Over the last twenty years or so, you could talk with people about great political books, like Game Change or what have you, and then somebody would remember that Richard Ben Cramer had written What It Takes, and that ended the conversation. None was better, and none would ever be better. Working on a big canvas-his topic was the presidential election of 1988, and in the 1000-plus pages that the book ran, Cramer covered six of the candidates in depth, including George Bush, Bob Dole and Joe Biden–Cramer took anything and everything there was to learn from the Making of the President books of Theodore H. White, the brilliant political writing of Norman Mailer, and the exhaustive, energetic journalism of Tom Wolfe, and added to it his own prodigious intellect and talent. Richard was a patient journalist who never forced or rushed his story. He was also that rarest of writers, one who actually liked people, and allowed his subjects to show their best sides to the reader without shying away from foibles and follies and utter ridiculousness of being a high elected official. The result was something far better than anything of its kind–insightful, sympathetic, gimlet-eyed, hilarious. You could watch a hundred episodes of Veep and not laugh as hard as you will reading a two-page account of George W. Bush, son of the THEN-vice-president, realizing that a White House staffer had been given seats at a baseball game at the Houston Astrodome that were much closer to his father than his. Here’s Richard, inside the mind of a smoldering future president:
“Junior was now standing. . .watching to see who sat behind Barbara Bush and the seat reserved for his father. There was Jeb, and his boy P. They got seats with the old man. . . Wait a minute! There was Fuller, the new Chief of Staff, and one of his paper-pushers. Are they sitting DOWN? Well, wait just a goddam minute! Fuller! There he was, with every damn oily hair in place, and his Washington suit stretched across his back like aluminum siding. . . .Tell you one thing: that sonovabitch doesn’t know the old man, if he thinks he can move family out. The old friends were right. This guy’s an asshole! I’ve been replaced by STAFFERS!”
It kills me today to read in Richard’s obituary in The New York Times that “What It Takes received poor reviews, and sales were initially poor. Fellow journalists were also slow to see its value. Disappointed, Mr. Cramer never again wrote as prodigiously about politics.” I hadn’t known about the poor reviews and sales. Perhaps the sheer length of the thing discouraged readers. The one time I met him, in the offices of Esquire in 1994, I gushed about the book, telling him that I had read every word. He said, “You’re the only person who has ever told me that.” I took him to be joking. Now I wonder how much.
Richard went out to lunch with my fellow editor David Hirshey that day, and when he came back, he was making his good-byes, and he said to me, “There was something I wanted to tell you.” He punctuated the phrase with finger wags: “There was something I wanted to tell you.” I was thrilled–flattered, even. But try as he might, he couldn’t remember. I later made a couple discreet queries through Hirshey to see if Richard may have remembered, but nothing had clicked, and I could see I was becoming a pest.
What could it have been? Stop wasting your time? Buy Apple? Lose twenty pounds? A wet bird never flies at night?
Oh well. Such was my encounter with one of the giants of my era.