He even played golf with Bush's sister, Nancy Bush Ellis. There was a joke running around the Hart campaign that Cramer kept asking to sleep under Gary's bed.

The idea was to get inside their heads. Brave man. Their heads, their wives' heads, their cousins' heads, their Aunt Minnies' heads. Their mothers' heads. ("Every one of those mothers," says Cramer, "gave these kids the message by the time they left the house that they could do anything they wanted. There was nobody better than them. And that is across-the-board.") 

He got inside their limousines, their refrigerators, their hotel rooms, their campaign planes, their houses too -- even Joe Biden's money pit of a mansion.

While inside Bob Dole's head, we find out that after the war, he was plagued with anxieties about winding up in a wheelchair, selling pencils on the street. Later, we discover that Liddy Dole has been after him for years about moving to a larger apartment in the Watergate. An hour in the sun, once a week, and Dole can keep his tan forever. He pats his shirt pocket sometimes, where he keeps a prayer. And: 

A lot of people knew that arm was useless, almost paralyzed, but even those who'd watched him for 25 years thought all the operations must have cocked the arm in front of him, fused the bones so the arm bent from the elbow to look almost like a working arm. In fact, it was Bob Dole who made it look like a working arm. If Dole ever let himself rest, that arm would hang straight down, like the arm of a paraplegic. ... But Dole never let anyone see that -- his problem. No matter how many hours he'd been up, or how long he stayed out, no matter how it ached, for hours, or for a whole day, without rest, he kept that arm hiked up in front of him

Cramer goes inside George Bush's head during Iran-contra -- while he navigated that political nightmare. (Reagan, he doesn't understand, thinks it's a movie.) And Cramer has deconstructed what was probably happening inside that mind of Bush's, while, on a trip from China, he uttered the phrase "deep doodoo." It was an obsession, tweezing apart that single, stunning presidential inanity.

"That was the exclusive labor of days and days and days of calling up people," says Cramer. " 'What could the man have been thinking when he said that?' The key element involves understanding Bush's net game with himself. He's got a very supple, quick mind. And when his mouth is moving, his head is thinking a thousand directions. He can see himself from inside out and outside in. He wants to say knee-deep in shit, but he's thinking about how that quote will look in the Wall Street Journal, about his mother and all his East Coast white man friends reading it, about offending the Chinese and about properly representing the Reagan administration. He's lost in this terrible game, playing three nets at once. It's like Super Mario for 30 minutes and the thing speeds up and sometimes he sounds like an utter weenie."

Cramer calls George Jr. "a friend," but he isn't sure about the rest of the First Family. He likes them. He's just not sure the feeling's mutual. Last June, when Esquire excerpted a segment about Bush, he got nice notes, but later suffered a very chilly one from Mrs. Bush.

You see, as Cramer wrote, he did an unusual thing. He sent out sections of his book to his subjects. "No surprises" had been a promise to the candidates. "And I wanted to be corrected," he says, "if anything was inaccurate."

The reactions were mixed. Mrs. Bush, who received the sections about herself and her husband, stopped reading them after a while, because she said it was "too painful, too hurtful," according toCramer. He turned to the president's sister for help on details.

"Joey Biden," says Cramer, "read the stuff, had lots of corrections about his mansion, but his reaction to the book was of such wonderful largeness and humanity." Dole was agreeable about his section, but his wife was pretty difficult. While the Bushes are called "Bar" and "Poppy" in the book, it's noteworthy that Mrs. Dole is "Elizabeth" and not her well-known nickname, "Liddy."

"Of all the people I showed the stuff to," says Cramer, "she was the worst to me, by far."

Gov. Dukakis presented another problem. He doesn't see himself very clearly, according to Cramer. "I felt that if I was right about Michael," says Cramer, "there was no way he could see that. He's just too out to lunch." Ultimately, Cramer decided not to send Dukakis his sections, mostly because he was "given to understand that he would not read it anyway." It was a difficult choice to make, he says, and Cramer worries now a bit about it. "I think I might have wimped out a little."

Guaranteed Page-Turner There's no index. Cramer wrangled over that decision for years. It seems a little arrogant to some, but Cramerhas an explanation: "There's no index because I'm sick of all these Washington {jerks} who just wander into Trover bookstore and flip to the back for their names, read the stuff and never buy the book. Goddam, I'm gonna make 'em buy it."

Years of Flamboyance Cramer talks in slo-mo. He talks in his own accent too. It's street-dude, folksy, slangy. He says "da book" and "da plane" and "dat problem." They still do a good impression of it around Dole's office. And when you interview his old friends about him, dey start talking dat way too. He sounds Cajun. He grew up in Rochester, N.Y.

He became a reporter because his fastball wasn't good enough, he says. He did the high school newspaper, his college newspaper -- at Johns Hopkins. The Baltimore Sun wouldn't hire him out of college, in 1971, so he went to Columbia for a master's. He got the Baltimore job in 1973.

Pretty soon, he became the obvious star of the metro section. "He cut quite a figure and he was pure adrenaline," remembers Steve Luxenberg, then a younger reporter at the Sun and now editor of investigative news at The Washington Post. "He came in every morning and stopped at the cafeteria to get five cups of coffee. He set them up on his desk and drank them, one after the other."

He covered City Hall. Scandals and investigations and so forth. Some say Cramer loved to make folk heroes out of semi-sleazebags. This is a charge he's not ashamed of, but he doesn't want any of his former folk heroes to read it. He left the Sun after three years. It was probably time for him to move on, anyway, but his departure was hastened when the editor ran a front-page correction of a storyCramer had written, which he still maintains required no correction.

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, he covered transportation. He got the New York bureau spot, after "badgering them," and covered the Son of Sam murders, the New York blackout of 1977 and the mayor's race among Ed Koch and Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo and Abe Beam and "everybody else in New York," says Cramer, "and it was just wonderful."

"He had rather odd hours for a bureau chief," says Luxenberg. "I remember him waking up at 2 and 3 in the afternoon."

But he hustled too. Sent to the Middle East for a couple weeks -- a special assignment to cover the peace talks between Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat -- Cramer stretched it into a seven-year gig. "I loved being overseas," he says. "The paper didn't have any money then, so they didn't have a bureau or anything, and so it was, like, a suitcase thing." After less than two years, in 1979 and at the age of 28, the suitcase thing got him a Pulitzer Prize.

"It wasn't me so much," he shrugs modestly now, "as it was the peace talks."

His clothes now look pretty modest too. Standard brown canoeing moccasins and baggy work shirts. His hair looks like a lawn that's probably better left unmowed. But let's not be fooled. He's ambitious, driven, strong-willed. Says David Hirshey, his longtime editor at Esquire: "I think his book is very much autobiographical. There's nobody more charming or ruthless than Richard."

In past years, he was famous for wearing white dinner jackets with sneakers, for his working hours (11 p.m. to 5 a.m.), for his tenacity, his expense accounts, his flamboyance. On one visit back to Philadelphia from Cairo, he arrived in the newsroom with a camel and a goat. He brought them up in the elevator.

On another trip back, in 1983, he met Carolyn White. He'd burned through all the editors by that point, he says, and "was blaming them for my problems. When, all of a sudden, in walks this woman, Carolyn White. She was a magazine editor and I'd never met her before. I'd heard about her. I just hadn't met her. And so I kind of, you know, stood up and I said, Oh, been wanting to meet you. I was completely poleaxed. I was in love. I was a goner. I was finished."

Within eight minutes, they'd gone into an office to be alone, he says. In a short time, he'd moved his stuff from Rome and was living with her. "A friend of mine said, Oh, you just want some of that 24-hour editing." Cramer says during that period of his life, he was "so in love I couldn't do anything but write advance obits." (And, when Begin died in March, the Inquirer chose not to run the obituary thatCramer had written because, says Cramer, "it was 186 inches long.") 

Within a year, they'd both quit the Inquirer and moved to New York. White became an editor at Rolling Stone. Cramer wrote for magazines. He became legendary there too, not just for working habits and attire, but for his classic profiles -- of Ted Williams and then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer -- and for reporting obsessively and writing long. "I lost money," says Cramer, "on every story I wrote."

"Every piece was a death struggle," says Hirshey at Esquire. "And afterwards, there was my blood on the wall, not his."

Picking a Live-In 

At first, Cramer was going to do Da Book on Richard Nixon. This was in the spring or summer of 1986, he can't remember exactly. Nixon was making a comeback. Nixon was resurfacing. His name here and there, editorials, another book, lecturing ... 

"I couldn't believe it," says Cramer. "Nixon came back for something and I didn't know what it was. What was driving the guy? He won't stay dead! He has that kind of will -- obsessive will -- where you've got to drive a stake through his heart or he just keeps coming."

White said no. Obsessive will or not, she was not going to "live withRichard Nixon" in her house for however long it took Cramer to write that book. ("And let's face it," says David Rosenthal at Random House, "Richard couldn't write his own name in a year.") 

"Why not do Reagan?" she asked.

"But he was already in the White House," says Cramer. "And I had decided I needed to do somebody from the start. I wanted to know how they got there."

So, the summer of '86, Cramer began living with Bush and Dole and Dukakis and Hart and Gephardt and Biden for six years. He even named his cats "Poppy" and "Bobster."

So, how has it been? 

The Real Hero 

Everybody keeps saying that Bob Dole is the true hero of the book. Of all the life stories, people say, his seems the weightiest, most full of pain and dedication and courage. But this is probably not true. The real hero of "What It Takes" is probably Carolyn White.

"Did she edit you?" a colleague asks.

"She carried me," he says.

Brave Carolyn White, 24-hour editor. She's Southern and funny and gorgeous. She's also two years past the revenge fantasies aboutRichard. Thousands of pages. Thousands of yellow Post-It notes. White read them all. White edited it all.

"I would write and cut and Carolyn would cut," says Cramer. "And then, when something got to be a chapter, she would go at it again and again and again." Let's forget about Cramer's hardships -- illness scares and misery and all those bills from Kitty Dukakis's jet and Air Force Two that he had to pay for with his Visa card. Forget that his advance on the book, rumored to be a half million dollars, was eaten up in travel and hotel expenses. Forget that Cramer has been able to support himself over the past year only through excerpts, in Esquire and elsewhere.

Have you heard about the storm that visited Cramer's six-bedroom cottage in Cambridge, Md.? White was out on the lawn and the wind picked her up and blew her into the stump of a rosebush. Her face landed right on the brick edging, and her front teeth were smashed. She was pregnant with their daughter, Ruby.

On the last night -- the last night of all the nights -- when Cramerwas writing the epilogue, when the epilogue was due the next morning, White says, she couldn't stand the sound of the keyboard anymore, that clacking, clacking, clacking. Cramer was stuck on a section about Manuel Noriega. He kept writing and writing, clacking and clacking. It had been six years. Three years of not seeing him. Three years of clacking. She went into the bathroom and closed the door and sat on the floor.

"I was just gathering strength," she says.

But when she could still hear the clacking -- Richard writing more words that she'd have to edit, more pages and more pages of more words -- she started singing Christmas carols to herself.

That was this April.

Heroism. White lived with a man so obsessed and weird that while he was trying to write the book, he started building something mysterious in the side yard. He wouldn't say what. White assumed -- no, prayed -- that it was a little shack for the two ugly aluminum garbage cans she hated having to look at when she looked out the window to the Choptank River. They'd been having bad fights about those aluminum cans.

Cramer just started ordering expensive lumber one day, when they couldn't afford anything expensive. First he built a wall of latticework. Then he began something even stranger, which, from White's snapshots, looked like the O.K. Corral. It was way too big and ornate to be the garbage area: It had outdoor lights, a sink, miles of counter space. (Plumbers had helped him. Electricians had helped him.) 

Maybe that's a gardening table, White thought.

Then Cramer began digging. He seemed to enjoy it. He was digging holes for the rambling roses that White wanted to plant all over. And the foxglove. He took a hose and filled the holes with water to check the drainage -- roses can handle poor soil, but not bad drainage -- but the water just sat there. A pond. Cramer dug more ditches. He filled them up. More ponds.

"See how thin he was," White says, while looking at the snapshot of Cramer holding a shovel at the bottom of a pretty deep hole. "I should make him go back to ditch digging."

So Cramer, between writing his book in the morning and then later that night, planned a drainage system under the grass, and got the white pipe and all that. White has another picture of him, standing in the same ditch, not filled with water but with this confusing network of white pipe.

There's another picture: blooming red roses everywhere, bushes and ramblers. And foxglove too. An enormous gardening table with a sink.

"You wanted to know what it's like living with Richard?" asks White. "That's what it's like. We have these wonderful roses, but still have no place to put the garbage."

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