Richard Ben Cramer, RIP
One of the writers I followed as I tried to imagine myself as a writer was Richard Ben Cramer, who died yesterday at 62. He had struggled with cancer, and he also struggled with writing, but wound up producing classics for all that pain.
My favorite is his profile of former Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, who was in retirement in Florida, fishing like he used to hit baseballs. (Those were the days when Esquire magazine profiles could be books in themselves.) Cramer had Williams speaking in UPPERCASE, which was completely appropriate for the piece but is one of those tricks that aspiring writers should not try at home.
I also like to cite Cramer’s lede on the funeral of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (May 1981, for the Philadelphia Inquirer — remember newspapers?) when editors get doctrinaire about the 30-word lede. Here is Cramer at 95 words!
BELFAST, Northern Ireland — In a grimy gray drizzle, under ragged black flags that lifted and waved balefully in the fitful air to the wail of a single piper, on streets winding through charred and blasted brick spray-painted with slogans of hate, by silent tens of thousands, past fathers holding sons face-forward that they might remember the day, past mothers rocking and shielding prams that held tomorrow’s fighters, past old men who blew their rheumy red noses and remembered their own days of rage, Bobby Sands was carried yesterday to a grave of raw Ulster mud.
Crazy, yes, but wonderful. You can get away with it once a career. And Cramer was no trickster. He was all thorough reporting and interviewing and solid writing. Problem is, too many of us think that if a trick works once, it can work a hundred times. Not so.
Joe Klein remembers Cramer, whose last hurrah in a way was his tome on the 1988 presidential campaign:
“Books will break your heart” became our shared mantra, and What it Takes broke his, under-appreciated by his jealous colleagues and under-read by a public too busy and carefree to digest 1000 pages about one of the more boring political races of the past 60 years.
But what a splendid 1000 pages it was! Beautifully written, precisely observed–and with a larger point that beggared the cheap cynicism that had become, and remains, the default position for so many political journalists. Cramer actually dared to appreciate the incredible intelligence, hard work, courage and, yes, character that went into running for President…
…Cramer defiantly became friendly with his subjects, especially Biden, Bush and Dole. That may have been a bridge too far for those of who of us don’t dive in, as Richard did, and then leave the political scene. It’s hard to criticize politicians who are also friends (as Daniel Patrick Moynihan became for me). But Cramer’s appreciation of these politicians’ skill and humanity became an example I tried to follow in subsequent campaigns, a crucial antidote to the wall-to-wall ugly that corrodes the political process. (Thus, in 2012, it was important for me to write about the incredible strength of Rich Santorum’s family, even if I disagreed with him on almost everything.)
So it goes.