What I Learned From Richard Ben Cramer

Why What It Takes, whose author died Monday at age 62, remains a touchstone for political writers 20 years after its publication


Having come to political reporting late, I didn't read Richard Ben Cramer's campaign epic What It Takes until last year, when I was deep in the task of covering the 2012 presidential campaign. Reading it in those circumstances was simultaneously intimidating and inspiring. As gallopingly pleasurable a read as it is, it often didn't feel like pleasure reading, so closely did it track my everyday life on the trail.

But the enthralling humanity and breadth of Cramer's tome quickly became a touchstone for me as I covered the campaign, as the book has for so many political writers over the years. Cramer's death from lung cancer Monday got me thinking about those lessons.

A Russian-novel-sized tale of the American political process, the 1992 book about the 1988 campaign has enduring relevance for its indelible portraits of such contemporary characters as Joe Biden and Bob Dole. The story of Biden's orchestration of the Senate hearings that derailed Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination is worth the price of admission alone, not to mention the operatic arc of Biden's rise and fall: Exiting the campaign in a plagiarism scandal, Biden was done in, tragic-flaw-style, by the same bluster and self-assurance that brought him such great success. To his credit, Biden saw the truth of Cramer's devastatingly accurate depiction. When the book first came out, Cramer said at the time, Biden's "reaction to the book was of such wonderful largeness and humanity." In a statement issued Monday, the vice president said, "It is a powerful thing to read a book someone has written about you, and to find both the observations and criticisms so sharp and insightful that you learn something new and meaningful about yourself. That was my experience with Richard."

The book is not without its flaws: Cramer's condescension toward the rest of the political press is both grating and disingenuous, and he's shamelessly in the tank for Gary Hart throughout. Not all of the six 1988 presidential candidates he profiles -- Biden, Dole, Hart, George H.W. Bush, Dick Gephardt, and Michael Dukakis -- proves equally worthy of the hundreds of pages he devotes to them; Gephardt never really comes to life, and Dukakis's personality remains impenetrable. Bush, on the other hand, though lacking the obvious dynamism of a Biden or Dole, is a surprisingly sympathetic and complex character, and his early-career wrangling with the Bircher fringe of the Texas GOP strongly echoes the modern Republican Party establishment's ongoing battle with its base.

Here are a few things the book taught me.

* The candidates are the characters. Unlike much contemporary campaign reporting, there are precious few operatives, strategists, or handlers as major characters in What It Takes. Instead, Cramer reaches into the past to tell, in intimate detail, the stories of the candidates, from Dole's hardscrabble Kansas childhood to Dukakis's unlikely entry into Massachusetts politics. He gets close enough to the candidates to tell their stories in their voices, through their eyes: Bush is an earnest, happy-go-lucky preppy; Biden a frenetic, impulsive flim-flam artist. It's not a feat every reporter can, or would want to, pull off. But in today's process-obsessed press, it's a good reminder of what campaigns are, at heart, all about: The history-bestriding ambition of the men (and women) who have the chutzpah to think they could be president. Too often, modern political writing diminishes these characters and makes them less interesting than they actually are.

* Don't be afraid to be an outsider. In a way, Cramer writes as the ultimate insider, going to insane lengths to get as close as possible to the candidates and their families, and earning for his trouble a phenomenal accumulation of detail about everything from then-Vice President Bush's advance security team to the inner workings of the Reagan White House to Hart's campaign-ending sex scandal. He even moved in for a while with Dole's relatives in Russell, Kansas. And yet his writing stands unmistakably apart from the punishing conformism of the regular political press, viewing the pack and the candidates together as part of a unique and weird ecosystem. It helps, of course, that Cramer didn't have a daily deadline. But every reporter can benefit from standing back in this way and appreciating the crazy, human tapestry of the campaign as it unfolds.

* Primaries are the best. What It Takes is almost a prequel to the 1988 campaign, taking place entirely during the primaries; Cramer had exhausted his advance and his stamina alike by the time the nominations were decided and the general election got under way. But I also realized, reading the book, that primaries are just richer and more fun to cover than general elections. The candidates are more accessible, and they're not subject to the kind of mindless partisan controversy that distorts absolutely everything come October. There's a looseness and excitement to the process that quickly turns into a dull grind after the militarized pomp of the party conventions. No wonder I was having so much fun a year ago this time in Manchester and Concord. As Cramer showed me, that's where the real action is.