Skip to main content

Richard Ben Cramer, influential campaign biographer, dies at 62

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 11:44 AM EST, Thu March 7, 2013
Richard Ben Cramer is probably best remembered for his monumental campaign chronicle,
Richard Ben Cramer is probably best remembered for his monumental campaign chronicle, "What It Takes."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richard Ben Cramer, author of monumental "What It Takes," dead at 62
  • Cramer remembered as generous, warm, a little stubborn
  • "What It Takes" called one of the great books on American politics in 20th century
  • Cramer's other books included biography of Joe DiMaggio, thoughts on Mideast

(CNN) -- Richard Ben Cramer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose 1992 book "What It Takes" remains one of the most detailed and passionate of all presidential campaign chronicles, died Monday night, according to his longtime agent, Philippa "Flip" Brophy. He was 62.

The cause of death was lung cancer.

Cramer's work -- and work ethic -- was legendary among reporters. He talked in firm, declamatory bursts in a growl of a voice tinged with cigars and alcohol. He was generous with other writers, dogged in his pursuit of information, and known for idiosyncratically "doing things in his own way, on his own schedule," recalled Brophy.

"He was stubborn, charming and the most brilliant person I knew -- and the warmest," she said.

Click through to see people who passed away in 2013. Click through to see people who passed away in 2013.
People we lost in 2013
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: People we lost in 2013 Photos: People we lost in 2013

"He was an unmatched talent who set an enormously high bar for political journalism. I will miss him," said Vice President Joe Biden in a statement. Biden and Cramer became friendly when the author was working on "What It Takes."

CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger, echoing many, attests to his generosity. She was a cub reporter for the old Washington Star when she was assigned to the Maryland statehouse beat. Cramer, then with The (Baltimore) Sun, took her under his wing.

"I was this new kid on the block, and he'd been around and knew Maryland politics very well, and he was smart and a brilliant writer -- and kind to a new reporter on the beat," she said.

Cramer put all his fury, emotion and eye for detail on the page in such works as "Joe DiMaggio: A Hero's Life" (2000), "How Israel Lost" (2004) and especially "What It Takes," a 1,047-page account of the 1988 presidential race.

"What It Takes" reads like Tom Wolfe on speed, like Theodore H. White left out in the wild. It's fueled by Cramer's determination to find out just exactly why people are crazy enough to run the obstacle course in pursuit of the nation's highest office.

The book contains astute and sympathetic profiles of George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden and particularly Bob Dole. The latter comes across as particularly rich, with his distinctive third-person speaking style and tossed-off "Aghs," all rendered with Cramer's painterly eye.

"Too much political journalism today, even in book form, is geared more toward staff feuds and soap opera and less to what Richard spent so much time in 1988 exploring: what makes these candidates tick, and what drives them to compete in such an arduous -- and yes, at times, ridiculous process," said CNN's chief national correspondent, John King, who covered the Dukakis campaign that year.

Cramer plunged into the day-to-day drudgery of a presidential campaign with a vengeance, and what emerges is half winged exultation, half death march. (Indeed, the strain of doing the book made him very ill, though reports that it nearly killed him were "exaggerations," said Brophy.) In the long history of campaign works, which includes White's "Making of the President" series, Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" and John Heilemann and Mark Helperin's gossipy "Game Change," Cramer's tome looms large -- "one of the most important books on American politics in the 20th century," said Michael Pakenham, a former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a Cramer colleague.

The book was hugely influential. "Richard Ben Cramer transformed a whole generation of political reporters with his sweeping chronicle of the 1988 campaign," said Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and Washington bureau chief for The Daily Beast. "While almost no one could write and report as he did, he set the bar higher for everyone."

Cramer was fascinated as much by the machinery that produced power and hero worship as he was by the people at their center. "He was a journalist who listened and watched particularly well," says Butch Ward, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute and another former Inquirer colleague. "He went places most of us aspired to, but he got there."

Such determination didn't often sit well with reviewers. "What It Takes" was criticized as self-indulgent; "How Israel Lost," which painted a bleak picture of Cramer's former Mideast stomping grounds, was knocked as simple-minded. And Cramer's warts-and-all DiMaggio biography, though a bestseller, was slammed for the author's blunt handling of the New York Yankee hero.

Cramer "relentlessly, pulverizingly tells us that the man wasn't worthy of the legend built up around him," Allen Barra wrote in Salon. The review was headlined "Joe Cruel."

Cramer, of course, didn't see it that way.

"I think among older fans there's a sense that I'm somehow messing with their own memories, which was never my intent," he told CNN at the time. "I can understand their annoyance. But to me the life of DiMaggio was always more interesting than the myth."

Cramer was born in Rochester, New York, in 1950, and studied at Johns Hopkins and Columbia's journalism school. He worked at The Sun in the 1970s and then at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1977 to 1984. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his Middle East reporting in 1979.

As a freelance writer, he wrote a number of well-received profiles, including a Rolling Stone piece on Jerry Lee Lewis, an Esquire cover story on Baltimore mayor (and later Maryland governor) William Donald Schaefer, and a much-talked-about story on Ted Williams, later reprinted as the book "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?"

Despite his renown among journalists, he wasn't always an easy sell, recalls Brophy. After she signed him -- "intercepting" him from agency head Sterling Lord because she loved his newspaper and magazine work -- she spent years funneling him book ideas from interested publishers. "He'd say, 'No, no, no, no, no,' and I would say (to others), 'He's really the type of person who needs to come up with his own idea.' "

When he finally had his own idea, it was for "What It Takes," a mammoth undertaking that frightened publishers. "I said, 'Richard, that's a great book idea, but it's not a first book. It's like a 10th book.' And he went, 'Sell it,' " said Brophy. "And I did."

With just four books and a handful of magazine articles over his long post-newspaper career, Cramer operated on his own clock. Sometimes that meant literally, said Brophy. One morning, while researching "What It Takes," he called her at 7:30, saying that he had missed a 7:15 flight. "What time did you get there?" she asked.

"7:20," he replied.

But that was Cramer, agree his friends, an occasionally shambling presence who was also a keen observer, a raconteur, a baseball fan, a master of ceremonies. (He served the latter role at Pakenham's wedding.) Ward imagines him in another time, another place, holding court with some other witty friends.

"It's probably not too much a stretch to imagine Richard sitting at the Algonquin, sharing great thoughts with other people," he said.

Cramer is survived by his wife, Joan Cramer, and a daughter, Ruby. An earlier marriage ended in divorce. According to The Sun, there will be no funeral at Cramer's request.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:30 PM EST, Sun January 5, 2014
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
updated 7:55 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Actor James Avery, who played the beloved Uncle Phil on the hit 1990s sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," has died. He was 67.
updated 2:59 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Dr. John W.V. Cordice, the surgeon who operated on Dr. Martin Luther King after he was stabbed in Harlem in 1958, died in Iowa. Cordice was 95.
updated 8:28 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Joseph Ruskin died of natural causes in a Santa Monica, California, hospital. He was 89.
updated 4:19 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Jeffrey Ian Pollack, who directed the popular 1990s films "Booty Call" and "Above the Rim" and produced "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" has died. He was 54.
updated 6:00 PM EST, Mon December 23, 2013
Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian gun designer whose AK-47 rifle became the weapon of choice for many national armies and guerrillas around the world, died.
updated 6:53 AM EST, Sun December 22, 2013
Ned Vizzini, who shot to fame at a young age for his teenage novels focusing on youth depression and anxieties, committed suicide at age 32.
updated 4:37 PM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
Al Goldstein, the foul-mouthed publisher of Screw magazine and pornography pioneer died in New York. He was 77.
updated 3:53 PM EST, Tue December 31, 2013
Actor Daniel Escobar, who played a teacher in "Lizzie McGuire," died from complications of diabetes in Los Angeles. He was 49.
updated 7:41 PM EST, Wed December 18, 2013
"Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs -- one of the most notorious British criminals of the 20th century -- has died, his publisher told CNN. He was 84.
updated 8:17 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Ray Price, the Nashville star whose trademark "shuffle" beat became a country music staple, has died at age 87, his agent said.
updated 9:23 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine died, her longtime friend Noel Beutel said. She was 96.
updated 7:40 AM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Actor Peter O'Toole died peacefully in a hospital at 81 years old.
updated 7:38 AM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Tom Laughlin, the actor who wrote and starred in the "Billy Jack" films of the 1970s, died at age 82.
updated 7:56 PM EST, Wed December 11, 2013
Jazz guitarist Jim Hall, who played with the jazz greats of the 20th century and influenced the younger ones, has died, his family said. He was 83.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Actress Eleanor Parker, nominated for three Oscars and known for her "Sound of Music" role, died Monday at 91, her family said.
updated 11:40 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
Freedom fighter, statesman, moral compass and South Africa's symbol of the struggle against racial oppression.
updated 9:18 PM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
Bill Beckwith, who co-hosted HGTV home-improvement show "Curb Appeal," has died. He was 38.
updated 9:58 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
Actor Paul Walker, who shot to fame as star of the high-octane street racing franchise "Fast & Furious," died in a car crash in Southern California. He was 40.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Sat November 30, 2013
Paul F. Crouch, co-founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, died at age 79.
updated 6:42 PM EST, Fri November 29, 2013
Jane Kean, who played diverse roles during a long career but was best known as Trixie on the TV revival of "The Honeymooners," has died. She was 90.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Mon November 25, 2013
Singer Wayne Mills, whose "outlaw country" songs center on honky-tonk life, died in a Nashville bar shooting.
ADVERTISEMENT