Buzz Bissinger: A Savior for the City

More than two decades ago, Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer writing for the Inquirer, then published his masterpiece, Friday Night Lights. Now he’s rich, and famous. So why is he back at the Inky as a columnist — and why is he so mad?

THE LAST TIME Buzz Bissinger was a newspaper writer, Ronald Reagan was president, Wilson Goode was mayor, nobody in the world had ever blogged, and the Philadelphia Inquirer had a circulation of close to 500 large. Under legendary editor Gene Roberts, the city’s newspaper of record was in the midst of a Pulitzer blitzkrieg that would snag 17 of the coveted prizes in a decade and a half. Buzz, in fact, had just won one, along with two colleagues, for a series of articles on corruption in the city’s courts.

The year was 1988. Ed Rendell had recently lost two straight elections: for governor, to Bob Casey Sr. in 1986, and to Goode for mayor in 1987. David L. Cohen was seven years out of law school. And Buzz, at the height of his and the Inquirer’s powers, was about to make a move that would prove oddly prescient: He would leave his job to move to middle-of-nowhere Odessa, Texas, and write a book about high-school football. The result, Friday Night Lights, would become a New York Times best-seller, be named the best football book of all time by Sports Illustrated, be made into a hit movie and critically acclaimed TV series, and launch Buzz into the career stratosphere. He’d go on to write for TV’s NYPD Blue, the New York Times, and, especially, Vanity Fair, for which he specializes in epic tales of tragedy and waste: failing shock jock Don Imus, doomed Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, the sad denouement of Joe DiMaggio.

Which made it all the more perplexing to pick up the Sunday Inquirer last fall and see, once again, Buzz’s familiar byline, attached to opinion pieces of distinctly domestic reach: on Philly’s new D.A., Mayor Nutter’s budget, a trip to Costco. What wasn’t so familiar was the tone: Lynne Abraham was “a vulture,” Tom Ridge had managed to “fail upward on the basis of nothing,” that budget was “voodoo,” and Ed Rendell was engaged in “a Custer’s Last Stand to be the center of attention.” It was no mystery why the paper — its circulation in the dumps, its staffing slashed, its owners mired in monetary woes — would leap at the chance to showcase a famous alumnus. But across the city, Inquirer-ing minds wondered: Why was Buzz Bissinger so mad?

BUZZ COMES TO the door in black leather. You yourself are wearing a lace blouse, so for a moment, there in the vestibule, the two of you embody a Stevie Nicks/Don Henley duet. The leather makes you a little nervous to follow him inside, but once you do, you see that his Chestnut Hill house is comfortable and sunny. You sit, and his dog, a yellow Lab, comes and noodles you, utterly lacking in dignity. It’s a trait she and her owner sometimes share.

In person, Buzz vacillates between prickly and pacific. There’s a pattern to how he answers questions; he starts out calm and rational and then shifts into irate gear. “I am opinionated, passionate,” he allows. “I have strong feelings.” And he vents them, in conversation and in his writing. He’s furious at Philadelphia politicians, at patronage, at the proposed soda tax, at his fellow Inquirer columnists, who never tackle local issues and don’t even live in the city, especially Rick Santorum, who so far as Buzz can tell dwells “in a world all his own.” That’s the simple explanation for why he said yes when Inky editor-in-chief Bill Marimow invited him back, 20-plus years after he last set foot in the newsroom. “There was a void, a vacuum,” Buzz says. “Nothing ever changes in this city. I knew all these guys. No one was holding them accountable.” So Buzz has taken on all comers. “I am tired of defense attorneys using loopholes that have nothing to do with guilt or innocence,” he wrote in December, “and I wonder how these suckerfish can sleep at night knowing that all they have done is increase the already unconscionable probability that an innocent citizen will be robbed or even killed.” He skewered ex-mayor John Street: “[N]ever have I seen a human being who went so unfortunately out of his way to be remote, resistant, removed, repulsed by the sight of others.” And he called the mighty out by name; in March, he eviscerated Foxwoods’ Lew Katz, Ed Snider and Ron Rubin, saying they had “the swag and swagger that come with always getting what you want because of who you know.”

“That’s what the assignment is,” says Buzz’s old friend David Cohen. “To be tough and provocative, and advance the civic discussion of the city.” But Buzz’s “Half Empty” column isn’t just a platform from which he can speak — well, scream — truth to power. There’s also the matter of Steve Lopez. Lopez wrote a column for the Inquirer back in the day, and though he moved on to Time Inc. in the ’90s and the L.A. Times the in 2001, “The Inquirer still misses Steve Lopez,” says PR kingpin Larry Ceisler, also a longtime friend of Buzz. Buzz allows that Lopez is one reason he came back, but frames it differently: “I want to prove he isn’t the only columnist the Inquirer ever had. I want to eradicate the memory of Steve Lopez. Because I’m a competitive little shit.”
The Inky has been dismal for so long that it’s easy to forget how good it was when Roberts was at the helm, and the bylines on its pages included not just Buzz and Lopez, but Black Hawk Down’s Mark Bowden, the investigative duo of Don Barlett and Jim Steele, and Richard Ben Cramer, to name just a few. On its current roster of columnists? Mystery writer Lisa Scottoline, right-wing joke Santorum, and Bush administration torture-memo author John Yoo. No wonder Buzz’s writing stands out. “People he respects are talking about the column,” Ceisler says. For über-attorney Arthur Makadon, Buzz “is just what the Inquirer needed.” Former Daily News editor Zack Stalberg, now head of the Committee of Seventy, goes a step further: “I look forward to the Sunday Inquirer because of Buzz more than anything else.”

Buzz knows these guys the same way he knows all of the city’s usual suspects — because of the book he wrote after Friday Night Lights, when he returned to Philly, after Rendell was elected mayor, to chronicle the new administration as it wrestled with union woes and redevelopment schemes and urban violence. “He lived in my office for four years,” Cohen, then Rendell’s chief of staff, recalls wryly. “He kept pictures of his kids on my desk.” A Prayer for the City may appear a peculiar follow-up to a book about small-town football. But they’re of a piece in their us-against-them mentality, their celebration of the underdog, and their injection of morality into arenas where it might not seem to belong. FNL’s Permian Panthers aren’t just football players; they’re object lessons in what happens if you don’t give it everything you’ve got, don’t remain true to yourself. In Prayer, Rendell is this same sort of hero, the crucible into which all the city’s hopes are poured. His battles are epic because they pit good against evil, the mayor vs. greedy unions and soul-killing bureaucracy.

It’s how Harry Gerard Bissinger III sees the world, and he makes no apologies. “I’ve always had a heightened sense of morality,” he says, attributing this to how he was raised. His dad, Harry G. II, was a New York ad exec who took charge of his wife’s family’s brokerage firm. His mom, Eleanor, worked for film director/producer Alan Pakula (To Kill a Mockingbird, Klute, All the President’s Men). They lived on the Upper West Side. Buzz has a sister, but he was the only son, pampered and protected. “My dad knew I was sensitive,” he says. “Summers, we’d go to Nantucket. The fireworks scared me. He would bring these huge pillows and hold them over my ears.”
Harry and Eleanor held court on weekends, their home filled with famous names: Judy Garland, Joel Grey, Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty. Buzz remembers playing charades with Robert Redford, and his father’s mom getting “shit-faced” with Ethel Merman. “It’s a way of life in New York City that’s died out now,” he says regretfully. He wanted to be a reporter; his uncle worked for Life magazine. He was enthralled by newspapers: “Everybody in the family had a favorite: the Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal.” They’d read and argue and talk.

Buzz’s dad taught him about sports. Each autumn, the two would fly up to the Dartmouth-Harvard football game — Harry was a Dartmouth alum. (Buzz would go to Penn.) They’d see the Jets on Saturdays and the Giants on Sundays. Summers, they’d go to Yankee Stadium to watch Mickey Mantle play, sitting among the men in their suits and hats. Buzz has tried to replicate the rituals with his three sons — he has 26-year-old twins, Gerry and Zachary, by his first wife, and Caleb, 18, with his second. (He’s now married to his third, Lisa Smith, who’s in Abu Dhabi, helping set up a new university there.) “That’s an enormous window into Buzz — his boys,” Cohen says. Part of his bond with Buzz is that each has a son with special needs; Zachary suffered brain damage at birth.

For Buzz, 55, sports and love and the past are all jammed up together. Baseball, especially, is sacred — “perhaps the greatest single constant in my life,” he once wrote. The baseball diamond suits Buzz’s inner clarity: A ball is foul or fair, a runner’s safe or out. And every moment of every game holds the chance for redemption. “Scott Rolen is a flawed human being,” Buzz says of the former Phils third baseman. “But the way he fields a ball is perfection.”

ONE REASON BUZZ gives for leaving the Inquirer back in ’88 is that he doesn’t like doing something twice: “Once I won a Pulitzer, I didn’t want another.” But like a pit bull, he’s never let go of the ragged sleeve of civic injustice. He brought this up in his column in December:

Twenty-two years ago … I earned a Pulitzer for investigative reporting for a six-part series called ‘Disorder in the Court.’ It … depicted a system in chaos — defense attorneys making campaign contributions to judicial candidates in the city and then getting remarkably favorable results in court … witnesses being hideously treated … unconscionable delays. … Sound familiar?

It isn’t just large-scale injustice that bothers Buzz, though. When it comes to wrong and right, he has no sense of scale. He uses the same howitzer to go after casino moguls and Costco shoppers who hold him up in line. And he’s simply incapable of standing back and letting go. After Buzz wrote about Steve Wynn’s efforts as a Foxwoods spokesman in an Inky column in March — he said Wynn acted with “an utter lack of diplomacy and preparation” — the Vegas entrepreneur phoned him to object. Buzz called him a bully. Buzz accused him of picking on Italians and Jews. Buzz told him, “I don’t give a shit what you think!” Wynn told Buzz, “You’re a really angry man.”

Then there’s the matter of fellow writer Michael Lewis. “Buzz has a Michael Lewis obsession,” Ceisler confides. It isn’t hard to see why. In 2003, Lewis published a book, Moneyball, that stripped baseball of its soul and reduced it to cold, hard statistics — pitches thrown, ground-outs, on-base percentages. What was worse, Lewis turned the familiar Buzz paradigm on its head: In Moneyball, those who cling to tradition are hidebound hicks; the real heroes are the analysts, the “sabermetricians” unswayed by matters of the heart. This made Buzz apoplectic. Ceisler tells about a recent meeting at which the Philadelphia Film Society board — he and Buzz are both members — was assembling a slate of movies nominated for Academy Awards. Buzz left the room momentarily, and while he was gone, the group agreed to torment him. Upon his return, “Somebody says, ‘Well, what should we show next?’” Ceisler recalls. “And we all said, ‘The Blind Side!’” — the movie made from another Michael Lewis book that won Sandra Bullock her Oscar. “Buzz just went off,” Ceisler says in awe.

In 2005, Buzz came out with a baseball book of his own: Three Nights in August, a painstaking reenactment of the thought processes of old-school St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa during a stand against the Chicago Cubs. Buzz insists he didn’t write it to refute Moneyball, but it’s hard to read it any other way. Those Yankees games with Dad bleed all over the pages:

It is wrong to say that the new breed doesn’t care about baseball. But it’s not wrong to say that there is no way they could possibly love it, and so much of baseball is about love. …

Buzz followed Three Nights up with a long piece in the New York Times Magazine sports quarterly accusing Cubs management of hurrying pitcher Kerry Wood along instead of gradually building him up in the minors. It had a Bissinger tale’s familiar hero (loyal, eager-to-please player), villain (greedy front office), and nostalgia for the old days. It also had significant problems, as a blizzard of bloggers gleefully pointed out by running the numbers to prove that pitchers today spend more time in the minors than they used to, and pitch fewer innings once brought up. Buzz’s story, sports blog FireJoeMorgan.com declared, was “the exact opposite of truth.”

It was Buzz’s first real taste of the vengeance of the Internet.
Anyone at all familiar with Buzz’s oeuvre could have predicted what would happen at what became his Waterloo: an infamous April 2008 appearance on HBO’s Costas Now in which he went after sports blog Deadspin.com’s callow editor, Will Leitch, like a rabid dog. (He started out by saying, “Will, I think you’re full of shit.” It went downhill from there.) Buzz accused Leitch, and blogs in general, of profanity, stupidity and bad manners, doing so profanely, stupidly, and with extreme bad manners. The backlash was “enormous,” he admits. The highlight — lowlight — may have been a posting on KissingSuzyKolber.com that described, in loving detail, Buzz enjoying coitus with a horse.

Leitch was the brash rookie that night, the newcomer who didn’t know his place in the locker room. Buzz’s tirade was both professional and personal: Didn’t Leitch realize he, Buzz, had penned the best football book of all time? But to the sports bloggers, everyone — Favre, Tebow, A-Rod — is fair game. Veneration is anathema. “I’m never going to make peace with them,” Buzz says resignedly. They have no craft; their writing isn’t burnished, polished, labored over the way his is. These Deadspin kids — all they want is gotcha now, without any of the pain.

The funny thing is, Buzz’s Inquirer writing verges on the sort of Internet screed he says he despises. He utilizes a blogger’s ramped-up emotional outrage. And while the columns draw on his reservoir of knowledge of the city, they don’t break new ground. “That’s become the norm in the blogosphere and increasingly in print — strong opinion without a lot of new reporting,” Stalberg says. All that sound and fury runs the risk of signifying nothing. Buzz has gone after his old hero Rendell harder than he has anyone, but when Cohen’s asked what Ed thinks of Buzz’s handiwork, “I don’t think I’ve ever discussed the column with the Governor,” he says.

 Still, Buzz is proud to be bucking the trend. “Steve Lopez told me, ‘You’re the only person in America who’s gone back into newspapers,’” he says, like it’s a badge of honor. He views his column as a reaffirmation of the power of the press, and to those of a certain age, it is. “Your average newspaper columnist still has considerable influence today,” Stalberg says, “because it’s print, and it stays there.” Well, no. Print gets recycled. Words only live on forever on Buzz’s bête-noire Internet. (“By the way,” Stalberg says, “is he still wearing those leather pants?”)

Speaking of Lopez, when you repeat Buzz’s “eradicate the memory” quote to him, he retorts: “He’s going to eradicate my memory? How, with eight columns a year? Tell the little sissy to write three a week and get back to me.” Then adds, “I love the bastard like a brother.” Buzz has devoted friends, and they cut him the slack they feel he deserves. “Nobody I know is more miserable in success,” Lopez says of his old buddy. Asked if writing his column makes Buzz happy, Ceisler says, “Buzz is not the type of person who strives for happiness.”
Buzz likes being angry. It’s the emotion that rings truest for him, because it suits a world that isn’t as it should be. Will Leitch shouldn’t be sitting in a TV studio with the author of Friday Night Lights — “He hasn’t paid his dues.” Ed Rendell shouldn’t be pinning Pennsylvania’s future on gambling. Mayor Nutter shouldn’t be handing out raises, even to police: “Who else do you know who’s getting a raise?” The National Enquirer shouldn’t be in contention for a Pulitzer prize. Barbaro shouldn’t have died. Tony La Russa should win the goddamned World Series. And Sandra fucking Bullock shouldn’t have won an Academy Award, because now Michael Lewis is going to sell more books.


BUZZ’S FOURTH BOOK
, Shooting Stars, published last September, was written with basketball great LeBron James — written, Buzz admits, for the money. It tells how James and a handful of friends overcame huge odds in high school to win a national championship. The only time they blow a game, it’s because they’re slacking off, smoking pot and chasing babes. That’s how it’s supposed to work, but not how it does. Sometimes stuff just … happens. And there’s no one to blame.

Buzz’s fifth book has been a long time in the making. It dates back to August 20, 1983, when his first wife gave birth to twins, 13 weeks prematurely. Harry Gerard Bissinger IV was tiny — less than two pounds — but perfect. Zachary, born three minutes later, wasn’t; he’d been deprived of oxygen. The divide in Buzz’s life between the before and after of that day is incalculably wide. The before is filled with … well, at least the possibility of light. The after is dark and grim.

The irony is that Zachary is happy. He works at a grocery store. He’s friendly, ebullient, always ready to go. “But no one, no one, wishes to have a son like that,” Buzz says. “The background I come from … a New York German Jew … to watch my son in a parking lot, scraping up pizza crusts and cigarette butts and putting them in a dumpster — ” Ahh. God.
The two took a cross-country trip in 2007. Tape recordings from their journey, Buzz says, will be the spine of the book. “I made a conscious effort to ask him questions: ‘Do you know what’s wrong with you — what brain damage is?’ He said, ‘Not really.’ ‘Do you know what it means?’ ‘I’m not really smart. I can’t go to school like Gerry’” — his twin. “We talked about sex.” A little defensively. “It’s something you have to think about. That was in Las Vegas. He told me, ‘You’re asking a lot of questions I don’t know the answer to.’” Zachary is immune to polishing, to burnishing. “It’s difficult,” says Buzz, who is, after all, a man of words, “when you love someone, never to have had a real conversation with him.” And fate dangles before him a living, breathing could-have-been. “Twins,” he sighs. “Inverted mirrors. Gerry went to Penn. He has a job teaching elementary kids. He has a wonderful partner I think he’ll marry. Three minutes between them … ”

Sometimes Buzz thinks: What if I could just sneak into Zachary’s brain and reattach the wires, like an electrician? What might he be? He lies awake at night and ponders the future: What will happen to Zach eventually? A group home? An institution? “He’s really sweet,” he says wistfully. “He tries his ass off. … ”

So Buzz wrote a book just for money. Zach needs that money. Screw you.

THE BEST DAYS, for Buzz, are the old days. These guys who pass for heroes now … “I feel no sympathy,” he says, “for Tiger Woods” — whose downfall he dissected in Vanity Fair in February. “That press conference — so staged, so rehearsed.” Anyway, athletes these days are a miserable lot: “They all screw around.” For him, the most heartfelt apology was that of — who else? — lousy dad and hubby Mickey Mantle, who, dying, warned fans: Don’t be like me.

And if Buzz’s work sometimes reads like a romance novel, if he tells a story the way it should go, well, hell, who doesn’t? If he lashes out at phoniness and waste, incompetent Councilmen and dirty cops, why shouldn’t he? If he responds to every single e-mail he gets, even the ones dripping with vituperation … if he Googles himself obsessively … if he just can’t shut up, it’s because he can’t stop picking at the scab of this failure: He can’t find the pillows to hold to Zachary’s head.

His friends know this. They bring it up hesitantly; they aren’t men at home with emotion. But they treasure Buzz as much as he does them. Seeing his byline in the Inquirer again takes them back to when they were full of piss and vinegar and working 18-hour days in grubby City Hall closets instead of tucked away within vast corporate suites. When there still was a prayer for the city, and they were in charge.
Don’t get Buzz wrong; he’s no Luddite. He Twitters. He adores his Kindle. And he’s aware some Philadelphians don’t even know who Steve Lopez is (though Lopez’s The Soloist was Philly’s “One Book, One City” pick last year — and don’t think that doesn’t stick in Buzz’s craw). Such citizens see Buzz differently. “His commentaries in the Inquirer are grounded in a belief that there’s an older political system in play,” says attorney Wendy Beetlestone, “whereas there’s actually a new, different system.” His column, she says, reeks of negativity: “Attacking politicians, especially good ones, isn’t helpful. Mayor Nutter does things in a different way from Rendell. Buzz doesn’t see that.”

To an even younger generation, he’s simply irrelevant. Philebrity.com blogger Joey Sweeney, who organized a boycott of the Inquirer after it hired Yoo, is brusque: “Having not read the columns, and having written Buzz off as a crank a while ago, I don’t have a lot to say.”

Buzz is too smart not to fear the future slipping away from him. “It feels like the column is satisfying some itch he has,” Stalberg says, but it’s more than an itch. It’s a compulsion, the need to matter, to be paid attention to. When Buzz was growing up, wisdom and experience counted, not glib cleverness. But beneath that inversion, he harbors a darker, more terrible secret: “The success I had with my first book,” he admits, “is impossible to replicate.” It’s what drew him to write about high-school football in the first place — the pathos of kids who peak at 18, for whom all the years to follow are a long look back.

Buzz is still a pit bull, though. That’s why he won’t give up trying to top Steve Lopez, why he’s working with Billy Bob Thornton to turn Three Nights in August into a film, why he’s penning a sports column for — of all places — the New Republic. It’s why he’s tiptoeing into a new medium, radio, trying out as a guest host on WPHT, the Big Talker, a while back. “Radio is entertainment,” he says. “It tempts you to be outrageous.” He filled in on the 10 p.m.-to-midnight slot: “Maybe four people called in.” It’s a start, another means to exhort, try to right what’s wrong. Hey, the city still needs saving. And it’s not like Buzz is going to be keeping his counsel. Even when he knows he should. “Salinger just cut out after Catcher in the Rye,” he mentions. “He was smart. I admire that.”    

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  • ross

    the writer really raised her game because she was profiling a journalist. reminds me of Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”…”Write the truth. Be mercilessness.” Or something like that.