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KEENE: Richard Ben Cramer, great reporter and friend

He had knack for finding what made people tick

- - Thursday, January 10, 2013

I didn’t know Richard Ben Cramer when Bill Schulz, then the Washington editor of the Reader’s Digest, called me at the beginning of the 1988 presidential campaign to say that Mr. Cramer was writing a book about the candidates and their campaigns, but couldn’t get the access to Bob Dole he needed. Mr. Schulz, a great judge of writers and character, urged me to intervene on Mr. Cramer’s behalf.

Mr. Cramer wanted to tell a story rather than push an agenda and to do so, he had to get to know his subjects. It will be fair, he said, and Mr. Dole should let him in. I had read Mr. Cramer’s classic 1986 piece on Ted Williams; based on that and on Mr. Schulz’s recommendation, I went to the senator. He wanted to know why I felt Mr. Cramer could be trusted to be fair. I told him that he had gotten to know the irascible Ted Williams, admired him and even grew to like him, all of which was clear in his writing.

“Heck,” I told Mr. Dole, “if he liked Williams, you’ll be fine.” Mr. Dole grumbled, agreed and let him in. It was a decision neither he nor I ever regretted, because by granting Mr. Cramer the access he needed, Mr. Dole became a part of “What It Takes,” perhaps the greatest book about politics and those addicted to it ever written. And Mr. Cramer liked Mr. Dole.

Mr. Cramer was a gentle soul and perhaps the most unusual political reporter I had ever met, but he was a great reporter and a fantastic storyteller and became a good friend. His greatest work didn’t sell as well as it should have, and he went on to other things. He never wrote another political book, but I got a call from him one morning some years later. I hadn’t heard from him in some time as he had been abroad, but he had news he thought I would really enjoy.

“Dave,” he said, “I’m calling because I’ve got something you’ve always wanted.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

He chuckled. “I’ve got empirical proof that the media gets everything wrong.”

He went on to explain that when he had been asked to write the 1986 in-depth piece about Ted Williams, his colleagues warned him that Williams would never speak to him, that though he might have been a great ballplayer, he was so ornery he would never even meet, let alone talk to, a writer like Mr. Cramer. Williams’ hatred of the press was almost as legendary as his ability to hit a baseball. Mr. Cramer’s task would prove both difficult and unpleasant.

As it turned out, Mr. Cramer did get to see Williams. “I spent a lot of time with him, got to know him, and fished with him,” he told me. “It was like hanging out with the real John Wayne, and I’ll never forget it.

“Now, I’ve got an advance to do a book on Joe DiMaggio,” he said. “When my friends and colleagues heard about it, they all said this one will be a snap.” They told him the Yankee Clipper was a gentleman, admired by all, and that he would find him accessible and fascinating.

“I’m calling you,” Mr. Cramer said, “because I just got off the phone with him and I have to tell you he may be the biggest jerk I’ve ever interviewed. They got both guys wrong!” That, of course, didn’t stop Mr. Cramer from writing another great book.

Mr. Cramer lived in Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and knew that I hunted ducks and geese on the shore. He called once and said that he loved it out there, but thought he hadn’t managed to immerse himself in the culture because everyone around him seemed obsessed with hunting. To live and understand his surroundings, he felt he had to see what it was all about. He had decided that Ken Bode, who was a mutual friend, and I had to take him hunting.

We did, and Mr. Cramer had dozens of questions about the sport and those who engaged in it. It was as if he might write another book. He didn’t, of course, but he was a man who wanted to know everything about what made people tick. It was what made him a great reporter and writer.

His death this week at 62 reminded me of all that and made me wonder whether there will ever be another like him. Those who have read him and those who got to know him will miss him, but we will never forget him.

David A. Keene is president of the National Rifle Association of America.