By Michael Schwirtz
New York Times
NEW YORK — Richard Ben Cramer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and the author of “What it Takes,” a superbly detailed account of the 1988 presidential election considered among the finest books about American politics ever written, died in Baltimore Monday night. He was 62.
His daughter, Ruby, said he died of complications from lung cancer at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center.
Cramer was born in Rochester, N.Y. He studied at Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He worked at The Baltimore Sun before joining The Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1970s, where he was a Middle East correspondent from 1977 to 1984. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his reporting there.
He went on to write for Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, and Esquire, where in 1986, he wrote an article, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?,” about the iconic baseball player. The article, which seemed to strip Williams bare and reconstruct him anew in the eyes of his fans, became a hallmark of sports journalism.
“It was often said Ted would rather play ball in a lab, where fans couldn’t see,” Cramer wrote. “But he never blamed fans for watching him. His hate was for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t feel with him, his effort, his exultation, pride, rage, or sorrow.” But Cramer will be most remembered for “What it Takes,” a 1,000-page, vigorously researched tome that delved into the passions, idiosyncrasies, and flaws of George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Michael S. Dukakis, Joe Biden, and others who fought for the presidency in 1988.
He spent time with the candidates’ family members, college roommates, and sometimes even their elementary schoolteachers.
He became close with the candidates and in some cases forged friendships that endured after the election. Biden later gave him tips on fixing up an old farmhouse that he purchased in Maryland, he said in a 2010 interview with Politico.
“He made no bones about the fact that he became friendly with the people he reported on,” said his longtime friend Stuart Seidel, an editor at National Public Radio. “He liked Joe Biden and Bob Dole and both Bushes. He did not feel compromised by allowing himself to get close to them. He did not see himself in a confrontational reportorial role — he was telling a story.”
The book begins with the elder Bush, then the vice president, throwing out the first pitch at a Houston Astros game in 1986.
‘‘He’ll be cheered by 44,131 fans — and it’s not even a risky crowd, the kind that might get testy because oil isn’t worth a damn, Houston’s economy is down the crapper, and no one’s buying aluminum siding,’’ he wrote. ‘‘This is a playoff crowd, a corporate-perks crowd, the kind of fellows who were transferred in a few years ago from Stamford, Conn. You know, for that new marketing thing (and were, frankly, delighted by the price of housing), a solid GOP crowd, tax-conscious, white, and polite.’’
The book was in many ways the product of a bygone era, before quote approval and a micromanaged press corps, when minute-by-minute coverage of a presidential campaign or anything else was a technological impossibility.
In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Cramer described political journalists in his day as wielding real power, while campaigns can now seem to hold reporters at their mercy.
“Even if you had the wherewithal to embarrass a reporter, there was no mechanism to do it,” Mr. Cramer said. “And in most cases, you might as well save your breath because the reporter had no shame anyway.”
The book received poor reviews, and sales were initially lackluster. Fellow journalists were also slow to see its value. Disappointed, Mr. Cramer never wrote as prodigiously about politics and turned his attention to other interests. He wrote a biography about Joe DiMaggio and returned to the Middle East for a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Cramer lived in Chestertown, Md., with his wife, Joan. He was previously married to Carolyn White, with whom he had a daughter, Ruby.
Material from Associated Press was used in this report.