Ed Rendell takes aim at 'wusses' and others in new book
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A snowstorm threatening Philadelphia two years ago prompted the National Football League to postpone a playoff appearance by Ed Rendell's beloved Eagles. The decision sparked the former mayor and governor's complaint that the U.S. had become "a nation of wusses."
The irate observation drew tons of media attention and interviews in which the Democrat offered the snow delay as a metaphor for all sorts of ills in politics and American society. The critique also gave him the title for a breezy new memoir: "A Nation of Wusses: How America's Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great" (just published by Wiley). It mixes autobiography, policy prescriptions and criticisms of his peers in the public arena.
Mr. Rendell had a substantial public career as prosecutor, mayor and governor. Along the way, he earned a reputation not just as a successful politician but as a policy wonk comfortable with the fine details of budgets and government operations. But this book is not a deep dive into political theory. Rather, it is a light stew of anecdote and sound-bite-size arguments on how the nation can shake off its seeming inability to confront chronic problems.
Mr. Rendell offers a look at his personal background -- the death of his father when the future politician was 14, the upset win for district attorney that set him on the political career that would take him to City Hall, Harrisburg and a stint as general chairman of the national Democratic Party. But anyone craving a more detailed look at his early years, family life and crucial first term as mayor would be better served by spending the time with "A Prayer for the City," Buzz Bissinger's authoritative, behind-the-scenes look at Mr. Rendell's early political battles.
The former governor's book is dedicated to Midge Rendell, the wife of 40 years from whom he separated shortly after he left office as governor. But it includes virtually no mention of their personal life, the reason for the split or the rumors of dalliances that reporters pursued but never confirmed on the record during his years in the public spotlight.
In recounting his career, Mr. Rendell does elaborate on some of the controversies and confrontations sparked by his outspoken style. He describes the irate reaction of former vice president Al Gore when Mr. Rendell was quoted during the 2000 presidential race to the effect that the Democratic campaign was missing a sure bet in not using President Bill Clinton to stump in states such as Arkansas, Ohio and West Virginia. Mr. Gore summoned Mr. Rendell to a backstage meeting at a jazz concert, Mr. Rendell said, and "For the next 20 minutes, he ripped me a new rear end."
His candid observation at the delayed conclusion of the 2000 race was the source of one of his most searing political memories. He was about to appear on "The Chris Matthews Show" when the news broke that the U.S. Supreme Court had halted the Florida recount and in effect handed the White House to George W. Bush. Mr. Rendell told the interviewer that in light of the decision, he believed that Mr. Gore should concede and "make a great speech unifying the country."
That is what the vice president would go on to do, but not before a roster of prominent Gore allies flayed Mr. Rendell for publicly anticipating the decision.
"It was agony, and I don't think I ever felt so nervous and afraid," Mr. Rendell writes. "I saw my whole political career flashing in front of my eyes.''
Later on "that fateful night," a note of absurdity was added, he said. An aide to Tipper Gore awoke Midge Rendell with a phone call rescinding the couple's invitation to the vice president's Christmas party -- an event he says he'd never been invited to.
Presidential politics were the source of fonder memories for Mr. Rendell in the campaigns of two of his allies, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Rendell emphasizes his devotion to Mrs. Clinton, cemented in their work together in the 2008 Pennsylvania primary when the accident of the political calendar produced a six-week spotlight on the state at a time when she was battling back from Barack Obama's early victories in the nominating contests. He revels in the success of that Pennsylvania campaign -- Mrs. Clinton won overwhelmingly -- and calls for her to renew her bid for the White House in 2016. "If she agreed," he says, he'd volunteer to be her campaign manager.
Mr. Rendell offers qualified praise for the accomplishments of the figure he helped defeat in that preliminary contest. He lauds President Barack Obama's health care legislation and administration's economic stimulus package. But he adds that the president's vaunted communications skills failed him in selling those measures to the public, setting the stage for the Democratic debacle in the 2010 Congressional elections.
He argues that the administration failed in explaining the stimulus measure to the public and played into the hands of Republican critics by allowing Congress to freight it with extraneous provisions. He contends that the administration failed again on the communications front by allowing the GOP to define the health care bill in the public mind.
There's also little doubt Mr. Rendell thinks he could have done a better sales job on the administration's signature initiatives.
"I always believe I can charm or convince anyone of anything," he says in passing at another point in the book.
In a little more than 200 pages, he passes quickly over many of the details of his varied career, but one chapter of the book features a detailed tick-tock of the tumultuous weekend when he, wife Midge and Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, joined a UPMC team in a rescue mission to Haiti after its 2010 earthquake. Of the frantic, improvised planning and negotiations entailed in bringing scores of orphans from the stricken island to Pittsburgh, he says, "I can't think of one thing in my political career that brought me more satisfaction and pure joy."
In the lexicon of the book, the two Pittsburgh women who operated the orphanage, Jamie and Ali McMutrie, come in for the ultimate accolade. They were, he said, "the antitheses of wusses."
That brings up another point. Mr. Rendell proves so enamored of the term that won so much attention after the aborted Eagles game, that he repeats it, in one form or another, again, and again, and again, throughout the memoir.
Former Gov. Bob Casey was "anything but a wuss."
When it come to politics, most businessmen "are wusses."
For the job of effective government executive, "Wusses need not apply."
He and the other members of the Haiti rescue team were "intrepid non-wusses," pursuing their mission in the face of "wuss bureaucrats."
Lawyers are "the master practitioners of 'wusscraft.' "
OK, Ed, we get it. When it comes to hammering home his central metaphor, Mr. Rendell apparently believes that nothing succeeds like excess.
First Published June 3, 2012 12:00 am