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Richard Ben Cramer, 62, Prize-Winning Journalist Who Had ‘What It Takes’

January 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Richard Ben Cramer wrote about a range of topics, from politics to sports to international conflicts. With his passing, Gwen Ifill talks to Time magazine's Joe Klein and the Washington Post's Chris Cilliza on Cramer's legacy.

GWEN IFILL: Next, we remember author and journalist Richard Ben Cramer, who died yesterday at the age of 62.

Writing for Esquire, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and two newspapers, Cramer excelled at the finely drawn profile, from baseball stars to Irish revolutionaries to American politicians.

And he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his coverage of the Middle East. His 1992 book, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” which told the story of six men who ran for president in 1988, became a gold standard for political journalism.

For more on Cramer’s influence, we’re joined by Joe Klein of TIME magazine and Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post.

Joe Klein, you’re a storyteller, too, in much the same way in some respects that Richard Ben Cramer was. What did his way of telling stories and — how did it inform what you did?

JOE KLEIN, TIME magazine: Well, you know, he had such a wonderful eye for detail.

And he was so relentless. He also had the time and space to write in detail. And he wrote beautifully. And the thing that I think that most informed my journalism after that year that I think you spent with him and I spent with him on the buses in 1988 was the kindness and the humanity that he displayed toward politicians.

At a time when, you know, the default position for our business was cynicism, nonstop cynicism, wall-to-wall cynicism, Richard realized that these were, many of them, amazing people who were running for office who had lived incredible lives, who had been challenged and really had a visceral need to do public service.

I don’t think there’s much of — there’s enough of that in our journalism today.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that, Chris, because you are one of the practitioners of new school journalism, as it were, on the social media, as well in long form, in books and long-form stories in the newspaper, and yet you were — you feel like you were as affected by Richard Ben Cramer’s model as anyone.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, The Washington Post: Yes, Gwen, it’s fascinating. I had sort of come to politics relatively late in life. I always say I have the zeal of the converted.

I didn’t write for my school newspaper in college or anything like that. And after college, somebody handed me the book — I was working for Charlie Cook, a political handicapper, kind of fell into that job. Charlie recommended the book to me.

I read it and thought, geez, this is what always attracted me to sports, and this was a guy writing about it, writing about the personalities, writing about who these people were before they became the name in big lights, what formed them, what drove them, what motivated them.

It was a kind of journalism I, as a 22-year-old, had never come across or even thought could be done. I will tell you, I read the book, parts of the book. I still think the parts of the book on Joe Biden and Bob Dole are some of the most moving political journalism done about those two figures, who have had lots and lots written about them, ever.

I think anyone who cares about journalism should read the whole book, but reading the sections in which he talks about Bob Dole’s recovery from his war wounds is some of the just incredibly moving stuff that I think as sort of inspirational to a younger generation of people who saw in Richard Ben Cramer someone who, to Joe’s point, kind of went about it a little bit differently than many of the people at the time were doing it.

GWEN IFILL: Joe, I’m sitting here holding the book, which is very heavy.


GWEN IFILL: We’re talking long-form journalism. Is it still alive?

JOE KLEIN: Oh, this book is — yes, although it’s mistakenly called the gold standard for political journalism.

It isn’t, because we just don’t do that kind of journalism anymore. In part, we can’t. We don’t have the budgets to do it. And, also, the politicians are a lot more wary of the press than they were.

The amazing thing about that book is, it’s 1,000 pages long. It’s incredibly compelling. And it’s written about the most boring presidential campaign I ever covered.


GWEN IFILL: Chris, you went up to meet with and kind of pay homage to Richard Ben Cramer with some colleagues of yours.


GWEN IFILL: Tell us about that visit.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: You know, Gwen, we had written — myself and Ben Smith, who works for BuzzFeed, Jonathan Martin at Politico, Sasha Issenberg at Slate had all kind of developed this love for the book in our early 20s and kind of found each other through political journalism and would occasionally in our various publications write about it.

A college student at Washington College near where Richard Ben Cramer lived sort of saw that and invited us to come out and meet him. Now, I wrote about the visit today. And the first line of it is, when I first met Richard Ben Cramer, I thought he might shoot me.


CHRIS CILLIZZA: And the reason I thought that was because we had never met the man. We were basically communicating through a college student. We went two-and-a-half-hours out to the eastern shore of Maryland.

We pulled up, and I thought, it’s probably as likely as he greets with us sort of a shotgun and tells us to get off his property as he does with a handshake, to be totally frank. He invited us in. His girlfriend, who later became his wife, made us dinner.

I went back out about two years later to write a chapter of a book I wrote that Richard was very sort of encouraging about to profile him and how he went about — the chapter of the book was called “What It Takes to Write What It Takes” — how he thought differently about politics. It was just a neat, just a neat experience for someone like me. It’s something I will always treasure.

I saved the e-mail he wrote to me thanking me for sending him a copy of my book, sent it to my wife. We both saved it. And it is just a meaningful thing for a political reporter like myself.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you both then this final question, which is, what is it that you learned in being friendly with and covering stories with and reading the writing of Richard Ben Cramer that you think, Joe, could inform young writers and aspiring young political journalists today?

JOE KLEIN: Well, one of the things I have learned is that cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre, that if we are going to do this fairly — we have gotten to the point where writing a positive story about a politician is a very tough thing to do, especially for young reporters.

And we need to be more humane and balanced and respectful of the people who seek to lead us.


CHRIS CILLIZZA: Joe used the word humane, and I think it’s critically important that Richard Ben Cramer understood and Joe understands and I think the best of us who do this, people like Joe, Richard Ben Cramer, yourself, Gwen, understand these people who run for office are human beings.

We forget that sometimes. We cover them so much, we write their names, we look at them on TV, we forget that there’s some basic humanity there that is driving them, that inspires them, that motivates them, and finding that what that is and exposing this that for readers may be the most important thing we do, so that they can really understand who that name — that boldfaced name really is.

Richard got that in a way that I think a lot of people don’t. I do everything I can to aspire to it, but I think the humanity of these politicians, you always have to remember.

GWEN IFILL: Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, Joe Klein of TIME magazine, two great, humane journalists, thank you very much.


JOE KLEIN: Thank you.