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Richard Ben Cramer

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A while back, a friend was asking me for a good political read. It was a stroke of good timing: I’d just finished a great political book on the 1988 Presidential Election. “Oh, I know who wins that, I was hoping for something better.”

It’s too bad, I don’t think they ever read that book and it’s still the best book on politics I’ve ever read.

Richard Ben Cramer died earlier this week. He wrote that book, “What It Takes,” plus a handful of other books that are still startlingly fresh and vibrant reads. He wrote one of the most famous profile stories ever, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979, He was one of my favorite authors and it’s sad to hear he’s gone.

In the past few days, prices have spiked for used copies of What It Takes as it shoots to the top of the sales chart on Amazon. It wasn’t always that way: I got mine, a battered old hardcover copy with a library stamp from Washington, for something like a dollar online back in 2008. It’s a long, heavily researched book, basically four profiles in one, tied together with the narrative of the 1988 election. It’s a detailed examination of exactly what the title says: what does it take to be someone who deserves to be President? What does it take to run for presidential office? How does one get there? What happens when they do? And, most importantly of all, how can they stay there?

His book’s probing look at the media hordes around presidential politics was years ahead of its time: he forewarned of the power of the press and how their ideas are what motivates elections. In the late 1980s, Gary Hart looked like he could have what it takes. But he refused to play along with the media and when they questioned him, he challenged them back. He’s never had much of a career since. Conversely, someone like Joe Biden did: he was friendly with the press. He’d take people for late night spins around his property, tell them what his dream house was going to look like when built (one can see shades of this even in his cameo on Parks and Rec). His campaign more or less ended with a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him.

It also functions as mini-biographies for several of the major people in that election, most of whom are still around: Biden, George Bush, Bob Dole. Others are names that have kind of faded away: Dick Gephardt, Michael Dukakis. Their sections – especially Dukakis, who ended up with the Democratic nomination and is maybe best remembered for being slaughtered by Lee Atwalter’s attack ads – are what makes the book especially memorable. It’s sort of a history of the 1988 election, but not really; the book ends before the final vote. It’s more of a look at people and the powers that be. It could’ve been about any election at all, but maybe only about 1988 when all these fantastic personalities were running. It doesn’t matter if you know who wins, it’s still a fantastic read.

But Cramer was responsible for more than that. His biography of Joe DiMaggio, “The Hero’s Life,” is one of the high-water marks of sports biographies, ranking a close second to David Marianiss’ book on Vince Lombardi. It’s the logical extension of Gay Talese’s classic profile and covers his Yankee days up through the darker years of DiMaggio’s life. We see him aging, the years when he dated Marilyn Monroe and their tumultuous relationship, which abruptly ended with her death (Cramer notes that for years afterward, DiMaggio had flowers left at her grave).

His DiMaggio is a shrewd, private and controlling man. He did endorsement deals all throughout his life, yet remained separate from the public. It’s a book that’s poignant near the end, as DiMaggio’s life is filled with people out to make a quick buck off his name, especially on the lucrative memorabilia market, even if he didn’t need the money: During the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, DiMaggio panicked and was seen carrying a garbage bag filled with money.. It’s a sober, full portrait of DiMaggio, written without any help from the principal; it ends with letters written to him from DiMaggio’s law team, warning him off DiMaggio. Even with a total lack of cooperation, he’s written the definitive book on one of baseball’s lasting personalities.

His magazine writing was also top-notch stuff. Everyone interested in great profile writing has at least heard of his Williams story, but I’m also a fan of his piece about Cal Ripkin which ran Sports Illustrated. It’s one of my two favorite overlooked SI pieces, the other being Don DeLillo’s Total Loss Weekend.

But maybe Cramer was doomed to be overlooked. He only wrote a handful of books and his best – What It Takes – wasn’t exactly well received. It could’ve been the timing: it took him years to write and didn’t come out until Clinton-mania had made the 1988 election completely irrelevant. It could have something to do with his scope: What It Takes is over 1,000 pages, covering everything in detail, but still didn’t feel long enough. Could’ve been his prose: he writes like Tom Wolfe, in exclamations and bursts and jolts, but with the observation of Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.”

The last time I heard anything from Cramer was a few months ago, when his biography of Alex Rodriguez was shelved. There was also talk of a book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which launched the start of trade unions in the US. It’s too bad those books will never be written, not to mention anything else he’d have done in the future. With Cramer, we’ve lost one of the giants of modern nonfiction.

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Written by M.

January 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm