'What It Takes' Author Remembered As An Engrossing Figure

Jan 8, 2013
Originally published on January 8, 2013 5:37 pm
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If anyone knew what it took to cover a presidential campaign, it was Richard Ben Cramer. His book about the 1988 election, titled "What It Takes," was the defining campaign treatment of the last half century. Prior to that, Cramer was a Pulitzer-winning foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Cramer died Monday of complications from lung cancer. He was 62. NPR's David Folkenflik has this remembrance.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The conceit of "What It Takes" was deceivingly simple. Cramer, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and the Philadelphia Inquirer, would immerse himself in the campaigns of six candidates running for the nation's highest office and figure out the discipline and confidence that enabled them to run.

RICHARD BEN CRAMER: Alas, in the nature of the process, five out of six of them are doomed to fail. So it was really the internal monologue that I was trying to cover, whereby the person comes to the point where he thinks he ought to be president, then thinks he will be president and finally has to come off of that certainty.

FOLKENFLIK: Here, Cramer was speaking in June 1992 to John Hockenberry on NPR. When Hockenberry suggested that he seemed to fall for each of the candidates, Cramer was unapologetic.

CRAMER: I spent six years on this book, so at various times in it, you are viscerally connected to every one of these men. I think that, stepping back from it now, as for the first time in years I can, I think that all of these men deserve a book on their own. But it may be that Bob Dole deserves a Russian novel.

FOLKENFLIK: Over a thousand pages, "What It Takes" offered a sympathetic but unflinching sense of the aspirations, hopes, motivations, failings and even strengths of the various figures. Vice President Joe Biden, one of the book's unsuccessful candidates, released a statement today that was rare for a Washington politician in that it displayed self-reflection.

He wrote, quote, "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 learn something new and meaningful about yourself."

ROBERT TIMBER: You know, there were times when you just knew that he was having fun.

FOLKENFLIK: Former Baltimore Sun reporter and author Robert Timber(ph) competed against Cramer at Baltimore city hall.

TIMBER: He would take something that I wouldn't even think about writing about and write about it and it was still not worth writing about, except the way Richard wrote about it, you couldn't not read it. I mean, it was just so colorful and so funny.

FOLKENFLIK: When Cramer profiled Baltimore's William Donald Schaefer for Esquire, he dubbed Schaefer Mayor Annoyed, as in the start of every newspaper headline. Mayor annoyed about potholes. Mayor annoyed about highway delays. Mayor annoyed about whatever caught his eye that day. Stu Seidel and Cramer met as undergraduates at Johns Hopkins University and became lifelong friends.

Seidel, now NPR's managing editor for standards and practices, said Cramer routinely kept him waiting for ball games and dinners, but for a reason.

STU SEIDEL: If he was talking to someone, he was absorbed in that conversation. He caused the people that he was talking to to be absorbed in talking with him and they told him stories. They took him places in their own minds and in their own hearts and in their own experience that other reporters just didn't manage.

FOLKENFLIK: Cramer never became a creature of Washington, writing books about baseball greats Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, yet he made his mark in D.C. Earlier today at the White House press room, a place in which, as far as we can tell, Cramer never posed a question, presidential spokesman Jay Carney recalled coming to Washington as a young reporter for Time magazine.

JAY CARNEY: A colleague of mine handed me that book as I began to cover politics and it was the best read imaginable. And if there is anyone in this room who has not read "What It Takes," run out and buy it now.

FOLKENFLIK: A rare literary endorsement from behind the White House lectern. Cramer is survived by his wife, Joan, and his daughter, Ruby. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.