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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer died Monday night. He was 62 and had lung cancer. Cramer’s 1992 book “What It Takes: The Way to the White House” sold slowly and got bum reviews when it was first released, but it had great influence on political reporters. Cramer reported for The Baltimore Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and he won a Pulitzer in 1979 for his coverage of the Middle East.
“He was one of the greatest nonfiction writers to sit behind a desk and put a pen to a page,” Cramer’s friend James McBride told Will Bunch. “He’s the writer that we all wanted to be.” Cramer, Bunch writes, “was known for throwing his heart and soul into every story.”
BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith wrote an extensive appreciation of “What It Takes” in 2010, when he was a reporter for Politico. He praised Cramer’s ambition for understanding politicians as human beings, a trait Smith said steamed other reporters.
The book included a specific indictment of the press’ focus on Gary Hart’s dalliance with Donna Rice, as Cramer wrote that pathetic “Karacter Kops” confused trivial matters of sexual morality with the actual, non-reductive thing called character, which he was writing about.
When he was invited to speak at the National Press Club in 1992, it was as a media critic. “Drop the mechanical notion of objectivity,” he urged, suggesting that reporters substitute “fairness — a harder standard to maintain.”
The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta dug up a 1992 C-SPAN appearance during which Cramer talked about the disappointments he felt after he started reporting on national politics after years of covering Maryland politics:
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.
“He made no bones about the fact that he became friendly with the people he reported on,” NPR editor Stuart Seidel told Michael Schwirz, whose New York Times obituary calls “What It Takes” “among the finest books about American politics ever written.”
“He liked Joe Biden and Bob Dole and both Bushes,” Seidel told Schwirz. “He did not feel compromised by allowing himself to get close to them. He did not see himself in a confrontational reportorial role — he was telling a story.”
In an appreciation published Monday night, Smith describes a trip he and three other political reporters took to bask in Cramer’s genius.
We came to visit Chestertown when political reporting, always mostly a business of ephemera, had reached its most fleeting. Tweets and blog items aren’t built to last; they’re instruments for conveying the message of a moment. Most news articles were just as ephemeral, but it has become harder to pretend. But Richard never had any interest in the modest new ambitions of the contemporary media.
Longform has an archive of four of Cramer’s magazine pieces. Political types shared memories on Twitter: