When I got heavily involved in covering and editing national politics in the 1990s, three books served as guideposts: E.J. Dionne’s “Why Americans Hate Politics,” Dayton Duncan’s not-well-known “Grass Roots” and — above all — Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes.”
The first two books were relatively quick reads, but Cramer’s was Bible-sized. It dove you down — way down — into the campaigns and candidates in the 1988 presidential race. Despite its thousand-page-plus size, the book was irresistibly readable. And it served as an education into the complexities and personalities of people who had enough ego to believe they should run the most powerful nation in the world, and the staffs who were trying to make that desire come true.
The book came out in 1993 and was everywhere in the political world. Every journalist I knew in Washington claimed to have read it (one thing you learn quickly about Washington journalists: Some claim to read a lot more books than they actually ever touch). Cramer was ubiquitous on the politics circuit, showing up on Sunday talk shows and C-SPAN book specials.
I never met Cramer, but he was a major influence on my work as a journalist at a time when I was covering the White House. A lot of my peers felt the same way — and for a younger group of journalists and journalists-in-training, Cramer was an inspiration.
He died Monday at age 62 of complications from lung cancer. The world could use a lot more journalists like him.