POLITICS JUNE 25, 2008
Roughly a decade ago, when Ed Rendell was the mayor of Philadelphia, he made a controversial decision to appear with Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan at a rally. Farrakhan was in town in the aftermath of an assault by a gang of whites on an African American woman and her son and nephew in a notoriously gritty and racist part of the city. Many politicians, especially Jewish ones, would have kept far away from the incendiary Farrakhan. Portions of Rendell's liberal base were outraged. Protesters marched outside his home. But he went ahead anyway.
I was writing a book on Rendell at the time. Allowed into his inner sanctum for close to six years, I found Rendell's stance on Farrakhan important and was eager to hear what he had been thinking during the rally. He did not disappoint: "As I sat there, I said to myself, 'Wouldn't it be great if someone burst in and gunned me down, because then Buzz would at least have an ending to his book.'"
It was pure Rendell--unabashed, predictably unpredictable, the opposite of self-serious.
There are a number of conventional reasons for Barack Obama to consider Rendell, who is now serving his second term as governor of Pennsylvania, as his running mate this fall. In the same indefatigable fashion that he delivered a ten-point win for Hillary Clinton in the April Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, Rendell could deliver this crucial swing state to Obama come November. Rendell is popular statewide, and, more important in a presidential election, he continues to maintain Herculean strength in the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia, a traditional Republican stronghold that John McCain must do well in to have any chance of gaining the state.
But the real reason to pick Rendell hearkens back to that out-of-nowhere quip after the Farrakhan rally. It's his very unconventionality that makes him such an intriguing choice. Craving some pizzazz to counter the watch-your-back mentality that has become Washington politics? Pick Rendell. Want passion, candor, off-the-cuff gems, moments of keen insight? Pick Rendell. It's true that his one real foray into national politics, as Democratic National Committee chair under Al Gore when he was running for president, ended up in what some would say was excommunication because of a tendency to speak out of turn. But that's what makes Rendell arguably the most refreshing politician in the country.
A large, hairy bear of a man, Rendell would enliven Washington in a way that nobody has in years. He doesn't double-talk when it comes to describing political reality. Like when he told me he would never consider being a U.S. senator: "It's an incredibly easy job. They don't do shit." Like how he described his address to the Democratic National Convention in the 1980s: "Thirty seconds into my speech, it dawned on me that I could have been reading the best parts of Lady Chatterley's Lover and it wouldn't have mattered. … No one was listening." Like his job description as mayor: "A good portion of my job is spent on my knees, sucking people off to keep them happy." Like his refusal to deny a quote attributed to him in Philadelphia magazine in which he said that the publication "sucks the big wong": "Anybody who knows me knows that it has the ring of truth, so I'm cooked. If I had said, 'Your magazine eats shit,' I could have denied it."
Choosing someone as vice president because he's more Jackie Mason than Jack Kennedy probably does not seem like such a good idea. But Rendell is also one of the smartest, most intuitive politicians in the country. And he would bring to Obama a unique gift for keeping the right people happy. He did it for eight years as mayor from 1992 to 2000 when he turned the contentious Philadelphia City Council into a rubber stamp for his policies because of his personal charm.
He has been perhaps even more impressive in Pennsylvania as governor, given that he has been forced to deal most of the time with a Republican-controlled legislature with as much intellectual wattage as one of those green-friendly dim-lit curlicue bulbs, but without the good intent. Under such conditions, Rendell has managed to make real strides in energy, the environment, education, and economic development. His entire experience as a politician has been administrative, an important counterpoint to the exclusively legislative experience of Obama. It could make for a fascinating marriage of the idealist and the schmoozing fixer.
But calling it as he sees it remains Rendell's most compelling quality. It can be a crass quip about caving in to people's demands: "If I was a woman, I'd be pregnant all the time." Or a blunt assessment of the economy after corporate suits informed him that they were closing the famous Breyers ice cream factory in Philadelphia to save on costs: "Everything you laid out--it would make a textbook study in business school, but it is a horror story to hear for the future of our country. … I'll be a two-term mayor, and I'll get out before the carnage really starts, but what's going to happen to our country?" Or the sheer frustration after being accosted for hours at a public meeting by working-class whites feeling alienated and angry: "This country is really fucked up."
Whatever the subject, Rendell is not shy about exposing uncomfortable truths. Like many people, his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. During the Pennsylvania primary, he declared that some Pennsylvanians would simply not vote for Obama because he is African American. He was, of course, right, but his candor (not to mention his Elmer Gantry-like proselytizing for Hillary) didn't exactly endear him to the Obama camp. In a national campaign, Rendell would need to follow a carefully controlled script, which is not only impossible for him, but would neuter the very qualities that make him so special.
Which is a shame. Because of the blunt way he handled union leaders threatening a massive strike during a pivotal contract negotiation: "I don't want to be a shit, and I don't want to be anti-labor, but I can't grow hair, and I can't grow money." Because of the way, after eight murders one weekend summer night, he passed an impoverished stretch of Philadelphia and concluded there was only one hope of reduced violence: "What we need in this town is on every fucking weekend between now and September for it to rain." Because of what he--and he alone admits--about the entrenchment of racial politics: "Everything that goes on is a power struggle between black politicians and white politicians, and it isn't because of what's good for the citizens. It's about who controls what project. I'm so fed up with this blackmail stuff that goes on, I could just scream. I could just take a machine gun and shoot 'em all."
Would you want a man who says something as blunt as that to be your vice president? The answer is obvious. But that's not U.S. politics anymore. It's a style that has become anachronistic since the days of Truman. Which is also why Rendell's chances of becoming vice president are also obvious. As he might put it himself: no shot.
Buzz Bissinger is the author of A Prayer for the City, an insider's look at Ed Rendell and his administration when he was mayor of Philadelphia.