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.”