Biographies of Schaefer, McCain are by Sun authors

On Books

September 12, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

The Baltimore Sun abounds with women and men whose writing reaches far beyond the pages of this newspaper -- though we like to believe that their best work appears here. When books by them are published, I read them. I want to see the work of colleagues. But, also, rather than risk straining your credulity that any reviewer on these pages would be iron-bound to objectivity, I often write about those books.

There are two new biographies by Sun writers, one out soon, the other just arriving in shops.

Out late next month is "William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography" by C. Fraser Smith (Johns Hopkins, 385 pages, $29.95). Smith, now a member of the editorial board of The Sun, has been with the paper for 22 years, covering City Hall, courts, the state legislature and executive and, in our Washington bureau, the state congressional delegation.

If such titles existed in the fluid world of newspapering, Smith would be the dean of Maryland political writers. If there lives a person who knows William Donald Schaefer's life and dynamics better than Smith, it could only be Schaefer himself. Smith wrote "Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor: The Len Bias Tragedy and the Search for Reform in Big Time Basketball," published in 1993.

Schaefer -- legendary mayor of Baltimore, governor of Maryland and now state comptroller -- is the closest mortal approximation of a perpetual public figure in the state. Any attempt to distill him or his life into a few sentences must assume the reader is from a far-distant planet. Indefatigable and irrepressible, he led the city's emergence from the depths of the rust belt to a tourism and downtown economic renaissance. Last year, as a 77-year-old Energizer Bunny, he ran for and was elected to the office of comptroller. No sane observer would swear that was his last campaign.

Smith traces Schaefer from earliest childhood through his full and complicated life. So intertwined is that with the neighborhoods, customs, social rituals -- the dreams and provincialisms -- of Baltimore that the book becomes an enchanting social history of Schaefer's home town almost as much as it is a tracing and interpretation of the man himself.

Almost, but not quite. Schaefer is the heart of the tale with all his charm and all his imperfections -- vulgar and pious, cruel and humane, petty and destiny-driven.

In December 1975, Smith judges, Schaefer achieved full maturity, with his inauguration for a second term as mayor. To hold together his fractious body of supporters, Smith writes, "he had to make them confident he would never abandon them, or forget their needs. His only venture beyond the bread and butter of governing was his promise to make government and government programs open to all Baltimoreans."

And that he did, and then reached out to the entire state. Smith is a richly elegant, often eloquent writer. This book swims -- joyfully, just like Schaefer -- in affection for the human intricacies of politics and politicians, for the role in government affairs of whimsy, eccentricity, random chance, passion and cussedness.

Like Schaefer and many others who populate this book, Smith exhibits an enthusiasm for cities and their human importance that is virtually operatic. Characters emote as much as they govern. This is a saga of the experiences of local government raised to the divine, plummeted to the abysmal.

The other book is Robert Timberg's "John McCain: An American Odyssey" (Simon and Schuster, 227 pages, $13, paperback).

Timberg is now on leave as deputy chief of the Sun's Washington bureau, finishing another book. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Marine officer in Vietnam, he has been on the Sun staff for more than 25 years.

His "The Nightingale's Song" was published in 1995. A vivid, haunting exploration of the impacts of the Vietnam war on lives of Americans and on America, it traced the careers of five Annapolis graduates, including McCain. Much of the present book's content was included in "The Nightingale's Song," but there is substantial new material as well.

Understanding McCain is no easy task, though Timberg's powerful portrayal moves with swiftness and precision that accomplish an extraordinary level of insight. McCain was already a man of strong leadership qualities when he was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese in 1967. Now famously, he endured more than five years of torture and abuse so severe that it seems almost incomprehensible that he could emerge emotionally whole.

He did, and was elected by Arizona's voters to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988. He then rose to the Senate, where he endured another powerful threat, his implication in the Keating savings and loan scandal -- by which he ultimately was smudged but not deeply stained.

As Timberg convincingly reports it, McCain began his recovery from that with a commencement address to the midshipmen of Annapolis in 1993. "Here," he said, "we learned to dread dishonor above all other temptations."

McCain recited a roll of heroes he had known and fought alongside, and then finished: "I will go to my grave in gratitude to my Creator for allowing me to stand witness to such courage and honor. And so will you.

"My time is slipping by. Yours is fast approaching. You will know where your duty lies. You will know."

As we know now, McCain is farfrom "slipping by." Instead, he is running hard for the Republican presidential nomination. This intensely sympathetic book is one significant way for letting interested Americans know the man -- and untangle him from the myths.

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