Remembering Richard Ben Cramer

January 8, 2013

The word was that a reporter had gotten in deep with the Bush family, had become a confidante, was playing golf up at Kennebunkport. Michael Kirk and I, charged with profiling the two candidates in 1992, scrambled to get to him.

The person who showed up in that Washington hotel lobby was not a person I would have pictured golfing with the president. Rumpled, goateed, paunchy, a non-stop talker, profane, his large, stubby fingers stained yellow from his smoking: This was my introduction to one of the most brilliant journalists of his time, Richard Ben Cramer.

He’d spent years writing the thousand-plus pages of What It Takes. Over time his book would be recognized as a seminal work on American politics, but its mocking nickname was What It Weighs when it came out a few months after we met.

“I handed him my own script on Bush, told him to count the number of syllables in each burst of narration: That’s how many he had to play with.”

To translate his work to film, I was ruthless; I handed him my own script on Bush, told him to count the number of syllables in each burst of narration: That’s how many he had to play with. A lover of puzzles, a fanatic for games, Richard took to this one, adapting his explosive language to haiku-like lengths. The results were electric. All of us in the edit room that day — Michael Epstein, Ken Eluto and myself — knew something remarkable was taking form.

What took form for me was a collaboration for more than 10 years, and a friendship that lasted 20, until lung cancer killed Richard on Jan. 7. For FRONTLINE, we did The Choice ’92, and then our poison-pen letter to our own industry, Tabloid Truth. Our AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film The Battle Over Citizen Kane took us to Sundance, and got us an Academy Award nomination — I should say took me to Sundance, for he had no interest in going.

I could talk about the shock and freshness of his language and how it got my work looked at and argued over in a way that I rarely matched before or since, but honestly, that’s not what I remember first.

What I remember was how much fun it was. In What It Takes,he had explored six men running for president to find their methods. Well, play was his method. Working a source to get information, or re-working a page of script, or negotiating edits with FRONTLINE Executive Producer David Fanning and Senior Producer Mike Sullivan, he did so with an outrageous, insistent intimacy: vulgar, invasive, disarming.

Around him, masks fell away, you took yourself less seriously, you spent too much, you drank too much, and life seemed a bit more luminous than before. That method had got him to the golf course in Kennebunkport, Maine, so what chance did you have? You were being handled, outmaneuvered, but who could care at that moment that Richard had once again gotten his way?

In this excerpt from our first FRONTLINE film, listen to Cramer’s ear for how people spoke: He is writing about George Bush the elder in Bush’s own cadences, not to mock him, or to channel him, but the better to reveal him. And I think the writer — his sharpness, humor, empathy — also are revealed. What a pleasure to hear Richard’s voice again.

Award-winning filmmaker Thomas Lennon has made a number of acclaimed films for FRONTLINE, including Jefferson’s Blood (2000), Tabloid Truth (1994), The Choice ’92 and Seven Days in Bensonhurst (1990).

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