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An ode to Richard Ben Cramer

My middle school librarian used to give me funny looks.

My middle school librarian used to give me funny looks. Sometimes because my fly was open, but mostly because I liked to pick out books that hadn't been checked out in years.

This was because of my fascination with presidential campaign politics, which was born during the 1992 Bush-Clinton-Perot race. When it was over, I was left hungry to experience and understand other campaigns the same way. So I headed to the library and stumbled on some dusty old copies of Teddy White's "Making of the President" series.

I learned the contours of the 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972 elections--names, events, issues, cultural references. It was all brand new to me and I absorbed every last bit of it. And when I started including references to Bill Scranton, Gene McCarthy and Nelson Rockefeller in my everyday conversations, it wasn't just the librarian giving me funny looks anymore.

Teddy White stopped his series after the 1972 race, but others picked up the slack. Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote a few.

Newsweek used to embed reporters with the campaigns under an embargo agreement--all the material would be held for a juicy post-election book.

And there've some fun variations on White's idea. Hunter Thompson gave it a gonzo twist in 1972. Dayton Duncan took it ultra-local with a book about campaign volunteers in the 1988 New Hampshire primary. And Michael Aron--my old friend from New Jersey--applied it to that state's most memorable gubernatorial contest in 1993.

I've read just about every campaign book I could get my hands on. Some of them are great and enduring. Others feel badly dated now. But I appreciate just about all of them.

But there's one that towers above all of the others--one that set out to do something completely different, and that pulled it off.

The book was "What it Takes," and it's in the news this week because it's author--Richard Ben Cramer--passed away on Monday night. I don't have it to hold up here because a few weeks ago I did what I've been doing with my copy of "What it Takes" for years now: Forced it on a friend and said, "Here. Read this--it's the best presidential campaign book ever written."

Actually, calling "What it Takes" a campaign book kind of misses the point. It's a little about the 1988 campaign, but not really. If you read it, you won't learn a ton about what the major issues were, where the candidates stood on them, and where precisely each fit on the ideological spectrum. Come to think of it, some of the candidates who ran are barely even mentioned in the book -and a lot of it isn't even set in 1988.

What Cramer did was pick six candidates who ran that year--George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Joe Biden, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt--and convince them to give him total access to their worlds. He devoted his life to learning their lives, the people, the experiences, the failures that shaped them as kids, students, soldiers, and politicians. He wanted to know what kind of life journey could lead a person to say: I want to run for president. He also wanted to see how someone like that would be changed by the ever-more absurd demands of media age presidential politicking.

That's what makes "What it Takes" a classic. It's not really about one presidential race. It's about six people who happened to run in one race. And to know and understand them--to really know and understand them--is to know and understand presidential campaign politics in a whole new way.

Richard Ben Cramer brought us that knowledge and understanding with "What it Takes" and even though he’s now gone, students of politics years from now will benefit from his insight just as much as so many already have.