February 18, 2011

IT IS THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL:

The book that defined modern campaign reporting (Ben Smith, December 30, 2010, Politico)

What It Takes” is now widely considered the greatest modern presidential campaign book. But the judgments of Washington’s elite come late to Maryland’s remote Eastern Shore, and the book’s place in political writing has dawned only very late on its author. When it came out in the heat of the 1992 campaign, the tome dropped with a heavy thud. It was viewed as eccentric, affected, too long for its boring subject. Who, four years after he lost, wanted to read 100 pages on Dick Gephardt’s childhood?

“What It Takes” received mediocre reviews and sales fizzled. Cramer, after a low period, turned to writing about baseball. The best interpreter of American politicians never wrote another word about politics. He still owes Random House more than $200,000 of his advance.

Cramer had expected his book to change the world. The reception left him “dismayed, bereft, maybe clinically depressed,” he told POLITICO. His researcher and partner on the book, Mark Zwonitzer, recalled that both men felt “like you’d been hit in the stomach with a sledgehammer.”

“Richard just got the hell out of the country,” Zwonitzer recalled. “He shut it down. It was too painful.”

But the fall and rise of “What It Takes” is a case study in how a book enters the canon.

Viewed with skepticism and not a little hostility by the reporters who had covered the ’88 campaign more conventionally, it was embraced by its subjects and by other politicians and operatives who appreciated its central thrust: That they are human beings. Slowly but definitively, the book has been elevated by another generation of political writers to be — as Jill Abramson of The New York Times, which originally panned it, put it this year — “the last truly great campaign book.”

Many of his admirers among that younger generation of political writers couldn’t tell you whether the 60 year-old Cramer is alive or dead, much less where he lives. But Cramer is still gregarious, bearded and profane. He is also just short of a hermit — not J.D. Salinger yet but tending distinctly in that direction.

The house where Cramer now lives with his longtime girlfriend and a large, unkempt young poodle is grand in a spare way, with bare plaster wall and trees planted on the edge of the 27 acres to obscure the view of encroaching developments Cramer refers to as “Moron Acres” and “Shanda Towers.” The only Christmas card on the white fridge is from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, whom Cramer met when he was working for Gary Hart.

Cramer was famous on the campaign trail as an off-kilter clotheshorse, and his current uniform is no less striking. One recent evening, he wore a pink dress shirt, gray sweater vest and checked blazer with a clashing, checked scarf, all over baggy green Lee Valley gardening pants with enough pockets for his cigars, pens and paper, and the cell phone he never answers.

When Cramer sold “What It Takes,” he was a celebrated foreign correspondent, having won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer, then a hub of the novelistic “New Journalism,” whose icon, Tom Wolfe, he intensely admired. He covered the region from Rome, and he still dressed in the best Missoni suits, with rich red and purple undertones, white sneakers, and a red Rochester Red Wings baseball cap.

He didn’t want to be confused, he said, with “the guy from the Cincinnati Enquirer.”

“Even if they weren’t going to help me, they were going to know who I was,” he said in an interview conducted over port wine in his living room, washing down two massive steaks.

Cramer probably would have stood out anyway, his companion, Joan Katherine Smith, a former San Francisco Examiner book critic, gently points out. With wild hair, a reputation for extravagant writing and spending, and a giant advance, he was hard to miss.

His speech would have lent itself to a Richard Ben Cramer dialect study: There are hints of the acquired drawl of one of his best ’88 friends, George W. Bush, undertones of Baltimore mayors like Big Tommy and Little Tommy D’Alessandro, Nancy Pelosi’s father and brother, and William Donald Schaefer, who was later governor of Maryland after following the D’Alessandros at Baltimore City Hall.

It was Cramer’s time at the Baltimore Sun, in fact, perhaps more than his celebrated Middle East coverage and magazine writing, that made “What It Takes” so different.

Cramer came of age in a political world free of handlers, consultants and professional spin, and he loved — and was loved by — the large characters and ethnic pols whom he covered and, sometimes, got into serious trouble. Maryland politics was the same scene that shaped two other journalists acutely sensitive to the nuance and humanity of the mixed characters they cover, David Maraniss and Mark Bowden, who reported from Annapolis for The Washington Post and Baltimore News American, the Sun’s departed rival, before they went on to their own book-writing careers.

Cramer recalled one pol his stories helped convict writing him warm letters from jail. Bowden recalled that politicians actually invited Cramer back to town for a gathering after he’d left for Philadelphia, a warmth for one of the jackals who covered them that was “unheard of.”

“Even though he was hugely admired by the reporters, he was equally admired and genuinely beloved by the legislators,” Bowden said.

Cramer had never written about American national politics, and he approached it with a rare quality — the affinity for politicians he had acquired in Baltimore and Annapolis. He also came with the principle that “I had to know everything” about his subjects. He encircled the candidates, calling the mothers, cousins, brothers and first-grade teachers of candidates like Gephardt, who were both known Washington quantities and little-known men.


One of the reasons political writing is so joyless nowadays is because journalists, especially on the Left and Right, hold politicians in contempt--at their best they're compromisers after all. Indeed, Mr. Cramer was even on the politicians' side against his fellow journalists.



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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 18, 2011 12:00 AM
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