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.