Richard Ben Cramer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, died Monday night of lung cancer at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore. He was 62.
Leading lights in media and politics rushed to pay tribute to a man whom many said had transformed presidential campaign coverage with "What It Takes," his seminal account of the 1988 race for the White House. Clocking in at over 1,000 pages, Cramer's book gave readers unprecedented behind-the-scenes accounts of the campaigns of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, Kansas Senator Robert Dole, Delaware Senator Joe Biden and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
Meticulously researched, "What It Takes" finally hit store shelves in 1992 after the country had just slogged through another presidential race, this one between then President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Reviews were savage, but as the tributes pouring in on news stations, Twitter and in blogs and newspapers on Tuesday morning made clear, a stunning shift in opinion has taken place and it is now seen as one of the preeminent works of political reportage — an intimate account of the demands and stagecraft of national politics that ranks alongside Hunter S. Thompson "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" or Timothy Crouse's "The Boys on the Bus." The kind of blow-by-blow style Cramer employed can be seen in such recent examples of the genre as Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's "Game Change."
In the Atlantic, National Correspondent James Fallows said he still recommends "What It Takes" to anyone interested in American politics.
"It is timeless and yet timely, since its cast of characters — those competing for the presidency in 1988 — includes our current vice president, Joe Biden," Fallows wrote. "It is also a remarkably empathetic and humane look at politics and politicians. If you want to understand what keeps these people going, how they can stand it, what they have to endure and why they endure it, this is what you should read."
Also praising Cramer's contribution to political journalism was Politico Senior Reporter Jonathan Martin, who said the journalist's magisterial account of the grinding battle for the presidency was both dazzling and intimidating.
"It’s insufficient to say that Cramer’s 1,047-page tour de force on the 1988 presidential race is the best book ever written about a campaign," Martin wrote. "It is that. But what makes it so valuable, so rewarding, just so much damn fun is that it illustrates why politics and journalism is so much damn fun."
Tributes to Cramer also came from people working inside the political arena. BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith reports that Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said Cramer's work "…made us a stronger, more compassionate, and more understanding people."
But Cramer's body of work extends beyond "What It Takes," ranging from sports to the Middle East, where he won his Pulitzer for in 1979 for his work as foreign correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
As he did with campaign coverage, Cramer brought a "you are there" feel to his profiles of sports icons like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Eschewing the cliches and buzzwords the often mar modern day sports reporting, Cramer's 1986 Esquire article, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?,” and 2000 biography "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life," were elegantly written accounts of two sports legends who struggled under the weight of their own myths. They were compassionate pieces of reporting that never excused Williams or DiMaggio's ample flaws, but also acknowledged their lasting impact on generations of Americans.
"To see Ted suffer a third strike was an event four times more rare, and more remarkable, than seeing him get a hit," Cramer wrote in that Esquire piece on Williams. "When Ted retired, some owners feared for attendance in the league. In Boston, where millions came through the years to cheer, to boo, to care what he did, there was an accretion of memory so bright, bittersweet, and strong that when he left, the light was gone. And Fenway was left with a lesser game."
Two decades after it was written, it remains an astounding piece of literary journalism from one of the foremost practitioners of the craft.