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Gwen’s Take: Why Do People Want to Be President?

Earlier this week, I joined with many of my fellow political journalists in a collective gush of surprise and sadness at the death of writer Richard Ben Cramer.

It was sad that he died at 62; sadder yet that a man who I can scarcely envision without a big fat cigar in hand died of lung cancer.

Richard’s passing launched many of is us into fits of reminiscence. His book, “What It Takes: The Way To The White House,” a magisterial, 1,000-page retelling of the 1988 presidential election, stands as a testament to – and an answer to — the question I always have in my mind about the people who run for president.

Why do they do this?

Why do they turn over their lives to years of grueling fundraising, speech-making, handshaking, second guessing, bad foods, bad hotels and life inside the bubble? Is being president worth all that? Especially when all of the above – except perhaps the food and lodging – continues to apply?

Richard knew that in order to tell the right story, he would have to go inside and spend as much time as possible telling the stories of the human beings who would do such a thing. It took him four years to do it, something the rest of us deadline-driven hacks could only stand back and view with envy (yes, and dread).

The year he chose to chronicle was 1988, which also happened to be the first presidential campaign I ever covered. I was a newbie with the Washington Post – always dispatched to cover the lowest candidate on the totem pole – when I met Richard on the back roads of Iowa.

One of my keenest memories remains a long night in the back of a passenger van, following somewhere along behind candidate Richard Gephardt, with Richard and Joe Klein, then of New York Magazine. I remember we were all very cold, warmed only by the smoke from Richard’s cigar, and by his stories. I remember laughing a great deal.

I asked Joe about that period of our careers on the PBS NewsHour this week.

“At a time when the default position for our business was cynicism, nonstop cynicism, wall-to-wall cynicism,” he said, “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.”

This is, it turns out, why I still cover politics and (mostly) like politicians. There are rogues, and opportunists and some who are not terribly bright. This is also true in journalism.

But the vast majority of the aspiring politicians and elected officials I have encountered along the way share the qualities Joe described. These virtues are not always on broad display — and we often ignore them when they are – but they are there.

The same goes for journalists. Most of the ones I know are among the biggest idealists I have ever met. But there are those who just want to pick a fight or get a provocative booking. They taint the rest of us.

Richard was of the first variety, and he applied his gifts to more than politics. When he died this week, sportswriters and foreign policy experts mourned too. Whatever he turned his attention too, he knew hunting out the humanity in a story always made it better, truer.

Thanks to Garance Franke-Ruta at the Atlantic for finding this gem this week – a 20-year-old interview with Richard that aired on CSpan’s BookNotes. In it, he tells interviewer Brian Lamb how he tried to cover the candidates as political figures, then gave up.

“Eventually, after a period of months, I pretty much abandoned Washington,” he said. “I went to the hometowns, and then I started talking to their schoolmates and their sisters and brothers and their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and cousins and their first employers and their Cub Scout leaders and their teachers and their law school buddies and college roommates. By the time I got back to the candidates on the campaign trail, I wasn’t asking them how many points did they need in Iowa. I was asking them about their Aunt Lucy or their Aunt Gladys.”

In the end, Cramer produced a tome that was a gift to succeeding generations of political journalists. In 2010, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza joined three other journalists who work for publications that did not exist when “What It Takes” was published – Politico, Slate, BuzzFeed — for a pilgrimage to meet the great man.

The four are leading practitioners of the kind of incremental political journalism that Richard disdained, but they came away dazzled at the value of Richard’s arms-length view of what forms a politician.

“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,” Cillizza told me. “And that finding what that is and exposing 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.”

Richard is certainly smiling if he knows that we are all – finally — getting his point.

Richard Ben Cramer

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