Richard Ben Cramer, a fearless and dedicated author and reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his journalism and wrote the classic presidential campaign book "What It Takes," has died. He was 62.
Richard Ben Cramer, a fearless and dedicated author and reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his journalism and wrote the classic presidential campaign book “What It Takes,” has died. He was 62.
Cramer died Monday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore from complications of lung cancer, his agent, Philippa Brophy, said. Cramer lived with his wife, Joan, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Cramer won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting from the Middle East while with the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for seven years. He was known for an in-depth reporting style that involved spending significant time with the subjects he profiled and recreating scenes with vivid color and dialogue. His 1986 profile of Ted Williams in Esquire magazine traced the arc of the hitter’s career – including his personal relationships and feelings on fame – from early days to post-baseball life in the Florida Keys, where, Cramer wrote, locals might run into him at the tennis club, coffee bar or tackle shop.
“It was forty-five years ago, when achievements with a bat first brought him to the nation’s notice, that Ted Williams began work on his defense. He wanted fame, and wanted it with a pure, hot eagerness that would have been embarrassing in a smaller man. But he could not stand celebrity. This is a bitch of a line to draw in America’s dust,” Cramer wrote.
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Many readers knew him best for 1992’s “What It Takes: The Way To the White House,” a 1,000-page narrative of the 1988 presidential race that was equally heartfelt and irreverent. It is often ranked with Timothy Crouse’s “The Boys On the Bus” and Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President” as masterpieces of political reporting. Cramer delved into the lives and careers of the candidates, explaining how eventual winner George H.W. Bush had early in his political career resisted the urging by advisers to speak openly about his war record or the death of his young daughter from leukemia – personal topics he later discussed movingly during his presidential campaign.
Vice President Joe Biden ran for the White House in 1988 and Cramer described at length how his campaign was brought down in part by revelations that the then-U.S. senator from Delaware had lifted words from a British party leader for his own speeches. But Biden said on Tuesday that Cramer was an unmatched talent
“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 you learn something new and meaningful about yourself,” Biden said in a statement.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called Cramer the greatest political journalist ever and said “What It Takes” captured affectionate portraits of the candidates.
“They are appreciative of each individual, their qualities, and their failings. But everything is done with great affection for the process, and the individuals. It’s a joy to read. So, if you haven’t already, go get it,” he said.
Cramer’s gifts were memorably demonstrated in the book’s opening section, a long and occasionally farcical account of the events leading up to the most innocuous of rituals – then-Vice President Bush throwing out the opening ball at the Astrodome for a 1986 playoff game between the Houston Astros and the visiting New York Mets. Cramer details the extraordinary logistics behind this simple action. It described the coordination between the vice president’s office and the White House needed for Bush to travel, the holding rooms and command posts that were established for security at the Astrodome and the booklet prepared outlining Bush’s schedule.
The story of the opening throw gained extra meaning years later when a minor character at the time, Bush’s eldest son George W., himself became president. The younger Bush – “Junior” – was then around 40 and had never held elective office. His most important contribution to the day’s events was throwing a fit over the tickets he had received to the Astrodome, far from where his mother, Barbara Bush, and the vice president were sitting.
“They were screwing around with the wrong guy,” Cramer wrote of the future president. “Junior was the Roman candle of the family, bright, hot, a sparkler – and likeliest to burn his fingers. He had all the old man’s high spirits, but none of his taste for accommodation.”
Cramer was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., attended Johns Hopkins University and graduated from Columbia University’s prestigious journalism school. Before joining the Inquirer, he worked three years at the Baltimore Sun, and he also wrote for Esquire and Rolling Stone. He began work on “What It Takes” in 1986, writing in the book’s introduction that he wanted to learn what inspired presidential contenders to “bend their lives and the lives of those dear to them in one hugely public roll of the dice in which all but one would fail.”
Cramer did not hesitate to take on public figures, whether politicians or athletes. Cramer’s 2000 biography of DiMaggio, “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life” made best-seller lists and offered a complex, multi-faceted portrayal of his life and career, revealing a sour and often unlikeable man behind the facade of grace and elegance. In recent years, he had been working on a biography of another New York Yankees star, Alex Rodriguez. But the project was abandoned last year and the publisher, the Hachette Book Group, sued to recoup Cramer’s $550,000 advance.
“We had been trying to contact Mr. Cramer for well over a year, to no avail, and were not aware that he was ill,” Hachette spokeswoman Sophie Cottrell said in a statement. “We were surprised and saddened to hear of his passing.”