Richard Ben Cramer’s true legacy
Here is something that Richard Ben Cramer, the enormously gifted writer who died earlier this week, understood: Politicians are often created in the image of their journalistic portrayals, and when reporters impute opportunism or cravenness to them, they may well be inducing those things — as well as undermining public confidence in government. Cramer also understood that a more humane, sympathetic analysis might well lead to more humane public servants — and a deeper faith in government.
This should have been his legacy, and it would have been a profound one. Except it isn’t. What It Takes, Cramer’s 1,000-page tome that chronicles the 1988 presidential election, showed what reporters could do if they had brilliance, fearlessness, indefatigability and, above all, empathy, and Cramer has received extraordinary praise this week for all these qualities. Particularly the last.
But where he led, few political reporters followed. Cramer was the anti-Maureen Dowd, the man who rejected snark and insiders’ gloat, who subordinated himself to his subjects — who gave politicians the benefit of the doubt.
The problem is that this is an age of skepticism and jaundice, when journalists regularly seek to demonstrate that they can’t be taken in by the folks they cover. Instead, they excoriate them. In effect, the outpouring of grief from so many of Cramer’s colleagues is a confession of their own inadequacy.
It is easy to feel inadequate in the face of What It Takes. It may be the Moby Dick of political reporting. Though ostensibly about politics, the book’s reach extends far beyond one presidential campaign — just as Moby Dick’s reach extends far beyond whaling.
Cramer was interested in human desire, in the heart and soul of the candidates he profiled in his book – Gary Hart, Joe Biden, Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis on the Democratic side and Robert Dole and eventual winner George H.W. Bush on the Republican. Where political reporters often sought some nugget that could reveal a politician’s hidden taint (Gore’s alleged lies, for example), Cramer investigated what made them who they are. He wasn’t interested in gotcha. He was interested in personal revelation.
This might seem a powerful inducement for political reporters, who surely want to be regarded as “real” writers, the way Cramer was. Yet even as they were praising Cramer, reporters, including Joe Klein, author of Primary Colors, the vicious roman a clef about the Clintons, complained they had neither the resources nor the time that Cramer had. If only, they suggested.
But what many political reporters really lack are the talent and the intention. Cramer thought of politics and, more, politicians novelistically. He hunted not for weakness or pathology. He hunted for decency.
And he found it. Cramer’s accounts of Dole’s recovery from his wounds in World War II or Bush’s Texas oil days are the sort of thing that cynical journalists may despise and view as selling out. His description of Biden’s intrepid survival after the death of his wife and infant daughter in a car accident reaches a poetic poignancy.
There was, understandably, one group to whom Cramer could not extend his sympathy: the political press. He clearly resented how much they resented the people they had to cover. He called them “Karacter Kops” and “Big Feet,” among other things. Indeed, the entire book was an implicit rebuke of the kind of cold smugness that had infected so much of political journalism and had denied that politicians were human beings.
It was a rebuke, too, of what this smugness had done to the public — turning them into cynics.
But many journalists got their revenge when newspapers and magazines assigned reviews of What It Takes to the very people for whom Cramer had expressed such contempt. Not surprisingly, they didn’t much like it.
Cramer was heartbroken (I know because I wrote him a fan letter at the time and he responded), though it must have come as consolation that his book is now regarded as one of the greatest non-fiction works of the last 50 years.
So how do we honor him? Here is a suggestion for all who admired him: They should not just be praising him — they should be imitating him.
Cramer’s legacy will always be What It Takes. But how wonderful if it also included a group of political reporters determined to humanize politicians as much as others demonize them.
Richard Ben Cramer was a political anachronism. He shouldn’t be.
PHOTO (Top): Richard Ben Cramer SIMON & SCHUSTER
PHOTO (Insert Middle): Senator Bob Dole campaigning in the 1988 Republican primaries. UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS.
PHOTO (Insert bottom): Senator Joe Biden listens to a reporter’s question after President George W. Bush’s at the White House, March 17, 2003. REUTERS/William Philpott