Just when the 1992 presidential campaign was heading into the full-gallop backstretch, Richard Ben Cramer weighed in with the ultimate book about what it takes — that’s what he called it, in fact, “What It Takes” — to be elected to the highest office in the land.
Only he was four years late. His book about the 1988 campaign, ultimately won by George H.W. Bush, came out just as Bush 41 was on his way out of office in 1992.
Twenty years later, it’s become clear that, even as Bush the Elder was losing his final election, Mr. Cramer emerged as the clear winner.
“What It Takes,” all 1,047 pages of it, was seen, then and now, as more than an insider’s account of a campaign. Overwhelming in its detail, scope, ambition and hubris, the book stands as a classic nonfiction epic, and Mr. Cramer as the writer who broke all the old rules of journalism to make us see politicians in a fresh new light.
It is “arguably the finest book on campaign politics of all time,” author and Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said Tuesday in an interview. “His book is the new standard for anyone wanting to write about politics.”
It also stands as a monument of reportorial access — and excess — that may never be duplicated. Mr. Cramer portrayed, with almost obsessive detail, the inner worlds of no fewer than six presidential aspirants, flying on their campaign planes, living in their home towns, talking to their families and childhood teachers, trying to get at the complex truth of why anyone would want to be president in the first place.
“These cardboard cutouts became human beings, with virtues and vices obvious to all,” said Larry J. Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. “You felt some sympathy and affection even for the ones you didn’t like.”
In our age of instant opinion and 24-hour suspicion, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever get inside the mind of a presidential contender the way Richard Ben Cramer did.
That’s why his death Monday at age 62 echoed so loudly through the circles of politics and journalism. He died of lung cancer at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, his agent, Philippa Brophy, confirmed.
“What It Takes” inspired a generation of younger reporters, but after it was published the ever-restless Mr. Cramer turned away from presidential politics to write about the only other subject he claimed to know anything about — baseball.
Mr. Cramer sought to take the measure of the marble-cast Joe DiMaggio in a 2000 biography that was greeted by sports fans the same way “What It Takes” was among political junkies: as a flawed but brilliant work that peeled away the public mask on a familiar face.
He spoke to DiMaggio only enough for the Yankee Clipper to say he wouldn’t talk. But Mr. Cramer kept plowing ahead, exploring the world of Italian American immigrants in the 1920s, the cloistered, male world of baseball and the Hollywood glare that surprised DiMaggio when he married Marilyn Monroe.
“You could say they met for the sake of her fame — it was one of her press agents who set up Marilyn’s ‘blind date’ with Joe,” Mr. Cramer wrote. “And fame was so tied up in this love story — her fame, and his, and theirs, such a mess of fame — it was both a joy and the sorrow, from the start.”
Not everyone liked the DiMaggio biography. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley called it an “endless book” with prose that “careens wildly from he-mannish to maudlin to street-wise to coy to pseudo-hip to sarcastic to barstool confidential.”
But ultimately, “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life” took its place alongside “What It Takes” as a deep dive into the idea of what it means to climb to the top in America.
Richard Ben Cramer was born June 12, 1950, in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated in 1971 from Johns Hopkins University. After he was turned down for a job by the Baltimore Sun, he went to Columbia University Graduate School of journalism, receiving a master’s degree in 1972.
He finally got his job at the Sun, where one colleague, Steve Luxenberg, now at The Washington Post, recalled in a 1992 Post article: “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.”
After three years Mr. Cramer moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he had a rapid ascent from the New York bureau to foreign correspondent in the Middle East.
He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for international reporting and was a newsroom legend for his prose, which was evocative and not a little self-indulgent.
“He was impossible not to talk with,” his former editor at the Inquirer, John Carroll, said Tuesday. “He was so engaged. Most of the people he talked with looked on him as a friend.”
By the 1980s, Mr. Cramer was living in New York and freelancing for Esquire, Rolling Stone and other top magazines. When his 13,000-word profile of Ted Williams was cut to 11,000 words in 1986, he reportedly went to the production room and said — falsely — that he was authorized to reduce the type size of the story to accommodate the missing words.
No writer of his generation had more dashes per column inch. He casually disregarded grammatical niceties and peppered his pages with frequent ellipses . . . to give his prose the sound of unguarded speech.
“He was so sure he knew where the people stood,” he wrote in “What It Takes” about Joe Biden. “They were like him, he was like them. That’s what he had to show — that he wasn’t some millionaire from Brandywine Hundred, or a whiz kid from Harvard, come to straighten them out. No, he’d be their voice . . . he’d stand up for them. Even if it meant picking a fight.”
Mr. Cramer’s final book, “How Israel Lost,” about the intractable problems of Israel and Palestine, came out to a mixed reception in 2004.
Since then, he had lived in Chestertown, Md., mulling over possible books on the garment industry and the New York Yankees. In December, when he was dying of lung cancer, his publisher, the Hachette Group, filed suit to recoup a $550,000 advance, saying Mr. Cramer had failed to deliver a promised book about Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees by a deadline of February 2010.
His first marriage, to Carolyn White, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his second wife, Joan Smith Cramer of Chestertown; a daughter from his first marriage, Ruby Cramer of New York City; and two sisters.
How Mr. Cramer managed to gain access to so many high-powered politicians remains something of a mystery — although he spoke of smoking cigars with a pre-presidential George W. Bush and playing horseshoes with George H.W. Bush.
“What in their backgrounds could give them that huge ambition, that kind of motor, that will and discipline, that faith in themselves?” Mr. Cramer wrote in the author’s note to “What It Takes,” searching for the deep motive within every politician.
“What kind of faith would cause, say, a dozen of these habitual winners to bend their lives and the lives of those dear to them to one hugely public roll of the dice in which all but one would fail?”