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The Politics of Crassness

BY HIS OWN measure, Ed Rendell, the former two-term Philadelphia mayor, two-term Pennsylvania governor, and Democratic national party chairman, is a great leader. The reason is not that he is smarter or handsomer or richer or more charming than anyone else. It is that he’s a “non-wuss.”

A Nation of Wusses is adolescent self-congratulation leavened somewhat by self-deprecation. This ludicrous book is a collection of colorful yarns more suited for banquet speeches than your bookshelf. The chapter about Swifty, the especially well-endowed donkey chosen as a party mascot in 2000 (Rendell calls him “five-legged”) has no doubt cracked up more than one fundraising dinner. Rendell’s book is breezily written and occasionally entertaining—in other words, somebody did a decent job of writing it for him. And Rendell makes himself the butt of much of his humor. But make no mistake: there is only one hero here.

I think I know exactly how this book came to be. As Rendell explains in the first chapter, the seminal notion arose after the NFL called off a December 26, 2010 match-up between our beloved Eagles (I speak—I breathe—as a Philadelphian) and the Minnesota Vikings because of what turned out to be just a dusting of snow. The irate Governor gave a phone interview in which he lambasted the league for disappointing many thousands of fans—Philadelphians famously love snowy games; the better to hurl snowballs at the field!—and then lamented “We are becoming a nation of wusses.”

The rant stirred up a fifteen-minute kerfuffle online and did a firefly-like turn on the eternal gabfest of cable TV, which prompted an alert editor at The Washington Times to request a full-blown op-ed piece on the subject. One was produced, which then, in the way these things happen nowadays, inspired a publicist to propose what now sadly passes as a book—that is, a puffed-out stand-up routine in print for a celebrity too obscure to snag a prominent moment on HBO.

Rendell labors mightily herein to convince us that his crude bon mot works as a trenchant idea—mind you, it came at a time when hundreds of thousands of young Americans were risking their lives on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. For my own sake, I can only hope that it doesn’t preclude a real book somewhere down the line, because Rendell is an important figure in Philadelphia history, and in the history of increasingly large American cities. You will not find any insight here into how he successfully managed the nation’s fifth largest city and sixth most populous state through two tumultuous decades. Unless you buy Rendell’s wuss/non-wuss theory, that is, in which case this may be all you care to know.

I like Ed Rendell. He is a burly, balding man with a face full of lumps and divots and irregular wrinkles, and a colorfully blunt vocabulary. He is an authentic man-of-the-people, a character who likes to sit out in the freezing cold at the Linc (Lincoln Financial Field) with the rest of us real Eagles fans late in the NFL season, on those afternoons when you lose all feeling in your fingers and toes by the second quarter; who stands in line with everybody else at the urinals; and who you are apt to find loudly mixing it up with friend and foe alike on the open concourse that rings the Bank (the Phillies’s Citizens Bank Park). For years Rendell has been a fixture in Philly. When I thought he had been ducking my calls while I was reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and spotted him from the fourth floor window of the iconic newspaper building marching in a parade down Broad Street, I raced down and caught up to him in mid-strut. He had no security detail or protective phalanx of aides. He greeted me cheerily, and shot holes in my story with profane gusto all the way to City Hall, never missing a wave or a blown kiss.

He is a pragmatist, which is my favorite kind of politician. He is honest himself, but he has few illusions about changing the world. He doesn’t have a reformer’s bone in his body. He accepts the world as it is, which in a big city like Philadelphia means being able to turn a blind eye to plenty, and can make you the target of many a wrathful editorial; but at some level Rendell takes seriously his responsibility for the public interest. This is a concept under attack these days, when the very idea of governance is slandered as socialist or dictatorial. True believers preach the wonders of markets, wherein a remedy for every social ill is to be found in the collective, unregulated action of self-interested millions. It’s a myth, of course. Sensible people understand that markets don’t give a damn about the public interest, and that government has an essential and justified role to play.

Rendell was a strong mayor, most notably in the beginning of his term, when he faced down the municipal unions in 1992, demanding that they abandon health benefits and work rules won from previous administrations that were bankrupting the city. Oddly, the story is absent in Rendell’s book, but it illustrates his central point better than any of those he tells. It was told brilliantly by Buzz Bissinger in his classic A Prayer for the City, in a chapter entitled “Profiles in Courage.” Indeed, this was a moment in Rendell’s career when courage was the essential ingredient: not just political courage, but personal courage. This was not like facing down unions in Des Moines. A copy of a compassionate letter that Rendell sent to all municipal employees explaining the city’s predicament was returned with the following scrawled on the back: “You are a punk pussy jew racist who should be killed the way Hitler broiled Jews in his ovens.”

This was Philadelphia, a quintessential blue collar town, where unions were part of the enduring social fabric of the city, right alongside the Democratic political machine. They were the cops and the firemen and the garbage collectors. A citywide municipal strike could easily turn ugly. Defying the unions was, in the conventional view, political suicide. But at the critical moment, according to Bissinger, Rendell refused to blink. He told his aide David L. Cohen, “Let’s do the fucking thing. Let’s do it! Let’s get on with the strike, and let’s see what happens! That’s life! That’s life in the big city!” And the unions capitulated. Rendell managed to balance the city’s budget and somehow became even more popular. The unions stayed angry, but most Philadelphians sensed that the mayor was looking out for them.

Rendell has some good points to make here. The best, I think, is his demand that politicians stop apologizing for governing. While he rates President Obama as a “non-wuss,” largely on the strength of his decision to launch the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden, he faults him for failing to stand four-square behind his own domestic policies. He points out that the president’s Economic Stimulus Act, portrayed by Republicans as nothing but a huge government giveaway, actually cut taxes for most Americans. “If you went into the streets of any American city, stopped the first thousand workers who make less than $200,000 annually, and asked them if the [Act] cut their taxes, how many would correctly say yes?” he writes. He believes the benefits of Obama’s health care legislation have been similarly undersold. It is almost as though the administration feels sheepish about having acted in the public interest. There is nothing sheepish about Rendell, but it may be that his earthy style simply plays better on a local stage.

My favorite picture of a big city mayor ran in The Baltimore Sun in 1981, snapped by photographer April Saul, showing the late William Donald Schaefer, posing in an orange-striped antique bathing suit, clutching a large toy duck, and jauntily tipping a straw boater just before diving into a pool at the National Aquarium in the Baltimore Inner Harbor. Scahefer had lost a bet that the Aquarium, still under construction, would be finished on schedule, and turned failure into triumph with a sense of humor and a complete willingness to make a fool of himself.

Few have exceeded Schaefer in the art of being mayor, but Rendell is in the same league. Both men were prickly egoists with a hard grasp of local power, but they also had a gift for the theater of politics. Local politics, that is. All politics may be local, but the urban stage is different than the national stage. On the national level one picture of a candidate in goofy headgear can destroy a campaign (remember Dukakis in the tanker helmet?), but somehow city politics requires the goofy hat. The Mayor is supposed to make a fool of himself on occasion, perhaps as a demonstration that he does not place himself above his constituents. I like to think of it as a demonstration of his commitment to the public good.

Mark Bowden, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic, was a longtime Philadelphia Inquirer reporter.