March 16, 2016

THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL:

The Classic Q&A: Mark Zwonitzer (Esquire)

What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer's exhaustive and celebrated account of the 1988 presidential election, took so long to report and write--six years in all--that it wasn't published until the 1992 election. Clocking in at over 1,000 pages, and originally excerpted in Esquire--as "George Bush's White Men," "How He Got Here," and "The Price of Being President"--the book remains one of the finest pieces of political journalism ever created.  

Cramer, who died in 2013, worked shoulder-to-shoulder with book researcher Mark Zwonitzer, a former Esquire fact-checker who had worked closely with Cramer on his famous profile of Ted Williams. We recently spoke with Zwonitzer about Cramer's singular ambition, work ethic, and charisma, and the adventure they had together in discovering what goes on inside the minds of the men who believe they'll be president.

Esquire Classic: When did you meet Richard Ben Cramer?

Mark Zwonitzer: At the end of '85, when he was doing the Ted Williams piece. I was a research assistant--I was only at Esquire for a year--and fact-checked the Williams story. In terms of profiles, it doesn't get better. That was the piece that convinced David Rosenthal at Random House that Cramer could do the big political book.

EC: Did you and Cramer just talk on the phone?

MZ: Oh no, Richard was a presence in the office. You knew when he was on the floor. Other writers you'd deal with could be standoffish, a little bit above you, because you're a twenty-three-year-old kid researcher who doesn't know anything. The first time I ever met Cramer, he's got his arm around me like I'm his best buddy. But that was just Richard. He'd go in and talk to the people in the copy department and the art department, making friends with everybody.

EC: Did you get any sense that after the Williams profile, he'd accomplished all he could as a magazine writer and that the logical next step was to do a book?

MZ: He was an ambitious guy and recognized ambition in other people and celebrated it. He had big, big ambitions. He wanted to help change the way political reporting was done. The other thing was, magazines paid pretty well in those days, but the way Richard worked, he had to know everything--so he'd spend six, eight months on a magazine piece, and in the end it didn't pay very well.

EC: So how did you get involved with What It Takes?

MZ: In the fall of '86 I heard he'd signed a contract to write a book, so I called him up and said, "Hey, if you need research help, you let me know." By the end of October I was on the project. Six months later, he's plucked me out of my job--I'd left Esquire for another magazine--I'm working for him full time, and we're moving to Washington. He said we should get a house down here that we could share with a friend of mine who'd just gotten a job at the Washington Post, Gerri Hirshey. So Gerri and I went down and got the house together. I was twenty-four when we started and almost thirty when the book was finally published. In between, Gerri and I got married and had a child, with another on the way when the book came out. Richard was thirty-six when we started: He got married too, to his girlfriend and editor, Carolyn White, and they had had a daughter, Ruby--who by the way is one of the great up-and-coming political reporters in the 2016 campaign.

EC: Why did Cramer choose to write his first book about politics?

MZ: He came back from the Middle East [as a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer] right before the '84 election. He was trying to figure out who these candidates were and who he could vote for and who he was interested in, so he read and read and read and didn't learn anything--who they were, where they were from, what drove them. He was just bored and frustrated by what he read, the same old stuff, horse-race polls, "according to a senior staff member," and he felt, Hey, there are some great personal stories out there that nobody is telling, and I'm going to tell them. Remember, Richard liked to zig when everybody else was zagging. He was interested in writing about politicians not as stick figures but big, powerful, fascinating people who had lived lives of excellence. These guys had been winners their whole lives. For many of them, this would be the first time they'd ever lost--and what does that do to you? The simple idea of the book is: How does it feel to be competing for the highest office in the land--and maybe the most powerful in the world--and in a system that had a way of demeaning and diminishing? Richard wanted to put the reader in these people's shoes, to see the drama through their eyes, and make the reader care about them as human beings taking big risks.

Posted by at March 16, 2016 5:52 AM

  

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