The world of politics is peppered with uneasy relationships between journalists and the public figures they cover. However, like army buddies who have been in the foxhole together, when you share time in the bunkers of political campaigns sometimes the strong bonds that develop break all the rules. Richard Ben Cramer, who died last week, thought all those rules about the need for distance and objectivity were bunk. His unapologetic bromances with many of the candidates he wrote about in What It Takes broke all the rules. He freely admitted that he came to admire, even love, characters that from a distance might not have seemed all that deserving. As unusual as that was, the affection that was returned by those he covered was unheard of. Hard-boiled political types, trained to be wary of the enemy, could not help but love him back.
As a bit player in the 1988 presidential campaign drama, I watched Richard at work and, like so many of the hundreds of people that Richard invited into his life for his five-year reporting and writing journey, I was swept up by his warmth and his charm and his relentless quest to discover all that makes a man who would be president tick.
I'll never forget the first time I met Richard. He could have been a character out of The Great Gatsby, dressed in a white double-breasted polyester suit, with three-inch wide lapels, colorful and decidedly mismatched shirt and tie, equally colorful suspenders holding up his trousers and a wide-brimmed white straw hat atop his wild curly hair. "You're the book guy everyone is talking about?" I asked. "Seriously?!" He just smiled and in that soft yet gravelly voice that reeled you in, he answered. "Yes ma'am. And we are going to be seeing a lot of each other, so you better get used to me." And see a lot of him we did. Richard didn't just cover the campaigns, he lived within the campaigns.
A complex jumble of a personality, with quirks and nuances and eccentricities that only he himself could have aptly described, Richard perhaps appreciated better than most that trying to understand any individual and, in this case, any presidential candidate, was going to take a whole lot more than what you saw on the surface or what one happened to say on that long road to the White House.
He had a different view than most of the role of a journalist. He didn't think a journalist's job was to try to report every word that was said or to find secrets that could possibly impact the viability of a candidacy. He thought the most important job -- the responsibility -- was to help the public understand who these men were. His 1988 campaign book project was also much more than and much simpler than what he considered to be that sacred responsibility. It was also to take the reader on a joy ride and tell them a good story. It had to be a true story, not the story that the handlers wanted told, nor the story that garnered big headlines or sold newspapers. And most importantly, it had to be a complex human story, for that was what he was always after.
Even to most who pay attention to politics, the 1988 presidential campaign hardly registered as all that memorable. Yet Richard Ben Cramer's masterful character study of six of the 1988 presidential candidates brings that race and the candidates alive in ways that other campaign chronicles before and since have not. And while that is legacy enough, for those who were along for the ride during that presidential campaign, with the added benefit of experiencing it through his eyes, Richard provided us -- journalists, political professionals, activists and candidates -- with a powerful reminder of the fundamentally idealist reasons most of us choose to live a life in the often not-so-idealistic world of politics.
We loved Richard and we will miss him.