“What It Takes,” Richard Ben Cramer’s exhaustive account of the 1988 presidential election, took so long to report and write—six years in all—that it wasn’t published until the 1992 election. Clocking in at over 1,000 pages, it’s a colossal work that is now considered among the finest pieces of political journalism ever written. Originally excerpted in Esquire—as “George Bush’s White Men,” “How He Got Here,” and “The Price of Being President”—it is remarkable for its hard-won, personal insights.
Mark Zwonitzer, briefly an Esquire fact-checker before becoming Cramer’s researcher for the book, recently talked with us about the late author’s singular ambition, work ethic, and charisma, and the adventure they had together in discovering what goes on inside the minds of men who believe they’ll be president.
Esquire Classic: When did you meet Richard Ben Cramer?
Mark Zwonitzer: At the end of ’85, when he was doing the Ted Williams piece. I was a research assistant—I was only at Esquire for a year—and fact-checked the Williams story. In terms of profiles, it doesn’t get better. That was the piece that convinced David Rosenthal at Random House that Cramer could do the big political book.
EC: Did you just talk on the phone?
MZ: Oh, no, Richard was a presence in the office. You knew when he was on the floor. Other writers you’d deal with could be standoffish, a little bit above you because you’re a 23-year-old kid researcher who doesn’t know anything. The first time I ever met Cramer, he’s got his arm around me like I’m his best buddy. But that was just Richard. He’d go in and talk to the people in the copy department and the art department, making friends with everybody.
EC: Did you get any sense that after the Williams profile, he’d accomplished all he could as a magazine writer and that the logical next step was to do a book?
MZ: He was an ambitious guy and recognized ambition in other people and celebrated it. He had big, big ambitions. He wanted to help change the way political reporting was done. The other thing was, magazines paid pretty well in those days but the way Richard worked, he had to know everything—so he’d spend six, eight months on a magazine piece, and in the end it didn’t pay very well.
EC: So how did you get involved with “What It Takes”?
MZ: In the fall of ’86 I heard he’d signed a contract to write a book, so I called him up and said, “Hey, if you need research help, you let me know.” By the end of October I was on the project. Six months later, he’s plucked me out of my job—I’d left Esquire for another magazine—I’m working for him full time, and we’re moving to Washington. He said we should get a house down here that we could share with a friend of mine who’d just gotten a job at the Washington Post, Gerri Hirshey. So Gerri and I went down and got the house together. I was twenty-four when we started and almost thirty when the book was finally published. In between, Gerri and I got married and had a child, with another on the way when the book came out. Richard was thirty-six when we started: He got married too, to his girlfriend and editor, Carolyn White, and they had had a daughter, Ruby—who by the way is one of the great up-and-coming political reporters in the 2016 campaign.
EC: Why did Cramer choose to write his first book about politics?
MZ: He came back from the Middle East [as a Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer] right before the ’84 election. He was trying to figure out who these candidates were and who he could vote for and who he was interested in, so he read and read and read and didn’t learn anything—who they were, where they were from, what drove them. He was just bored and frustrated by what he read, the same old stuff, horse-race polls, “according to a senior staff member,” and he felt, Hey, there are some great personal stories out there that nobody is telling, and I’m going to tell them. Remember, Richard liked to zig when everybody else was zagging.
He was interested in writing about politicians not as stick figures but big, powerful, fascinating people who had lived lives of excellence. These guys had been winners their whole lives. For many of them, this would be the first time they’d ever lost—and what does that do to you? The simple idea of the book is: How does it feel to be competing for the highest office in the land—and maybe the most powerful in the world—and in a system that had a way of demeaning and diminishing? Richard wanted to put the reader in these people’s shoes, to see the drama through their eyes, and make the reader care about them as human beings taking big risks.
EC: It probably didn’t hurt that he’d covered city politics as a young reporter for the Baltimore Sun, right?
MZ: He loved those old-school pols. I mean, a really good pol will light up a room— Republican, Democrat, it doesn’t matter. If they’re really good, they make you feel like you want to be with them. He had a great appreciation for the beauty of that talent.
EC: It sounds like the same vibe Cramer gave off himself.
MZ: Writing and reporting the book was his own personal campaign. He was a walking campaign. He was operating as a pol after his own fashion, getting people to trust him and open up to him. He wanted to know—had to know—everything about everybody. He would sit down with a new person and explain what the point of the book was, and what he was trying to do, and he always had them. Everybody helped. Jesus, everybody helped, despite the fact that it didn’t do anybody any immediate good. It’s not like he was writing for tomorrow’s paper and what he was writing might help their campaign. Richard had to bring everybody on board and make sure that they trusted him and make them partners in the project. The candidates, their wives and families, the old friends, new friends, coworkers, campaign staffers, their second-grade teachers. Everybody.
EC: He was selling himself.
MZ: Over and over again. It was fun for him, it was the game. He loved it. Everybody was helping Richard understand, helping him figure out this puzzle. So he brought them into the process of discovery. Also, remember, everyone we interviewed knew little pieces of the candidates’ lives, so after a while you’re telling campaign people things that they’d never imagined about Bob Dole’s upbringing and early career and family life. And the families were always interested in what goes on inside the campaign, which is a pretty foreign land to them.
In terms of access, it’s not like Richard had the keys to the kingdom. He had to work really hard to get in because he didn’t have a flagship newspaper or a network news logo behind him. It was just him. Every bit of access he got he had to earn on his own, and he worked really hard to get it. We ran up against a lot of walls, but it was just pushing, pushing.
EC: Did he kill them with kindness?
MZ: Well, there’s really no other way to do it. You couldn’t be a jerk, and that wasn’t Richard’s natural way. I remember Gary Hart saying later that Richard would come in and he’d be a little bumbly, he couldn’t find his notebook, he couldn’t find his pen, and you just wanted to help the guy. However he did it, Richard got people to want to help him. Again, there was nothing Richard could bring to his subjects in terms of quid-pro-quo that was going to help them. Richard was essentially saying, This is a project that is worthwhile and will stand apart and—trust me. It was all personal. It was all getting people to help. Hundreds and hundreds of people…And there’s a group of people—not a cult but a very large group of people—who want you to know that Richard Ben Cramer interviewed them for What It Takes.
EC: Did Cramer have a sense beforehand of the overall narrative arc and how long it would take to write the book?
MZ: Originally, the idea wasn’t for it to be just a campaign book. The idea was to take the reader through a campaign and election and then into the White House for a year with the winner. That was the dream. So that would be ’89-’90 and then the book would come out in ’91 and it would be the most ever written about a sitting president. So the other piece of the book was OK, once we put one of these poor souls into the White House, what happens to him? But the bubble gets tighter and tighter the closer these guys get to the White House. Richard got time in the White House and access after [George H.W.] Bush was elected president but never enough to write about it in a comprehensive way. Plus, the amount of material he had was already too big to get his arms around. You can’t imagine what he was sitting on just with the campaign.
EC: How did he arrive at following six candidates?
MZ: The idea was three Republicans, three Democrats. But nobody besides Bush and Dole really emerged on the Republican side. And for them it was like it was their last go-round. Now, it turned out not to be the case for Dole, but Dole thought at the time, If Bush has two terms, I’m done. Hart was always at the top of the list. He was the front-runner. Richard went out to see [Richard] Gephardt early and talked with him and was impressed with him. He went out and talked with [Al] Gore and said, “This guy’s bullshitting me from top to bottom. I don’t want to waste my time being spun like that.”
EC: Why didn’t he profile Jesse Jackson?
MZ: I spent a lot of time in Greenville reporting on him, but we could never get him to slow down and help us. Richard also felt that Jackson didn’t get over that hurdle of getting to the point where he really thinking he was going to be president. Now, was that a bit of a cop-out? Possibly.
EC: And you guys met George W. Bush through Republican strategist Lee Atwater, right?
MZ: Richard went to see Lee cold. They hit it off—I think they talked about Thomas Wolfe. Atwater sent us to see Bush and I went with Richard to meet him—Junior, most people called him at the time. We get to his office and Junior’s got a dip in his mouth, hand-tooled cowboy boots on, foot up on the chair, leaning back, spitting into a wastebasket. We walk in and he says, “What are y’all, a couple of New York poets? You don’t look like Young Republicans to me.” Richard and Bush hit it off. And they really fell in love with each other. They remained great friends. George W. basically vetted Richard. It was George W. who got him an invitation to play horseshoes and have barbeque with [Vice President Bush] at the Naval Observatory. That’s why I say it was a personal campaign.
EC: When did he start writing?
MZ: Late ’89? Before that we were just reporting. He talked about writing as the campaign was going on, but there was no way. We were just running, playing catch-up the whole time. Covering six candidates. His goal once he started writing was 1,000 words a day. He’d do his thousand, come back the next morning, read it over—do touch-ups and rewrites—and then do another thousand. That was the goal. Sometimes he did better than that; sometimes maybe he didn’t. But for sanity’s sake he didn’t try to do too much. If you stood back and looked at the mountain you had to climb, you wouldn’t do it. The only way to do it was one step at a time. It was daunting.
EC: When did he give stuff to Carolyn White?
MZ: When a chapter was finished. Carolyn was an extraordinary editor. She helped writers find their voice. She was very smart about weeding away excess. I think a big part of what drew Carolyn to him was his talent. She saw this and said not only is he a talent but I can make even better and bigger. Theirs was a serious partnership in that way. She saw that he could—and should—move out of newspapers and be a great magazine writer and that he could—and should—move out of magazines and be a great book writer. She was a combination of a great fan and a very able professional editor. As Richard used to call it, “I’m getting that good 24-hour editin’.”
EC: They have been described as a 1980s version of Scott and Zelda. How does that strike you?
MZ: There’s a ring of truth to it, but the sense I always got from what I read about Zelda and Scott was that they could be mean to each other and mean to other people, and Richard and Carolyn were never that. I mean they could fight, they could hurl champagne glasses, but there was no mean in either one of them. Carolyn was nothing but supportive of Richard professionally, and vice versa.
EC: Cramer had all sorts of physical problems over the course of writing the book. When did he physically start to break down?
MZ: He wasn’t in great shape, but when you’re thirty-six years old you think you can go forever. He got Bell’s palsy a year into it. Half of his face was paralyzed. That lasted weeks, if not months. He suffered from phlebitis—swelling in your legs—and had a lung scare that was serious. They thought he might have cancer. He would say, “I’ve had every stress-induced illness in the medical books.”
EC: Once 1991 came and went and the book was not finished, did Cramer get anxious that he’d missed his window of opportunity to have a best seller?
MZ: It could be that his publisher and his editor David Rosenthal were anxious about it, but the only thing Richard was ever anxious about was getting it right. That’s all he cared about. Let me produce something that will stand up forever, something that nobody will ever be able to top as a political book. I think that was his ambition.
Now, once it was time for it to be published and it was sales time, yeah, he wanted it to be a best seller. But in the doing of it, his chief concern was getting it right. He never expressed any regret about the final form of the book. He expressed regrets about its reception—it wasn’t badly received, it just was not the life-changer I think he hoped for.
EC: But even if he was disappointed, in the long run the book came to be considered a great achievement.
MZ: There’s a real respect for “What It Takes,” but as Richard would say, “That and a quarter will get you on the subway.” Still, it was a fantastic time. There were a lot of down times, times of financial worries and illness worries, but it was a great adventure.
EC: Cramer seems to have loved politicians more than politics, because you wouldn’t call him a political writer.
MZ: When Richard died three years ago, the Democratic vice president comes to eulogize him; the Democratic governor of Maryland puts the state flag at half-mast; the Dole Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, has a lovely remembrance of Richard; David Keene, who is a very conservative Republican, writes an encomium. George W. Bush called his widow to offer condolences about the passing of his friend. Where Richard stood politically was beside the point. He was interested in the game and how it was played, but he was fascinated by the people who played it—the candidates—and by the passion and genius and fallibility and folly they brought to it. And they loved him for it.
Mark Zwonitzer is an award-winning TV producer and writer, and co-author of “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music.” His most recent book, “The Statesman and the Storyteller,” a fascinating study of Mark Twain and John Hay, will be published at the end of April.