Sunday, January 18, 1998

The fly on Rendell's wall

It was one measure of Ed Rendell's self-confidence - or ego- that he let the hard-eyed reporter Buzz Bissinger watch his every move as he tried to lead the city out of a crushing fiscal crisis. Bissinger emerged with a great book about America's cities. Too bad for his sales that the city was Philadelphia.


For four years he was commonly mistaken for one of the mayor's aides.

Which is just as Buzz Bissinger wanted it.

Believing that "access is king," he'd perch on a leather loveseat in Room 212 of City Hall for hours and days at a time, dressed in a nondescript gray suit and conservative black shoes, jotting down everything he overheard as Ed Rendell plunged in to manage the basically unmanageable city of Philadelphia.

If asked, he would say who he was and what he was up to. But people rarely asked because he was so obviously one of those earnest young suits always seen dancing at a politician's beck and call.

He was so convincing a nonentity that Henry Cisneros, then secretary of Housing and Urban Development, turned to him after discussing some very hush-hush matter with the mayor and instructed: "Don't let any of this get to the press."

Well, Mr. Secretary, you'll be relieved to know that he didn't give it to the newspapers or TV.

But, er, sir:

He put it in hardcover.

With Rendell's remarkable, even mischievous, cooperation, the stone-faced H.G. Bissinger 3d - no mild-mannered policy wonk, but an intense, moody, ambitious, hard-eyed journalist - watched Rendell's tumultuous first term with as close a view of government's inner workings as any reporter could wish.

He tells what he saw in A Prayer for the City, a 408-page account of how Rendell and his then-chief of staff, David L. Cohen, in 1992 took the reins of a city on the brink of bankruptcy, tamed the unions, brought fiscal order, juggled the hot potatoes of racial politics, spun the media and fought for any scrap they thought might help delay Philadelphia's obituary. This could include eking out a few minutes of pleading time with President Clinton on a short limo ride or flying to Germany in a desperate, ultimately unsuccessful, effort to revive a shipbuilding deal.

"I honestly believe that Buzz has written the most important book about American cities in the past two or three decades," says Cohen, who's depicted sympathetically - press manipulations, political machinations and neglected family life notwithstanding.

Rendell, whose flare-ups are depicted as part of his complex nature, said the book presents a "slightly inaccurate" picture. "If you read the book, you'd think I lost my temper and curse every other minute," the mayor said.

Rendell said he did his utmost to help Bissinger because he believed a serious book might help goad the nation toward saner urban policies. "Cities are doing well at one level," Rendell said, "but on another level there are deep, deep, deep-rooted problems."

At 43, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Inquirer reporter and best-selling author of Friday Night Lights is receiving warm notices (the New York Times Book Review: "a full-scale portrait of a struggling American metropolis that brings to mind such classics of urban reportage and analysis as J. Anthony Lukas' Common Ground and Nicholas Lemann's Promised Land").

On Thursday, publisher Random House will host a reception at City Hall, with Rendell, Cohen and other figures from the book on hand. On Friday, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce will give a copy to every one of the 1,200 guests at the annual luncheon addressed by Rendell. Readings at Borders and the Free Library are planned.

After sinking 5 1/2 years into a project that could have spelled career catastrophe, Bissinger has to be happy, right?

"Honestly?" he sighs. "There have been moments of great gratification. But the process of being reviewed and picked at, and everyone has an opinion - I find it very difficult. I feel very exposed and very raw. And I am very hypersensitive."

He's heard from readers who think he was spellbound by Rendell and Cohen. Readers who think he didn't make Rendell infectious enough. Readers who point to omissions: Bissinger wrote almost nothing on schools, little on the police department. Who feel that the book, ending in 1994, seems already somehow out of date.

And some may always wonder to what extent Rendell - the one person who always knew what Bissinger was up to - shaped his actions knowing he was being watched. And what he withheld from the writer's view.

"Is the book perfect? No," Bissinger says. "But I take my responsibilities as a journalist very seriously, and I spent 5 1/2 years trying to get it right."

The star of the book is Rendell. But it is Philadelphia that Bissinger makes us care about.

She is, in Bissinger's hands, a fallen grande dame, needing every ounce of energy, every tax break and business incentive, every prayer, to reverse her tragic 50-year decline. He shows us the city's mighty past, when Philadelphia stood as one of the world's great manufacturing centers. He shows how the racism of a federal home loan agency in the 1930s doomed large swaths of the city to obsolescence and guaranteed the suburbs' rise.

And through the stories of four Philadelphians - a shipyard welder imperiled by the Navy Yard's closing, a policy analyst whose love of the city is defeated by one too many muggings, a prosecutor who confronts urban violence through a draining succession of cases, an inner-city great-grandmother who fights the toughest of odds to keep her family together in body and soul - Bissinger shows how much is at stake.

"I think it's clear, this is not a story with a happy ending," Bissinger said. "My conclusion is, for all the good that Ed and David have done, for all of the canisters of air that Ed has injected, this is still very much a city on the brink."

Philadelphia continues to lose population and jobs, he notes. Disparities between rich and poor are worsening. And the recent good news about cities in general - crime rates going down, new money pumping into downtowns - well, take a closer look.

"Even if cities are showing a little bit of uptick, getting back to the good old days of 1990 is not very good," Bissinger says. "You're still having middle-class flight, the city schools still stink everywhere, you still have the problem of cities being overtaxed, you still have the racial issues of people simply leaving because they don't want to be around minorities. I think those are universal problems.

"And there's going to be another recession, and what the hell's going to happen then? The city as entertainment center? The city as suburban satellite? The city as convention center? That's not just Philadelphia trying to do that. That's every city in the country. What a precarious perch! When there's a recession, what's the first disposable dollar to go? It's tourism."

Rendell emerges in the book as passionate, intelligent, profane, frank, funny, bullying, compassionate, self-doubting, defensive, childish, tireless, stubborn in his refusal to give up.
"In a sense, Ed fits the Guinness Book of Records for contrasts," says Bissinger. "He can be one of the kindest, most compassionate men I've ever seen, and then he has these temperamental explosions that are just horrifying and awful."

Bissinger shows Rendell and Cohen going out of their way to stroke Council President John F. Street to ensure the cooperation of City Council. "It became clear to me that they saw John as a wonderful problem child, kind of one of those prodigies that will get really pissed off and go home with his toys if he isn't treated in the right way," Bissinger says. "And they played him brilliantly - always giving him credit for something whether he was anywhere near it or not."

Street, the presumed front-runner in next year's mayoral race, says he has not read the book. He speaks proudly of having kept Bissinger at arm's length. "I didn't see him," Street said. "I only remember seeing him in the room once, and I made it clear he wasn't going to stay, and he left. I just couldn't have him trotting into my office behind the mayor."

Then Street went further, asserting that Bissinger was shut out of many of Rendell's private meetings with state legislators or developers. "Come on, this is - to any of us who know, who are on the inside - this is little more than a fraud, because [Rendell] couldn't possibly have had [Bissinger] in on those things."

Bissinger says he has notes from 12 meetings, from 1992 through 1994, when Street met with Rendell, Cohen and others to talk about city bond ratings, union negotiations, public housing and the selection of a new school superintendent.

"Selective use of memory is a pretty dangerous thing," Bissinger says of Street.

Again and again, Bissinger notes the extent to which Philadelphia affairs are ruled by political calculation and race. He cites Rendell's choice of Richard Neal as police commissioner.

"I remember the candidates coming in," Bissinger says, describing a scene left out of the book. "I don't think anyone [in the administration] was enamored of any of them. It just seemed to me that there was more attention being paid among all the candidates to what skin color they were than to the ultimate question, which is what good can they do?"

Bissinger grew up on New York's tony West Side, attended the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Mount Airy. City-bred through and through, he loves the electric current in "the simple act of walking down the street, walking down the block, and getting hit in the head with a thousand different sights and senses and smells and variations and textures. I mean, it's wonderful.

"And what's so great about Philadelphia is that it has all that. And what's so sad about Philadelphia is that it doesn't appreciate that it has all that, and it thinks so poorly of itself.

"And we could sit here, dissecting Ed and what he did right and what he did wrong, but . . . he infused this city with something that I didn't think was possible. Which was hope and belief in itself. And it makes it a hell of a lot more enjoyable place to live.

"I don't care what anyone says. Did he do everything perfectly? No, he didn't. Did he get blindsided by crime a little bit? Yes. Are schools vexing? Yes, they're vexing.

"But he's done a lot for this place, and I admire him greatly, and I think he's irreplaceable, and I shudder to think who will come after him."

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