The Mast-Head: Words of Wisdom

“What It Takes,”

   Cramer, they called him around the documentary film company where I worked in the early 1990s, and although I doubt Richard Ben Cramer would have remembered me from those days, the news of his death on Monday of lung cancer at only 62 was a shock and a disappointment.
    By the time I met him, he had won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting from the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and he had written, “What It Takes,” an astonishingly detailed, 1,000-word portrait of the 1988 presidential race. I was working for Thomas Lennon, a documentary television producer, and Cramer was what might be called Tom’s secret weapon, brought in to make a script really sing.
    In those days, I was a lowly associate producer, which meant I did things like line up archival footage and organize car rentals. Cramer came in to help write a film we were doing about the rise of tabloid journalism, centered on the Michael Jackson sexual-abuse allegations, and he stuck around to do the narration in what I remember as a tone of authority with just the lightest hint of condescension.
    That he regarded dimly what journalism was becoming by the mid-1990s when the Jackson story would headline nightly news broadcasts was obvious. “What It Takes” set a high bar for understanding the primaries and presidential contests through probing descriptions of the individual candidates as people. This was in stark contrast to the superficiality of the tabloid-style “news” that was fast becoming the norm.
    Paraphrasing here, I recall that Cramer once said voting for president was the least-rational vote an American would ever cast, given the position’s power. This has stuck with me and influenced how I have viewed politics ever since, even on the local level.
    Something else Cramer said that I have never been able to forget was, “The best journalists steal their best material.” As I understood it, this was not a defense of plagiarism. Rather, it was to say that once a reporter learned something, the idea was his or hers to explore, to verify, and to expand. It was, in effect, a directive to take what was heard in the course of doing our jobs and run with it. It was also a reminder that the business of news is not about the reporters who write it, but the people they report on.
    Cramer was as unimpeachable a source as they come. He is gone far too soon. I, and a whole generation of scribblers, owe him a debt we can never fully repay.