David Frum

01.08.13

Richard Ben Cramer Dies at 62

Richard Ben Cramer passed away yesterday of lung cancer. He was 62. Cramer was the author of What it Takes, considered the definitive book on the 1988 presidential election. He is remembered today by a slew of political journalists.

POLITICO's Jonathan Martin:

The best authors put you in the room and this, above all, was Cramer’s gift. And not only could you see the scene, but you could hear the voices. I still can’t listen to Bob Dole speak without envisioning one of Cramer’s “aghs.” Even if you were 11 in 1988, my goodness, you felt as though you had lived through that campaign after reading “What It Takes.” It’s a political junkie’s best fix.

As a journalist, though, Mr. Cramer’s opus is something else: intimidating. The reporting, the writing, the depth, the breadth – who could ever match this standard? And, a bit more jealously, who could ever garner this access?

The New York Times' Michael Schwirtz:

The book is in many ways the product of a bygone era, before quote approval and a micromanaged press corps, and when minute-by-minute coverage of a presidential campaign or anything else was a technological impossibility.

In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Cramer described political journalists in his day as wielding real power, a contrast with now, when campaigns can seem to hold reporters at their mercy.

“Even if you had the wherewithal to embarrass a reporter, there was no mechanism to do it,” Mr. Cramer said. “And in most cases, you might as well save your breath because the reporter had no shame anyway.”

And Buzzfeed's Ben Smith:

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. He admired Tom Wolfe, and he had shockingly grand, novelistic aspirations of capturing full men. After a great newspaper career — he won a Pulitzer for international reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer during its 1970s glory days — he persuaded a publisher to back his insane electoral project. He didn't really care what people wanted to hear: He rehabilitated the hated Ted Williams; he wrote a dark and revealing biography of the beloved Joe DiMaggio. His ambitions were really almost unequaled among nonfiction writers: Among the projects he took on was a kind of requiem for secular American Jews' romance with Israel, "How Israel Lost," a book that made no effort at all, with its assertive voice and handmade form, to fit into the knifey policy debate.

Even Michelle Malkin's Twitchy.com devoted time to cataloguing praise for the venerable Cramer.