Former two-term Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is the author of the new book, "A Nation of Wusses: How America's Leaders Lost The Guts to Make Us Great" (Wiley, John & Sons, $25.95). Raised by a working mother, he learned to be independent after his father died when he was just 14. Currently, he is a partner in the Philadelphia law office of Ballard Spahr and a senior political analyst for MSNBC. He and his wife Marjorie ("Midge") were separated in 2011. They have one son.
You were clearly influenced by your dad's political leanings. How did losing him when you were 14 affect your outlook in general?
Well, I had some short-run trouble. I was going to a private school, and I acted out so badly the year that my dad died that they asked me not to come back for my sophomore year. The good news is I went to another school and did so well my original school took me back, and I graduated with all my friends. But in the short run, obviously, it caused a great deal of emotional upheaval.
At 14 it was enough time for him to imbue into me the things that he so strongly believed in. I think in some ways it made me stronger because my mom was a working mother. She was way before her time. She was a designer in the sportswear industry. I was alone a lot. Then I went to college, and I was alone. I learned to fend for myself. I learned to be resourceful. I learned to cope on my own.
In the beginning of my political career, in my first race, I was virtually alone. No one in the political establishment was for me. So I think it helped me. It made me stronger -- in a perverse way.
You are confident about your leadership abilities, but did that confidence ever become a hindrance?
No, and I'll tell you why it hasn't gotten in the way. Although I am confident in my ability to lead and my ability to make decisions, as I have said in the book a couple of times, I also know that I'm not the smartest person in the world. I'm not even the smartest person in the room. Every once in a while when I think otherwise, I get a rude surprise. Remember the part of the book where I talk about doing the "60 Minutes" interview even though Dr. Snow, my media advisor, told me not to do it? It turned out to be a fiasco.
In the end I realized when it comes to stuff like that I'm not the smartest person in the room. I should have listened to Dr. Snow. Well, generally I do. ... As governor I think it is fair to say we did a lot of great things in the environment and in energy. But many of those things I learned from my first secretary of energy, Katy McGinty, who was an expert and was the policy director on environment in the White House. She came in and taught me so many things about solar energy, about wind energy, about methane from landfill gases, things that I never knew.
Speaking of listening, in the book you say Al Gore basically lost the presidential election because he listened to consultants. Their advice was pretty bad. You have to have a certain instinct about the people you listen to. Wouldn't that suggest Gore might have made that same mistake as president, listening to bad advice?
There's no question. I think President George W. Bush was persuaded by [Vice President Dick] Cheney and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld to make some very bad decisions. That's a perfect example of it. I think he came to Washington with every intent of being a compassionate conservative, with every intent of being a coalition builder. I think Cheney, particularly, and Rumsfeld on defense turned him into somebody who was anything but.
Don't you think 9/11 put him a position where he became more dependent on hearing others' points of view?
No question. I think 9/11 changed a lot of the things he wanted to do for education. A lot of the things he wanted to do as a compassionate conservative took a back seat.
So who are the wusses keeping Pennsylvania from getting a high-speed, state-of-the-art bullet train between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia?
Virtually everybody in the Congress who are unwilling to spend money on our infrastructure. We have just gotten so far away from investing money in big, significant projects. You know, I have to laugh. The 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge [was] a couple of weeks ago. I watched one of the shows. It said when they decided to build it there were a lot of critics who said it was too hard structurally. It couldn't be done. It was going to be a failure. In fact, of course it turned out to not be true. The Golden Gate Bridge was a great triumph, both in architecture and in opening up economic development.
We have lost that spirit of adventure. We lost that spirit of doing tough things. I quote JFK when he said about going to the moon: "We do this not because it's easy. We do it because it's hard."
A train like that between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would be a huge artery for commerce.
Awesome. It would do great things for the state. It would also do great things for the country because once you build the Pittsburgh to Philadelphia link, then the rest of it falls into place.
Wouldn't it be great if we were the state that did it.
Well, it would be awesome. For us to do it on our own it's just too much money. There is no way Pennsylvania by itself could pay for the development of that. Now what we could do is with the right incentives see if there are any private companies that are willing to do it.
How do we get that started?
You could put out something they call an RFI -- Request for Interest. Say what the project is and see if anybody would be interested in building it for us in return for development rights along the track, in return for some level of subsidy, etc. Of course they would keep all the fares, all the advertising, all the development rights from new stations or whatever, and see if we can make it work.
Did this ever come up while you were governor?
No, it didn't because we were fighting for some basics in transportation -- you know, repairing our bridges and repairing our roads -- before I thought I could do any new projects transportationwise. You know we had over 6,000 structurally deficient bridges, and I needed to seriously reduce that. We have. We've reduced it to under 5,300 structurally deficient bridges, and we are headed in the right direction. And we got a big boost from the stimulus money.
You have said you would be happy to help Hillary Clinton run again for president in 2016, but what if you were tapped to run? Would you?
If the Democratic party came to me (and this is not going to happen in the modern era) and said we want you to be our nominee, -- and assuming Hillary didn't want to run -- yes, I would do it. But that doesn't happen anymore. The way the thing is structured, you have to spend 2 1/2 to three years in Iowa and New Hampshire. No offense to those two states, I would love to visit them, but at this point I don't want to spend the better part of 2 1/2 to three years slogging around New Hampshire and Iowa.
You also talk in your book about getting rid of the Electoral College.
Can you imagine for a second if John Kerry had gotten an additional 70,000 votes in Ohio and would have carried the state of Ohio? He would have won the Electoral College and become president even though he got 3 million less votes than George Bush. Can you imagine what would have happened in the country? Can you imagine the conservatives? You know, Al Gore got about 400,000 more votes than George Bush. But if Kerry became president with 3 million less votes than Bush, I can't imagine what would happen in the country.
While many people might agree with you about dissolving the Electoral College, other politicians I've talked to don't see that happening.
It would take a cataclysmic event. Gore winning by 400,000 wasn't enough. But if Bush had won by 3 million and not been elected president, I think you would have seen a movement to amend the Constitution and get rid of it.
Do you think the private lives of candidates and those in office should be off the table? It may be keeping potentially great people from getting into politics.
Unless it has something to do with a misuse of taxpayers' money, I think the answer is yes. Do I think we will ever see that happen in the country? No.
Because controversy sells papers.
Right. More than just sells papers -- it is the stuff that 24/7 cable -- which provides me a nice living, I shouldn't knock it -- but it is the stuff 24/7 cable thrives on.