The outsider who got inside American politics

What did it take for George Herbert Walker Bush to reach the White House? Thirty-thousand Christmas cards a year, that’s what.

Bush was already Vice-President by the time Richard Ben Cramer, the reporters’ reporter who died of lung cancer on Monday, got to know him. Vice-Presidents have official Christmas card lists, but the thirty-thousand were on top of that. This was Bush’s personal list, accreted over time, name by name, year by year, growing and never diminishing, so that Cramer saw the race to the White House as a triumph of a man who became President by simply making friends.

‘That’s his life method,’ said Cramer once when asked about how close he got to Bush during the writing of his magisterial account of the 1988 Presidential election, ‘What It Takes: The Way to the White House.’ ‘It’s like an animal thing. It’s his whole body wagging. You cannot imagine what it is to get on you plane after another 16-hour day and instead of kicking back a Martini, calling for your note paper to dash off another 10- or 12 thank-you notes to the people at the last event.’

Cramer knew because he was on those planes with six of the candidates in 1988; two Republicans, Bush and Bob ‘the Bobster’ Dole, and four Democrats, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Dick Gephardt. He was paying for the trips out of his own pocket, too, unlike most of the other reporters who were there on newspaper business. So when he ended up on a swanky 12-seater Gulfstream jet with Kitty Dukakis and just one other reporter, he was able to appreciate it only through gritted teeth, since he had to fork out a cheque for $9,500 for the pleasure.

Cramer was fascinated by the dynamics that made a man choose to run for President. He had envisioned his project two years before the election and had, in fairness, received a whopping advance from his publishers- rumoured to be nearly half a million dollars- which he had burnt through by the time the general election came around. This, then, became a tale of the primaries, but not just any old tale: Cramer got to know his characters in the round better than any outsider has ever got to know Democratic or Republican candidates, before or since.

He did it by abandoning Washington, and the political crowd, after realising that it was these candidates’ lives rather than their politics that he was interested in. So he went to their homes and communities; talked to their siblings, school friends, teachers and business partners. He ate fried chicken with their aunts and uncles, so that by the time he returned to the campaign trail he found he had an ‘in’ with most of the candidates, talking to them, as he could, about the dreams that had carried them this far, eliciting far more human and nuanced responses.

And he found that he came to like and admire the candidates immensely; realised that they were men of often startling character and ability- although he did not ignore the flaws. He recognised that the political race, the endless meetings and sound-bites, the suits shepherding them from airport to airport, diminished them in the eyes of the public and the reporters on the daily grind. The huge amount of background work that he had done enabled him to see the complexities of his characters and their situations, whereas run of the mill reporting reduced politicians to caricature.

So rather than see the irritable loser Dole, Cramer saw the man who had grown up in grinding poverty of the Great Depression in Kansas and then had been paralysed in Italy in the Second World War, almost dying, and hauled himself to ‘within an eyelash’ of the Presidency by force of his character and ability and courage. ‘There is no greater American story than Bob Dole,’ he said.

Joe Biden was dogged by controversy and ill health before he pulled out of the 1988 campaign, but Cramer saw through the charm and the schmooz, to the substance beneath, although it was the charm he memorably described when talking of Biden’s purchase of some Greenville real estate:  ‘When Joe Biden gets going on a deal, he’ll talk that deal until it’s shimmering before your eyes, in God’s holy light…. like the Taj Mahal…..where do I sign?’ Little wonder the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, stood little chance in his recent negotiations with Biden over the fiscal cliff.

At a time when there is a high level of apathy towards politics and politicians, a renewed look at Cramer’s ground-breaking work offers tantalising possibilities. Namely, that limited access diminishes politicians and that increasing it can broaden their appeal by making them seem proper human beings- warts and all. Controlling the message can be counter-productive. Of course, the kind of trust Cramer elicited is in short supply in the post-Leveson world. Being an outsider probably helped.

Cramer took six years to write his book, so that it was published four years after the election. It ran to over a thousand pages and it did not sell well. It was reviewed patchily, too, by many of the publications who this week called it one of the greatest political books ever written. It took its toll on Cramer’s health, and put him off writing about American politics thereafter, returning as he did to cover more important things like sport. He was writing a book about Alex Rodriquez, the baseball player, when he died.

By the time Cramer embarked on ‘What it Takes’ he had already written one of the greatest sports stories ever, about the elusive baseball player, Ted Williams, which appeared in Esquire magazine in 1986. The first line of that piece is one of the most memorable in sports writing: ‘Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those.’ By the time he had finished with the 1988 Presidential election, Cramer probably knew how Williams felt.