Richard Ben Cramer

Richard Ben Cramer (ANDRa F. CHUNG, / February 15, 2013)

One of the many bits of conventional wisdom about politicians is that they're all scoundrels in one way or another.

This is especially true of those who run for president.

Maybe they don't steal or lie or cheat on their spouse (although plenty do).

But other manifest flaws this species exhibits include huge egos, gargantuan self-importance and a God complex that requires frequent genuflection from the yes men and women who surround them.

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The political reporters I know share this view. I know I did, reinforced every four years as I hurtled around the country to greasy Main Street diners and toothpaste factories, trailing the men (and one woman) who wanted to be president.

There's truth to the adage that familiarity breeds contempt, and reporters who cover aspiring presidents — as I did — happily wallow in their contempt for the candidates.

It's the fallback conversation among political journalists when they gather in the bar at the Wayfarer Inn in Bedford for the (first in the nation!) New Hampshire presidential primary (or any other bar, for that matter).

But not reporter Richard Ben Cramer, the author of a truly groundbreaking book on American politics, "What It Takes," still fresh after more than 20 years.

Cramer took familiarity to an intense new level, parking himself in the kitchens and barnyards of the family and friends who knew the presidential candidates best.

He interviewed those people not once or twice but repeatedly, checking back with them again and again — sometimes 50 or 60 times — trying to understand where the candidates came from, who they were deep down, what they were made of and why they thought they should be president.

The result of that familiarity? Cramer wound up not with contempt but with genuine respect for the character and mettle of these flawed but extraordinary individuals who would give up so much (privacy, family life) to make the race.

"What It Takes" makes much of the political reporting that preceded it seem bland, one dimensional and, more than anything, inadequate.

I've been thinking a lot about Richard since he died last month of lung cancer at 62.

Here was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who, for me, shook the very pillars of political reporting.

He focused on the human rather than the usual journalistic menu: strategy, who's up, who's down, the snippets and scraps tossed off by the campaign advisers. (He called them "the white men" — women could be white men too — the generic staff that surrounds, insulates and too often kowtows to the candidate.)

Cramer's book on six men running for president in 1988 changed the way I thought about politicians and what it takes to really tell their stories.

Richard Cramer was a friend (not a close one) whose ability to watch, listen, cajole and charmingly wheedle information was a glory to watch from the day I first saw him in action.

By the time we met on the campaign trail in 1988, he was already two years into reporting on what he called "da book." But I had no idea until it came out — four years later, in 1992 — what he'd meant by research.