Cramer finds his way into political minds and lives Unorthodox Writer


Cambridge --

There's this story about Richard Ben Cramer . . .

And another.

And another.

And another.

In fact, there are as many stories about this guy as there are stories he has written. And that's saying a lot.

There's the Richard Ben Cramer who was plopped into the Middle East by the Philadelphia Inquirer on a day's notice to cover Menachem Begin's trip to Cairo. A total rookie to this arena, and lacking any access to traditional diplomatic sources, Mr. Cramer covered stories by talking to people in bazaars and such. Such an unorthodox approach helped win him the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. He was 28.

There's the guy who has written some of the most memorable magazine pieces in American journalism, full of fact and incision and great writing -- like the one he did on William Donald Schaefer for Esquire in 1984. He called Mr. Schaefer "Mayor Annoyed, the best mayor in America," and wrote of the then-chief executive of Baltimore: "As most cities learned hard in the last twenty years, you don't need a charming, wavy-haired talker for a mayor. You need the toughest, canniest, most obsessive sonofabitch in town."

And he throws himself into it so much: To write a story for Esquire on Ted Williams, Mr. Cramer hung around with the friends of the notably press-shy baseball Hall of Famer for a month before approaching the great man himself. He worked so hard and so long on his Esquire and Rolling Stone pieces of the 1980s, Mr. Cramer tells you now, that "I lost money every year."

It's no surprise, then, that his first book, the just-published "What It Takes: The Way to the White House," brings with it a chock-a-block of stories about the writer to go along with the many jammed into its thousand-plus pages. Like how, in the six years from inception to conclusion, it nearly busted his health (bouts with pleurisy and Bell's palsy) -- and his bank account, too, despite an advance his editor says was "in the middle six figures."

Like how he came back to six of the biggest movers and shakers in American politics time and time again, got to sit at their knees. And how he got Bush and Dole and Dukakis and Gephardt and Biden and Hart to open up and tell him, yes, this was what it was really like to run for president in 1988.

A storyteller's acumen

It is the biggest story in a series of memorable stories for Richard Ben Cramer, and one he tells with a storyteller's acumen. On this warm June day, he is sitting on a chair on the front porch of his 60-year-old farmhouse outside Cambridge, which he shares with his wife, Carolyn White (a former editor at the Inquirer), and their 23-month-old daughter, Ruby. They've been living in the house for three years now, both to save money after living in Washington and to give Mr. Cramer the opportunity to write in peace. He can look from his porch and take in a majestic view of the broad Choptank River -- "When the storms come in off the river from the north, it's like nothing you've ever seen."

He's 42, from Rochester, N.Y., and a 1972 graduate of Johns Hopkins University. He is big and easygoing, with a deep voice enriched by countless filtered cigarettes -- his chain-smoking betrays the nervous energy behind his casual, folksy demeanor and dry wit.

Mr. Cramer began covering politics as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun from 1973-'76, before moving on to the Inquirer and then to magazine journalism in the mid-'80s. But he concedes that "What It Takes" "changed the way I looked at politics altogether. I thought I knew a lot, but it turned out I knew nothing."

He emphasizes, though, that "What It Takes" is not meant as another campaign book. "The question that I started out with was, why do all of these fellas seem cut off? Why do they look like they don't know what's going on in normal American life? I wanted to know how these fellas got the way they are, and so what I set about trying to do was not actually write about the campaign but the lives that brought these guys to the campaign. And then, once I got in, what happened to those lives?"

He never got Jesse Jackson to agree to the project -- "He was getting into the bubble in a way he had never done before, and it was impossible for him to slow down and deal with someone on any level of candor" -- but through months of persistence he persuaded the other six candidates to talk an hour here, some moments there, during the hectic campaign and afterward. It was a difficult task: They were men who were always looking outward at the world, as if life was nothing but a series of challenges. But he got them to look deep into their souls and tell their own stories.

He got them to open up about divorce, and the death of a wife and daughter, and war wounds, and the most abject disappointments and failures. And in relating all this to an interviewer, he tells of these encounters with a storyteller's adept pacing, and with -- what else? -- one story piled atop of another.

There was, for instance, discovering that the way to a candidate's heart and mind was through Mr. Cramer's stomach.

It seemed that everyone wanted access to George Bush, Robert Dole, Joseph Biden, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis during the 1988 campaign. But who else did the trick by going to the candidates' hometowns to schmooze with family and friends, hoping to show his potential subjects that he really wanted to know about them as people and not just easy targets? Who else tried to reach Robert Dole by eating fried chicken in Russell, Kan., and munching the homemade cookies of the good senator's aunt?

The end result, says the senator himself, is that the book tells "what Bob Dole is really like. I thought he broke through the ceiling pretty well. I was struck by the work he had done. I don't know of anybody who has ever done the research on me that Richard Cramer has done."

The Bushes, Mr. Cramer says, "were very nice about the first excerpt that ran in Esquire, which had the very difficult part about their daughter [Robin] who died [of leukemia at age 3]. And I got a very sweet note from the president and a separate one from Barbara as well. He basically thanked me for understanding him so well.

"Then Barbara Bush got mad at me for the second excerpt because it was about white people. She thought that I was making George Bush look like a racist, when in fact it had nothing to do about race but about class. I sent her all the Bush pages, but she read only a certain amount and no more because she said they were too hurtful and I was crazy. She is a woman who minces no words."

Although Mr. Cramer says he and Mr. Hart hit it off ("by far the smartest guy I talked to"), he acknowledges the former Democratic senator from Colorado had trouble with the passages written about Donna Rice: "I don't know how he ultimately feels because that's not something he'll ever bring up with me."

You-are-there style

The book almost assuredly is unlike any other book on presidential politics. Written in Mr. Cramer's vivid, you-are-there style, it follows the journey of the six candidates through their eyes; he calls them his "collaborators" and showed them what he was writing "every step of the way. . . . I wanted them to keep correcting me and telling me how they saw it. So once they found I would deal with them in entire and unprecedented

candor, to the point of calling them up and actually reading the thing that I was writing to them -- I literally would read whole pages, whole chapters to them."

Such a collegial approach might make journalistic purists cringe, or fear that "What It Takes" becomes an extended puff piece. But the book features some extraordinarily vital writing about the candidates.

There's the section on Mr. Dole's growing up in poverty in small-town Kansas, and his long and painful recovery from a serious wound during World War II ("One day, back by the garage, Bob fell and couldn't get up. 'Never gonna work . . .' he was muttering afterward. 'Terrible . . . crawling around like an animal.' "). There's the sympathetic look at Mr. Bush's much-reported-upon privileged childhood, and Mr. Biden's loss of his wife and young child in an auto accident, and Mr. Hart's anguish at being banged around unmercifully by the national press.

Getting that close to the candidates, he says, made him realize that "All of these guys have tremendous personal power. You have to understand that one of the ways they get to the point where they think they can be president is that people change their lives for them. That comes from a kind of power that has nothing to do with their office, or their job at the moment.

"It comes from personal force, a personal suasion that they possess and that they seem to have always possessed. . . . So when they walk into a room, they expect to convert its occupants. They expect to make their way through the world by their will."

And, he discovered, "There were some interesting parallels. There were some obvious ones -- ambition and will and focus and discipline and just the raw motor speed of these guys is

impressive and common to them.

"But also you find similarities in their upbringing. All have incredibly dynamic moms. And it's not just that they were great and strong women. They used their strength to instill in these kids so that by the time they left their houses, they had the idea they could do anything they wanted, and that there was nobody with a better chance of doing it than them.

"The other surprises I found were how much hardship these fellas had gone through. Every one of these guys had troubles in their lives that might have crushed another person -- the loss of a child, illness or family tragedies that might have knocked another person off track. Every one of these guys came back stronger."

Mr. Cramer writes with particular feeling about Gary Hart's problems with the press. He strongly criticizes the journalistic and political establishments, acknowledging, "I was pretty hard on them, because I think they're pretty much in the snake-oil business." He feels the press was uncomfortable with Mr. Hart (". . . everybody knew Hart was weird," he writes sarcastically) and thus mounted a campaign to destroy him. It's a thesis some Washington reporters dispute.

"I find that theory almost laughable," says Tom Fiedler, the political editor for the Miami Herald. "That sounds so similar to the Jesse Helms version of this Washington-New York media conspiracy, where even if we don't share the same agenda, we have the same genes -- that we got together and were propelled to a certain course."

Reporting criticism

Howard Fineman of Newsweek, whom Mr. Cramer contends wrote a slanted and dishonest cover story on Mr. Hart, answers: "I was actually pretty proud of that bit of reporting. And I think we put our finger on key questions of his character and suitability for the presidency. . . . I haven't found too many people who in the end felt we ruined a man who should have been president."

In conversation, Mr. Cramer often speaks familiarly of the people he talked to -- "Joey" Biden and "Bar" Bush, for instance -- and with unabashed affection (though he acknowledges his difficulties in working with Mr. Dukakis: "He's out to lunch. Michael is one of those guys who is always fine. . . . Obviously, it's his method in life not to recognize what is going on"). So the question occurs: Is Mr. Cramer sensitive to criticism that he might have been seduced by his subjects?

"I very happily admit that I was seduced -- and re-seduced," he says easily, blowing cigarette smoke up

ward. "I wanted to feel their appeal, because how else can you understand what they've done in their lives? And objectivity is something that I've never claimed in any of my businesses, but what I hope I eventually arrive at is fairness."

A six-year involvement

He goes on, with startling candor: "I don't think that anyone can fail to see that I have been in love with these men. If thinking about them for six years straight and trying to understand how they really felt and how the world seemed to them is not love, then I don't know what is."

If it wasn't love, it certainly was the next best thing. Take this from David Rosenthal, his current editor at Random House and former editor at Rolling Stone: "You want to strangle him occasionally, because Richard will sometimes overdo it. I don't mean that in any pejorative way. It's just that you can tell him that he's right on such-and-such a deadline, and he says, 'I only have another six or seven hundred pages to go.' "

"It was fascinating and nerve-racking and exhausting," Mr. Cramer says of covering the campaign. "I always had the feeling that wherever I was, I was supposed to be in two other places, because I was trying to cover six lives. It was white-knuckle time the whole year, and I could never slow down to see what I had. But the weird pressure that I felt helped me understand the weird pressure on them."

And when he sat down to write, "I was on the phones every day, reading stuff back to people or asking them more questions about what they were thinking at the time. My phone bill was staggering, the travel bill was staggering, and the dinner tabs were staggering -- as my newfound 45 extra pounds show, I did a lot of work over dinner."

But if Mr. Cramer has anything to say about it, he won't be doing any more work for a while. "I am so burned out by what it took to write this book," he says convincingly. "I would love to take a year off if I could.

"What will I do next? I don't really know, although it might be good to do a magazine piece -- something shorter. But whatever it is, it will have to drive my engine in the same way that 'What It Takes' did."

. . . And although they [members of the Washington press] could emerge better-known by any of a half-dozen routes -- by the grace of their prose, their consistent good judgment, their steadiness through a campaign's sharp turns, perhaps by spotting early some lesser-known candidate with a spark of greatness -- those were, well, mild . . . much too easily lost in the shuffle. The only sure route to celebrity, and beyond, into history -- to their own index entry in the next Germond and Witcover epic -- was to take somebody down.

Of course, best of all, a front-runner . . . hell, they didn't have to be ambitious to want to knock Hart off his horse. Not only was he weird, he was four-to-one over the next guy in the polls -- and the next guy was black! It's a year to the first convention and there's no horse race! This thing -- their thing -- could be over!

Unless they could . . . somehow! . . . write the weirdness.

-- from "What It Takes," by Richard Ben Cramer


Current position: Writer.

Born: June 12, 1950, Rochester, N.Y.

Personal: Married to Carolyn White; one daughter, Ruby Winifred White Cramer, 23 months.

On the title of his book: "When you see that title 'What It Takes,' it's kind of a double-edged sword. [The candidates] all want to prove that they have what it takes, but in the process they find out what it takes from them. This brilliant life that has taken them to the point where they could run is turned completely on its head. And win or lose, it's over. What it takes is their lives, and we demand that of them."

On interviewing Bush after the 1988 election: "We had the whole Oval Office thing. You know, you think you're just going to have an intimate little chat with the president, but not only is there a staff photographer but also three or four aides, and aides to aides in chairs along the back, and then there's this lady from the White House stenographer's office with a boom mike that shifts from you to him, so that none of the president's remarks are missed. It's tough if you want to just kick back and talk to the guy."

On calling the candidates "collaborators": "I was trained in journalism where the ethic was, 'The hell they're going to get to read it first. Let them pay their quarter and read it along with everyone else.' But I don't believe in that for this kind of project because if this is going to have merit, it is going to be from behind their eyes."

On his most difficult subject: "Dukakis was probably the hardest to write because he's very emotional, but he has always been intent on disguising emotion in his public life. This was part of his problem in the campaign and was a great problem for me as well, because what I was covering was that internal monologue that had to do with him coping with the exegeses of the life he

had chosen."

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