Shortly after 10 a.m. at Donna's Coffee Bar in Mount Vernon, Richard Ben Cramer gets up from his table to shake hands with Taylor Branch, another Maryland writer with a Pulitzer Prize on the wall. So much in common, you'd think they would have met before.
Lately they're both being called upon to explain the men running for president. This month's issue of Esquire magazine offers back-to-back two sympathetic articles: Cramer on Bob Dole, Branch on Bill Clinton. They've read each other's stuff, but never shared each other's company.
"It's a big state," says Branch, a 49-year-old native of Atlanta who lives in Baltimore and whose 1989 history of the civil rights movement, "Parting the Waters" won a Pulitzer Prize for history. He's now working on a second volume of the book and as a result, he says, "has been quite hermit-like."
Cramer, 46, who was born in Rochester, N.Y. and graduated from Johns Hopkins University, also blames it on geography. He lives in Chestertown, where he is working on a biography of Joe DiMaggio. On the Eastern Shore, he says, "you don't meet anybody."
Both men agreed to meet somewhere to talk about Clinton, Dole, presidential politics and presidential reporting. After three weeks of schedule jockeying vaguely reminiscent of efforts to arrange the Paris Peace Talks, it was settled: Donna's. Cramer orders espresso and iced cappuccino. Branch gets a bagel and coffee.
Cramer, a bearded man in wire rims, can talk. His current address notwithstanding, the speech is Urban Aggressive: quite certain of its point of view, studded with obscenities and vivid examples and delivered in a deep smoker's rasp. The white-haired Branch speaks with a gentle Southern drawl and is more inclined to wonder aloud, to sit back, listen, then offer a short comment.
Cramer, who won a Pulitzer for Middle East reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979, thrust himself into the role of Bob Dole Interpreter by writing a two-ton book on the 1988 presidential campaign. "What It Takes" took six years to report and write, runs 1,047 pages, and tries to fathom the cores of six of the men who ran for president that year. One of them was Dole, known in Cramerspeak as "The Bobster," whose beginnings in Depression-era Russell, Kansas and heroic recovery from World War II injuries were explored in great detail.
Branch comes to the position of Clinton Explainer by personal connection, having worked with the president on the George McGovern campaign in Texas in 1972. For months the two 25-year-old activists shared an apartment in Austin with Clinton's girlfriend, Hillary, and worked well together -- Clinton focusing on politics, Branch on fund-raising.
When the editors of Esquire first called Branch and asked him to write a personal portrait of the president, he turned them down, fearing that writing such an article would breach personal confidences with Clinton. A few weeks later, when he mentioned this to Clinton, the president urged him to do the piece. Clinton had somehow heard about Cramer's Esquire assignment on Dole. He was concerned, says Branch.
A sympathetic pen
"He said 'Cramer is a good writer. He loves Dole. We're going to get our butts kicked.' He said 'I trust you,' " and urged Branch to call Esquire back and see if that assignment was still available. It was. The editor said they were having trouble finding someone to write a sympathetic piece on Clinton.
In "Clinton Without Apologies," Branch describes his own journey from skepticism to restored faith in his old buddy's decency and intelligence. Branch says he is impressed by Clinton's understanding of the historic moment, his sense that his generation's greatest civic challenge will be to maintain democratic values in a time of increasingly scarce government resources. Branch also recounts how he has acted as presidential confidant and adviser on several occasions.
In "The Heart of the Bobster," Cramer shows us Dole against the backdrop of Russell, Kan., with detours through his political and personal history. To know Dole, Cramer writes, one must know the "story of sacrifice, faith, endurance, and triumph over hardship. It shows him to be brave, decent, smart, optimistic, titanium-tough." But mostly, the Cramer argument goes, one must know Russell.
Wait a minute, Russell? A farming community? How is Russell relevant to the essential Dole, who has spent virtually his entire career swimming in a shark tank in Washington?
"It's totally relevant to who he is," says Cramer. In a crisis, he says, a president is usually hard-pressed to find aides who will be honest will him, who will give him bad news. He's usually out of touch with what real people think about anything.