Richard Ben Cramer may not have been a household name, but he was one of the best journalists of our time. He died last night at the age of 62. Links and quotes from his Ted Williams profile, his Joe DiMaggio biography and his opus on the 1988 presidential campaign, What it Takes, are making the rounds today. With good reason. They're all sensational works that are worth your time and attention. A few friends of mine had the pleasure of meeting Cramer, and they report that the Rochester native was a great guy, one who loved talking about his craft.
Instead of quotes from his stories, I'm going to share quotes Cramer shared about reporting in Robert Boynton's excellent book "The New New Journalism."
On the difference between writing for newspapers, magazines and books: "The difference is pace. You've got to move a newspaper story at a breakneck pace since the reader is only going to be with you for five minutes. A magazine story has to make the reader want to commit more time. If you get a magazine reader to commit to only five minutes you've failed. A book is something else entirely ... a book ought to alter the reader's life, add to the reader's life, in some fundamental way. ... A newspaper story informs, a magazine article entertains, and a book has to move you.
On his relationship with his sources: "I learned pretty quickly that I had to be straight up with sources. I'll do anything for my sources! I'll wash their damned windows if I have to. This is just plain adaptive behavior. You do a lot better as a journalist if your sources help you than if you don't. And if you're going to have to f*ck 'em, then you let them know man-to-man ahead of time how you're going to f*ck 'em so they can be prepared."
One of the best things in this interview is his reporting method for What it Takes. Along with spending months off the campaign trail (interviewing everyone in the candidates' lives), he would sit next to each candidate as they did their daily interviews with the beat reporters: "I'd sit there for the first day, and the second day, and the third day, and on and on. And sooner or later, the canddiate is going to get so comfortable with my being there that he will lean over to me after one of his interviews and say, "Damn, I f*cked up that agriculture question again! And at that moment I've moved from my side of the desk to his side of the desk ... I'm always trying to be on his side of the desk. If I come in with my notebook and my list of questions, then I'm just another schmuck with a notebook and questions to be brushed off with the "message of the day" or whatever form of manipulation is in vogue. But if I don't have any questions - except for the basic one of What the Hell is Going on Here? - and I'm willing to hang around forever trying to see the world from his side of the desk, then I become something else entirely."