Last night I had some sad late-night duty at the newspaper -- writing an obituary for Richard Ben Cramer, who made his mark on Philadelphia in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a foreign reporter for the Inquirer and was something of an icon to a couple of generations of writers who were awed by his ability to throw himself into a story. That approach led to what's now his best-remembered work, What It Takes, a chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign that turned what had seemed like a race of strange clueless men like Joe Biden, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush into an opera of tragi-comic significance.
But being a truly great writer means bringing that passion to every thing you write, even a daily newspaper story. More than three decades later, journalists still talk about how Cramer covered what was a big deal back in 1981, the funeral in Northern Ireland of hunger striker Bobby Sands:
BELFAST, Northern Ireland — In a grimy gray drizzle, under ragged black flags that lifted and waved balefully in the fitful air to the wail of a single piper, on streets winding through charred and blasted brick spray-painted with slogans of hate, by silent tens of thousands, past fathers holding sons face-forward that they might remember the day, past mothers rocking and shielding prams that held tomorrow’s fighters, past old men who blew their rheumy red noses and remembered their own days of rage, Bobby Sands was carried yesterday to a grave of raw Ulster mud.