Hey, Doc, you half-expect him to say, I been starin' into George Bush's soul too long . . .
"Ahh got to know Poppy (George Bush) over burgers and bloodies with Bar," says Cramer, wearing an old white cotton shirt that looks like it was washed with green socks; a ragged red beard; a filterless Camel on his lips; an extra 45 pounds around his middle; a raconteur's Southern accent that's especially endearing for its mysterious invention, since Cramer grew up in Rochester, N.Y.
"Ahh discovered he wasn't a wimp at all . . . he was one of the people who made the world's last great empire . . . he was in fact the fiercest white man on the planet!!!"
Cramer, see, wrote reams about the 1988 race for the presidency but didn't give a grit about the electoral college, or Southern strategy. Didn't give a darn about the actual election. The book only covers the primaries! Voters? The first tally is cast after Page 800. Let the great scurrying ant colony of reporters swarm all over the candidates and the issues. Cramer was out in the meadow with a butterfly net, collecting souls. Bush's soul. Bob Dole's soul. Mike Dukakis' soul (though The Duke was in such extreme denial, Cramer says, he couldn't see a thing about himself honestly). Hart's. Gephardt's. Biden's.
Cramer just got to know those fellas. Played golf with the Veep's sister, Nancy Bush Ellis. Adored Gloria Dole's brownies and crispy chicken (just like Bob liked 'em!), and took to calling her brother "The Bobster." Let Poppy take him at horseshoes that time down at the house. (Let the Veep win and everything'll be OK!) Why, Cramer even named his cats Poppy and The Bobster!
Relentless, Cramer stalked and talked five, 10, 20 times to each candidate, hounded their steps, hung on their every word. He recalls asking the candidates such penetrating questions as, "Your Aunt Lucy says when you were 12, you never woke up until 10? Why do you get up at 6 now? What changed in you?"
And he found out. The Big Feet (Cramer's word for the establishment media) got it wrong! The press was so obsessed with interpreting minor misstatements as major character flaws it portrayed all the candidates as small, weak men.
In fact, "they're big, extraordinary men," Cramer says. "Their families change around them. Everyone who knows them says they're the most amazing men they've ever met. They're like heavy lumps of iron. They actually change the magnetic fields around them."
Thus saith the BIG BIG BOOK. And lo, What It Takes has been widely acclaimed the best, longest, most titanically ambitious (some say most deeply flawed), manic and colorful book ever written on presidential politics. The epic that sends Teddy White's stately The Making of the President books spinning on their dusty library shelves. Turn on C-Span and, why, there's Cramer. Try CBS and there's Cramer. Pick up the Washington Post and there's What It Takes possessing, the paper says, "the feel of a masterpiece."
Some of the Big Feet, however, have chastised Cramer for what Russell Baker calls a "childishly frantic" writing style (Baker says he hates the book, but "just cannot stop reading"); for dubious reporting and writing techniques ("Attempting to re-create the streams of consciousness of Bush and Dole when they thought they might die in World War II is a bit of a stretch," writes Maureen Dowd in the Washington Monthly). And for what the Chicago Tribune called the "lame excuse" that Cramer couldn't slow down Jesse Jackson long enough to include him in the book.
Cramer isn't surprised by journalist attacks. "I wet on their legs first."
So it was back in 1986 that Cramer set out, before the candidates even declared their intentions, to fall in love. . . .
"If you're not in love with them," Cramer says, "how can you know them? And how can you care passionately about someone for six years and not fall in love? I wanted to be seduced by them. I wanted to know the power and the charm it took . . . "
Trouble was, Poppy and Gary and Dickie Gephardt and Joey and Mikey and the Bobster already had wives and families. They didn't want to fall in love with Richard Ben Cramer . . . didn't care a whit for this schmoozing, scruffy- bearded character in white dinner jacket, red baseball cap and old sneakers, who was always FOLLOWING THEM AROUND.
Who was that guy? How'd he get on Air Force Two? We've got an election to win!
All Cramer wanted from Bush was his ENTIRE LIFE STORY. And Dole's. And Dukakis'. And all the rest. The White Men, The Suits (Cramer's words for the consultants and Secret Service men enclosing the candidate in The Bubble) wouldn't give him the time of day.
So while the Priests of the Process were flying around the country, Cramer did what he always does.
If they zigged, he'd zag.
Cramer is the Zeus of Zag.
Let others try to reach the candidates through press secretaries. Cramer flew to their home towns to talk to their mothers, their cousins and brothers and sisters, their uncles and Aunt Minnies. He pored over family photo albums with Dick Gephardt's brother and sister-in-law on Long Island; moved in with Dole relatives in Russell, Kan. He must have met 40 assorted Bushes.
Scrap those mushy-mouthed media myths, Cramer says, such as objectivity and distance.
If you're Cramer, you gotta get behind the fella's eyes.
Gotta watch Mikey Dukakis standing in his little-boy PJs whining that there were too many reporters in his living room . . . Man, the Duke was out to lunch!
Gotta crawl into Bush's supposedly wimpy ventricles and find that tinny voice didn't come from weakness - it was an ironic fluke of . . . YE GODS! WASP CONQUERER BREEDING.
Gotta get under Hart's bed. (Cramer didn't, but Hart's staff thought he actually tried.)
Cramer's friends wouldn't have been surprised if he had. This guy would do anything.
Shut out of a closed court hearing? Cramer, the young Baltimore Sun reporter, climbed on an elevator roof to listen through a wall. Shunned by diplomatic sources in the Middle East? The young Philadelphia Inquirer reporter found the ordinary Arabs who shared with him mysteries older than the sands - and brought home a Pulitzer. At age 28.
"If no one answers the front door, Richard tries the back door," says David Hirshey, Cramer's editor at Esquire. "If the back door's locked, he climbs in the window. And once Richard gets inside, he's too charming to throw out."
Once inside, Cramer saw that Gary Hart was the best damn candidate out there until the media "Karacter Kops" boiled Donna Rice for her 15 Minutes and all the water went out of the campaign.
He saw that Joey Biden was a hell-of-a-guy once you got past the minor plagiarisms in his speeches, and what was that compared to the long curve of the guy's life?! To Cramer, Biden was Job! His life was tragic. He was a hero! Not as big a hero, though, as Dole, with that anguished hungering heart and motionless arm, tragically disabled in war, that he confessed to Cramer he'd grimaced his whole long life to hold up. The Bobster was Lear!
Friends weren't surprised by Cramer's heroic take on what it took. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden recalls that 10 years after Cramer covered the Maryland legislature for the Baltimore Sun, the old pols still invited him back to their annual press seminars, bypassing about 50 current working press.
"Richard always had a deep affection for people, always had a great affection for politicians," Bowden said. "The kind of things bright young non-drinking health-nut reporters may frown upon, Richard always found very endearing and human in people. He didn't come off as a scold. He came off as a chronicler. He had some genuine affection for these old pols and they loved him right back."
Newspaper reporters are usually as low-profile as yesterday's news. So how did a reporter get to be so winning, so much . . . like a great politician?
Hirshey believes What It Takes is autobiography. Cramer grew up in Rochester, N.Y., the adored only son of a pharmacist. His father loved to spin affectionate tales of the characters who peopled the drug store. His mother, a teacher, demanded Cramer and two older sisters do everything obsessively, perfectly. "You don't understand," Cramer says. "Everything." She was the kind of dynamic mother the candidates had, who gave their sons, Cramer said, the feeling "they could do anything they wanted, and there was no one with a better chance of doing it than them."
Grandfather Harry Lackritz, a cigar-smoking, Cadillac-wheeling, horse- playing needle-trade tycoon who made and lost a fortune on a single zipper was a model for the flamboyant young reporter who appeared in the Baltimore Sun newsroom in 1973 wearing sport coats when all the other young reporters were in T-shirts and jeans. Thus began the Cramer Legend of the Rise.
He was the shooting star of the Sun, roared off to Philadelphia and The Inquirer where he covered local news with phantasmagorical energy, badgered his bosses to go to New York, jetted off to the Mideast and Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Have you heard the one about how he returned, came up the newsroom elevator with a goat - and a camel? Wore a full-length Egyptian djellaba to his first Esquire editing session?
"He's invented himself," says Inquirer colleague Bowden, who edited the Loyola College newspaper in Baltimore when Cramer edited the Johns Hopkins University paper. "The name, the style . . . I remember when he was just little Dickie Cramer. But it's not phony. It's genuine. It's Richard."
Have you heard about the svengali-like charm?
"Richard could make you feel like you were brilliant, the absolute center of his universe," a former lover says. "He had that beguiling quality that makes the whole world his."
But none of this would have meant desert sand if there weren't a number of journalists in America who unabashedly say things like this: "I wanted to come to The Philadelphia Inquirer because I read Richard Ben Cramer's dispatches from Afghanistan and I thought, this is great writing," says Huntly Collins, an Inquirer reporter. "I was working for the Portland Oregonian and walked six blocks every Sunday just to get a two-week-old Sunday Inquirer, just to read Richard Ben Cramer. He doesn't know this. I don't know him."
This appeared on the front page of the Inquirer on May, 8, 1981:
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 noses and remembered their own days of rage . . . Bobby Sands was carried yesterday to a grave of raw Ulster mud."
With such stories, Cramer defined the standard of Inquirer foreign reporting, says executive editor Jim Naughton.
Like his political heroes, Cramer changed the magnetic field around him.
"Like the men in his book," says Hirshey, "Richard bends everything to his will - wives, friends, subjects and of course editors. No one is more charming or ruthless than Richard."
After Hirshey had cut 2,000 words from a brilliant 15,000-word Cramer profile of Ted Williams for Esquire, Hirshey recalls, "Richard came in after all the editors were gone and got the uncuttable 2,000 words restored to his epic by getting the type size reduced and telling everyone he had my permission. The next day on my way in to work I noticed a guy with three bouquets of flowers - one for the art department, one for the production department, one for the copy department."
Cramer put the $150 florist bill on Hirshey's credit card.
Poor Kitty Dukakis.
She was being followed by a "madman." (Barbara Bush called Cramer the same, he says, for a too-revealing portrait of the Prez.) "Kitty told me this crazy guy Cramer would talk with her for six hours, leaving her drained and limp," Hirshey said, "and the next day he'd call in that soft Southern drawl of his and say, 'Kitty, that was great but I've been listening to the tapes, and I didn't get what I wanted. Let's do it again tomorrow.' "
He spent $9,500 cash to fly on Kitty's press planes. He spent $160,000 in one year. Thousands and thousands on flowers alone. So many helpful secretaries. He took seven days off in 2,000 days. He wanted to feel the candidates' frenzy. He talked to them on buses, planes, in airports and, finally to Bush in the Oval Office. (Access? He was George Jr.'s buddy by then.)
He spent every penny of a nearly half-million-buck Random House advance. His Visa card was taken away from him. He moved to Cambridge, Md., where it was quiet and cheap and he could write. Then the plagues came . . .
It took enough caffeine, Lord knows, to write with the energy of Cramer, which is to say like Tom Wolfe, except Cramer insisted on writing like Thomas Wolfe, the Southern novelist, too - on and ON! His wife and editor, Carolyn White, cut a thousand pages. Then God punished Richard for writing too long. He survived bouts both real (pleurisy, Bell's palsy, crippling back pain) and imagined (heart attack, liver cancer, lung cancer). Then a storm came off the river and lifted Carolyn in the air, when she was pregnant, and threw her into a rosebush.
"Carolyn was crucified on the mountain of his book," says Hirshey. "All his friends would have been saddened but not surprised if Carolyn had plunged a steak knife into Richard's heart sometime in the last five years."
They had a child, Ruby, now 2. They spend their days now in the farmhouse by the river demolishing crabs, taking hay rides, dreaming of going to Europe. On a recent afternoon Richard Ben Cramer bought some cheese for Carolyn, sang to Ruby, I love you, you love me, we're a happy fam-a-lee, learned from the eye doctor that his view of the world hadn't changed much after all (just a little more nearsighted than before). Later, he said don't bet against Bush in November - Cramer, though a liberal Democrat, deeply admires Bush's guts. George Herbert Walker Bush always does what it takes.
Then Richard Ben Cramer said he planned not to write another BIG, BIG BOOK for a long, long time. "It takes," he said, "your whole life."