Richard Ben Cramer on How He Did It

Legendary political journalist Richard Ben Cramer has passed away. In July 1992, at the age of 42, he sat down with Brian Lamb of C-SPAN for Booknotes to discuss how he wrote his then just-published masterwork, What It Takes: The Way to the White House.


Below, he discusses his method:

LAMB: How did you get a publisher to put out that size book?

CRAMER: The size of the book wasn't really a problem once you got them involved with the idea. It was my idea from the first to try to write a real human story about these guys and try to let people connect with them in a visceral way so that they felt with them and exulted with them and felt their tragedy and their triumph. By the time I started feeding manuscript into the publisher, everybody was on board and they really weren't too worried about the length. The hard part was in the beginning, trying to sell a book like this. As I'm sure your viewers know, most books are signed up and contracted for before they are written. In this case, I had to go to a publisher, Random House, and tell them, "Well, look, I don't have Chapter One yet and I don't have an outline for you. I can't tell you who the characters will be yet. I can't tell you what the story will be, but you just give me all this money and I'll see you in four or five years. Don't worry. It'll be great." So once you sell a book like that, after that convincing them about the length is just a walk in the park.

LAMB: This book costs $28 to buy if you don't buy it in a discount store.

CRAMER: That's right, although it is being discounted, a practice of which I approve.

LAMB: Is it true that you got a half million dollar advance?

CRAMER: I can't contractually tell you exactly what the advance is, but you're not far wrong.

LAMB: I read that you'd spent it all, too, over that six years.

CRAMER: Oh, yes. Well, you know how it is. If you're following candidates in a campaign, you get on their plane, and what they're generally doing is they're dividing the cost of that charter flight by the number of reporters they're carrying aboard. In effect, the press is buying them that campaign flight. This doesn't seem to matter when it's Kay Graham's money or Otis Chandler's money, but when it's cash out of your own pocket, you begin to feel it. So you could say, in the immortal words of Jerry Lee Lewis, "I spent the hell out of it."

LAMB: Are you happy with this book?

CRAMER: I am. I'm happy with the way it came out because I've been able to see in the few weeks that it's been out that people are connecting with it, and they're getting a fresh look at these guys. They're finding out that they really didn't know them as they thought they did and that they really hadn't seen them as human beings in the same way that they do now that they've read the book, so that's very pleasing to me.


LAMB: It's unfair to somebody who hasn't read this thing, why I would ask that question. Anybody who reads this book will have, I'm positive, the same reaction. How did you get the access?

CRAMER: You cannot overestimate my ignorance at the start of this process. I started out doing it as I thought Washington big-time political reporters do these kind of things -- calling up important people in Washington whom I had seen quoted in the papers or seen as talking heads on TV. I wanted to ask them about these candidates because I didn't really care that much about the campaign -- how did they win and how did they lose, etc. I really wanted to know these men, and I wanted to know what kind of life brought them to the point where they could be candidates. When I finally did force my way into a few of the offices of these important Washington figures and I started asking about the candidates, I found that they really didn't know these guys. They knew them in a kind of Washington way. They'd been in a couple of meetings with them or they'd been at a dinner party where this guy was the speaker or they had seen them on the floor of the House or Senate a few times, but they didn't know what made the guy tick. They didn't know why he was in politics. They didn't know what was driving him onward or what was the real reason that he was climbing to the top of the pyramid.

Eventually, after a period of months, I pretty much abandoned Washington. I went to the hometowns, and then I started talking to their schoolmates and their sisters and brothers and their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and cousins and their first employers and their Cub Scout leaders and their teachers and their law school buddies and college roommates. By the time I got back to the candidates on the campaign trail, I wasn't asking them how many points did they need in Iowa. I was asking them about their Aunt Lucy or their Aunt Gladys. She said they never would wake up in the morning when they spent a summer with her. Now they start their campaign days at 5:30 a.m. What got into these guys? So I was talking to them about life, not politics, and that started us on a different relationship.

If you haven't read his book on the 1988 presidential campaign, here are two good entry points to his oeuvre:

* "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" -- Esquire, 1986

* "Can the Best Mayor Win?" -- Esquire, 1984