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.
In that circumstance, says Cramer, "All you have is your life's method. That's all you have. It's a terribly sad fact. That's all these guys can bring to the table. Well, when you get it stripped down like that you better know how the kid was brought up. You better know what his momma told him. Because that's really what's going to come out."
Branch says he thinks the Dole campaign leans too heavily on that tactic: "Sometimes I would criticize the Dole approach for being 'This guy is a nice guy, and he deserves to be president,' almost like class president of a high school." He agrees, however, that presidential character counts.
A press problem
The trouble, say both Cramer and Branch, is that the press corps doesn't know how to define presidential character.
"Whether you fell into bed with some floozy in 1968 has nothing to do with your character," Cramer says. It's not a useful measure of someone's fitness for office.
Consider other things, says Cramer: "Like, how he treats his staff, how fairly does he react to criticism or to bad news or to the unexpected happening? When he loses his temper does he hold a grudge or does it blow over? If you've got a vindictive guy in there like Nixon, you've got to know. That's character. That plays into the presidency. You've got a guy like Clinton who can blow up and then it's over. That's something to know about the guy."
Branch says Clinton's reputation for waffling has been vastly overplayed. In his Esquire article, he maintains that Clinton's resolve in the face of criticism of his invasion of Haiti "refutes the entire brainless chorus about Bill Clinton's lack of conviction."
Branch says a lot of people just don't like Clinton, even if they can't exactly say why.
"A lot of politics is do you like the guy or not," says Branch. "You can pretend to argue [his inconsistency] all you want, but a lot of this is just a question of taste. And that's fine."
Cramer says Dole is a decent and likable man who at the moment seems to be floundering for a clear campaign theme. The worst thing he can say about Dole, who has a reputation for being unable to accept advice, is that "there's nobody in whom he can place faith. You know, he's very much alone even in a room of 40 people. That's a hard place to live. There's a certain untouchability about Dole that makes him essentially unsolvable in the end."
A little similarity
Although they champion different candidates, Cramer and Branch share a history of voting Democratic, and both agree that Dole and Clinton have much more in common than the campaign advertising might suggest.
During the last battle over the federal budget, for example, Branch says Clinton "would talk about feeling that he had more of a common interest with Dole, at times, than Dole did with [House Speaker] Newt [Gingrich]. They would be more interested in getting something done and Newt's got all these yahoos in the House who don't want to get anything done or who want it only on their terms."
Cramer agrees. "Clinton and Dole, I think, have the same politics," he says. "I mean, that's an odd thing to say. But I maintain that in both cases, Clinton and Dole, they don't come at politics because they have an ideology. They come at politics because of their belief in themselves, that they should be the one in the middle of the table to pull everybody together when the deal goes down."
In the 1992 Maryland Democratic primary, Branch says he split his vote between delegates pledged to Clinton and to Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. This year, he says, he'll vote for his friend with a full heart.
Cramer is not sure. He had been inclined to vote for Dole, mostly because "every time I saw Clinton I thought 'You [bleep] phony.'" But then he went to Donna's and met Branch for the first time, heard his version of Clinton. Now he wonders.
"I do think Dole is a very decent man, and I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with him," says Cramer. "I don't think that the country's in trouble with either of these guys."
'Campaign '96: The Candidates and the Issues'
Day: Tuesday, Oct. 1 Time: 8 p.m.-9: 30 p.m.
Place: Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus
"The Character Issue," a discussion by Richard Ben Cramer and Taylor Branch, part of Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program's Media Forum, a five-week series, which begins Sept. 25. Preregistration is required. $85 for all five sessions. Cost is prorated for late registrants.
Information: (410) 516-4842, (410) 516-8516 or (410) 516-7709
Pub Date: 9/12/96