Off the Cuff: October 2013

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and we are beginning to see new Woodrow Wilson biographies and other books about that crucial time in history. When reading about Wilson, who was president during the war, you learn that there are many ironic similarities between him and Barack Obama, starting with this: They are our only two true professor-presidents, and both Wilson and Obama were elected largely due to their oratory skills.

There are other similarities: Woodrow Wilson pursued an ambitious progressive agenda, and like Obama, he was unable to compromise—“God save us from compromise” was Wilson’s fervent hope. No wonder they became two of the most polarizing presidents in our history.

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Off the Cuff: September 2013

“What a strange time it is to be alive in America.”

September always makes me think about renewal, a new beginning. That’s a feeling that stems from my youth, when we were students and the school year was about to begin. Yet as I’m about to launch into another fall, something has been bothering me—a feeling of uneasiness about the future. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it—until I read a recent column by Henry Allen in the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Allen, a former writer and editor for the Washington Post who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000, has been observing the American landscape for a long time, and he, too, has suddenly come to an uncomfortable place: For the first time in his life, he has no idea what is happening to the culture, or where it’s headed.

“It’s not that I see things changing for better or worse, for richer or poorer,” Mr. Allen writes, “or even not changing at all. It’s something else: The most important thing in our culture-sphere isn’t change but the fact that reality itself is dwindling, fading like sun-struck wallpaper, turning into a silence of the dinner-party sort that leads to a default discussion of movies.”

This reflects what I’ve been feeling, and when I speak to people of various ages, they feel it, too: America is adrift. It might be worse than the cultural center not holding; the center may no longer exist.

Which makes renewal, as September hits, a strange concept. Renewal toward what, exactly? Mr. Allen’s column has me thinking about this. It falls especially hard on young people, on students returning to building their futures.

In the past, I’ve been hard on high-school and college students, on how they seem generally disinterested in learning about the world, or about much of anything, for that matter, outside of their latest update on Facebook.

But I’m now wondering if the problem with young people is that they’re feeling the same as the rest of us.

“We’ve lost our sense of possibility,” Allen writes. “Incomes decline, pensions vanish, love dwindles into hooking up, we’re not having enough babies to replace ourselves.” Which is just the tip of the iceberg, of course.

Why would a 20-year-old bother learning about world history if the world is a place too vast to really understand, and that knowledge doesn’t connect in any way with all the problems dropped at his feet? Or to a future that is utterly unpredictable. Perhaps most young people cannot articulate their anxiety in those terms, but certainly they must feel it.

Although I agree with Mr. Allen; it’s not that everything happening now is bad. In fact, there is much to laud in the present landscape. But everything comes with an overwhelming complication: The age of information has given us far too much of it. A more equitable and just society only seems to ramp up the noise over something like the Trayvon Martin killing; great breakthroughs in medicine are hamstrung by a health-care system that seems increasingly messy. These issues and many others are producing an even more severely polarized society.

I am not hoping we could return to a simpler time—that’s the folly of nostalgia. But I do wish I had something to offer, in the way of advice to a young person just beginning to find his or her way in the world. Perhaps the best I can do is this: Find something to care about, work hard at it, and if you have any energy or time left, give something back.

If that seems like a narrow view, well, I’m being cautious. Because I agree, once more, with Henry Allen: It’s a strange time to be alive in America.

Off the Cuff: August 2013

It’s a midsummer treat that I’ve taken part in from time to time over the years: listing my own choices for Best of Philly, which is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. And I’ve noticed that when I compare my picks with those of the magazine’s staff, my taste doesn’t seem to match theirs.

But what’s a Best Of issue without a little Worst thrown in? You’ll notice that some of my choices point out a … darker side of the city. (How can I write about Philadelphia without poking a few sacred cows?)

Best Comeback
I’ve recently rediscovered Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. A decade ago, Philly’s very own Goldenberg’s got gobbled up by Just Born, which ruined the formula and packaging. Now they’re back in original form and function—the treat I can’t pass up whenever I see them.

Best Bar for Adults
The Prime Rib’s bar—still. So long, so chic, with great barmen and a varied crowd. That pretty much covers it for me.

Best Dressed
There is no such thing in Philadelphia. But Northeast-born-and-bred Val Keil is Playboy magazine’s Miss August, so I anoint her Best Undressed Philadelphian.

Best Move
For years, the Barnes deserved to be downtown, and its wonderful new home on the Parkway just might be the trigger that boulevard needs to become a go-to nighttime destination.

Best Reason Not To Drive In Center City
Bike lanes. The streets are too narrow to begin with, and no one seems to follow the rules.

Best Breath of Fresh Air
Young, charismatic, with off-the-charts energy, Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin is exactly what the moribund organization so desperately had to find.

Best Ice Cream
Bassetts—the oldest ice-cream company in America—has been churning out its oh-so-creamy (16 percent butterfat!) brand since 1861. And it’s still better than overhyped Ben & Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs.

Best Hope
Finally! A new men’s shop downtown! Maybe Suitsupply on Locust, which Esquire calls “impressively affordable,” will sharpen up our downscale look.

Best Raw Bar
Dock’s in Atlantic City. It’s the oldest seafood restaurant in A.C., with a huge selection of shellfish, a great bar, and a terrific piano player—exactly what a raw bar should feel like.

Best Overhyped City Neighborhood
Northern Liberties. Too much concrete and 20-something grunge. I wouldn’t move there with your money.

Best Oyster House
Sometimes I go to Sansom Street Oyster House just to watch Cornell, the best shucker I’ve ever seen. The fish ain’t bad, either.

Best Return
No matter what you think of Vince Fumo—who is set to get out of prison this month—his return to the political scene will be riveting.

Best Mixologist
George Patton at Steve & Cookie’s in Margate has a unique drink menu second to none, and he operates like a mad chemist behind the bar. Too bad the food isn’t on the same level.

I could go on—Mayor Nutter, for example, deserves a special citation—but my editors say this is all the room they’ll give me. …

Off the Cuff: July 2013

I was on the elevator in our office building at 19th and Market a few weeks ago with three well-dressed men I didn’t know. One of them recognized me and said, “I read your column every month, and I have a question. Is there any chance you could write about something a little more … optimistic?

I told him I would try, but that it’s not easy, given the current state of things. The country is so divided, and we can’t seem to solve any of our pressing problems.

But I saw his point, and started thinking. Then it hit me: This month is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War. When I began to take a look at this city’s role in that battle, I came up with an answer for my elevator companion’s desire for something upbeat. In the 19th century, Philadelphia was a great and influential city, and its people helped turn the tide of the war.

General Lee’s army was headed north from Virginia in late 1862; the Confederates were determined to get a foothold in Pennsylvania. Really, Lee wanted much more—to take Harrisburg, then march east and conquer Philadelphia. Had that happened, the South would have controlled what was perhaps the nation’s most important city. In the North, frustration and weariness with the war could have doomed the United States for good.

Philadelphia was a divided city. Our great manufacturing base needed the South; we were the country’s largest textile producer, for example, so importing cotton was paramount. And as a southern Northern city, we were approximately 30 miles from Delaware, where slavery was legal. Many Philadelphia Democrats—known as Copperheads—were dependent on Southern labor, and were sympathetic to the South.

At the same time, our Quaker tradition had produced a strain of abolitionist fervor and a strong and abiding belief in American nationalism. Hence the formation of the Union League in 1862, where mid-century movers and shakers could socialize and press their case for keeping the Union together.

The fear that Philadelphia was a realistic target of the Confederacy had both Abraham Lincoln and Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin calling for all hands on deck. Within hours of newspapers asking for volunteers and proclamations being posted, recruiting booths sprang up citywide. Independence Square, which had been a haven to Southern sympathizers, suddenly looked more like an armed camp of ready Union soldiers. The Union League itself created three regiments.

As summer 1863 neared, with Lee’s army only four miles from Harrisburg, a Philadelphian named Mary Ashurst captured the mood of the moment in her diary: … Great is the alarm in Phila: people are trying to get away. The next day, her husband Lewis wrote in his own diary: Dreadful excitement in the community and fear of the advance of Lee’s army on Philadelphia. The banks and other institutions preparing to send off their valuables.

On the morning of July 1st, the Union Army, under the command of Philadelphian George Meade, met Lee’s troops just west of Gettysburg. The carnage over three days is hard to fathom: 28,000 Confederate casualties and some 23,000 for the Union. In the end, Lee’s army was forced to retreat south, across the Potomac. With that, the war turned irrevocably in favor of one nation.

Philadelphia would remain the country’s most important city until it was overtaken by New York over the course of the 19th century, and before the events of the 20th century conspired to make it what it is today. But my friends in the elevator at 19th and Market don’t want me to get into all that. Let’s just say that at a time when this city and nation hung in the balance, Philadelphia did its part to help win the most important battle of our bloodiest and most difficult war. It’s really quite a story.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.

Off the Cuff: June 2013

I’m beginning to question my own sanity. It seems that whenever a major news story breaks, it immediately becomes layered with what we want to believe about it, rather than a pursuit of the truth. I grew up in this business—my father was a newspaperman—and all my life I’ve admired a basic tenet of journalism: that chasing the facts of a story, no matter where they lead, is paramount. But that mind-set has changed. Now, even an august publication like the New York Times—and certainly most mainstream media—doesn’t take the risk of chasing stories that might lead to uncomfortable truths. Instead, our media present the world as journalists and editors and talking heads would like it to be. Which is a very dangerous thing indeed.

Consider two current stories. The Obama administration’s response to the storming of the Benghazi embassy where Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were murdered was largely uncovered by the liberal press. The attack happened eight months ago, but unless you watched Fox News, you probably didn’t hear much about it until the recent congressional hearings featuring the “whistleblowers.” It is clear that the Obama administration—and Hillary Clinton—was being protected by the press, who censored anything derogatory about their idols. They dismissed it as a Republican witch hunt, until the evidence of a major cover-up became so overwhelming that they could no longer avoid the issue.

In Philadelphia, the trial of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell has been woefully underreported by the national media; some days at that trial, the media was virtually absent. I’ve heard the argument from some of my own staff that this story is essentially local, a crazed doctor doing horrible things. Yet two other facts are obvious, at least to me: Abortion is an issue the media is highly selective over, and an abortion story in which a woman and babies die in horrific circumstances is far too risky for a liberal, pro-choice media that avoids pursuit of that story, wherever it might lead.

I keep wondering how we got here, how it is that the current media landscape is so loaded with an agenda. Recently, a Wall Street Journal profile of a retiring Yale professor named Donald Kagan, a scholar of ancient Greece and a man of long perspective, gave me an answer of sorts. Back in 1990, Mr. Kagan—alarmed at students’ ignorance of their own history—attempted to implement a special Western Civilization course. He was called a racist and a purveyor of “European cultural arrogance,” as the student newspaper opined. It is probably needless to say that the course got shot down.

In Mr. Kagan’s view, our college students are being indoctrinated with one perspective of the world. Their teachers attended college during the ’60s and ’70s, when equality was becoming much more important in American society—a necessary change. But that shift has led to a monolithic way of thinking. Now, Mr. Kagan says, when he considers his colleagues, “You can’t find members of the faculty who have different opinions. … ”

“At the university,” he says, “there must be intellectual variety. If you don’t have [that], it’s not only that you are deprived of knowing some of the things you might know. It’s that you are deprived of testing the things that you do know or do think you know or believe in, so that your knowledge is superficial.”

That’s a broad and serious problem in American higher education—not liberalism run amok, but liberalism as the only viewpoint. It’s a mind-set that graduates into many professions; I certainly see it throughout mainstream media (and on my own staff). The scary thing—and this is what is making me crazy—is how most journalists are not even aware of their own biases. Obliterating whole points of view out of ignorance, they are accidental censors—which might just be the scariest kind.

Off the Cuff: May 2013

Is there no outrage? Is there no shame? Recently, the Wall Street Journal noted how some of New York’s top high schools accept students based only on rigorous admissions tests. Last fall, about 28,000 eighth-graders took the tests, and here is the ethnic breakdown of students admitted to Stuyvesant, one of those schools: nine blacks, 24 Latinos, 177 whites and 620 Asian-Americans. Those are stunning numbers, though they aren’t unique. It’s the same story that plays out in this city and across the country—for that matter, it’s the same story across the world: Asians are driven, while the rest of us are woefully falling behind.

Somehow, non-Asian parents have gotten the idea that demanding that their children work harder amounts to abuse. This is the opposite of their Asian-American counterparts. Remember Tiger Moms?

Anthropologists at UCLA have intimately studied the interactions of families in Southern California. “One of the major conclusions of the researchers,” Fox News reported, “is that the families focus mainly on their children—but not in a way designed to help those children stand on their own two feet. Instead, the focus seems to be on treating them almost like toddlers, fostering dependency on parents long after it’s wise to do so.”

I keep thinking back to another article in the Wall Street Journal, adapted from a book called Bringing Up Bébé and written about a year ago by an American mother. She spent some time in Paris and was amazed at how calm, well-behaved and self-sufficient French children are, especially compared to American kids. The reason for that is startling in its simplicity: In France, children do not run a fa­mily. Their parents do.

Demanding too little from our children has become a problem in this country. The Journal goes on to say: “For some, the specialized high-school test itself is clearly racist. Repeated demands have been made to change the entrance requirements. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint with the Department of Education in September of 2012, calling the test a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Yet when free test-prep programs were made available to disadvantaged students trying to get into those elite New York schools, not enough black or Hispanic students showed up. Asian parents, on the other hand, impress on their children that failure in school is a disgrace to the family.

Too few black and Hispanic parents are pushing their children to do better. The same goes for white parents, which is why so few white students are getting into Stuyvesant, compared to Asians.

We have caved in to the foolish idea that being a good parent means being nice to our children, and making their youths as pleasant and free of stress as possible. We want them to win at everything, from dodgeball (scratch that—dodgeball is too violent) to grades, no matter if they’re lousy on the playground or lazy in the classroom.

But I’ve got news for today’s parents: You are doing your kids a gross disservice if you’re not preparing them for a world that really doesn’t give a damn if they are happy or not.

Off the Cuff: April 2013

I’ve been working in this business since Harry Truman was president; just in case anybody needs a history refresher, he left office 60 years ago. That’s when I came to Philadelphia and started working at this magazine, which was then owned by my father.

Philadelphia was a different city then. It wasn’t so poor; in fact, business and industry were still booming. It was a safer place—you could go almost anywhere in Philadelphia, at any time. There was much less violence; murder was almost unheard-of. City government was corrupt but actually seemed to get things done. Business leaders actively took part in civic affairs.

What happened to Philadelphia happened to a lot of cities, especially in the eastern part of the country. Industry—jobs—left. An underclass grew. Racial tension flared. Solutions seemed beyond the ability of City Hall or the business community to solve—what little remained of the business community, that is.

We’ve been trying to find solutions for what ails us for a long, long time now. I admit, I’ve asked myself a tough question more than a few times over the past decade or so: Why do I still care as the city seems to continue to deteriorate?

Why, in other words, do I still own a magazine dedicated to this city, if the city’s deepest problems are not solvable?

Because in a sense, I still love Philadelphia, and because I still believe that our problems might be solvable. But I think that the number one roadblock to doing better as a city is our unwillingness to honestly face our most wrenching problems. Sometimes, brutal honesty isn’t pretty. But being honest with ourselves is a necessary first step—one this city finds very hard to take.

Yes, Philadelphia needs jobs desperately. We need a healthy dose of possibility—of optimism—especially for our poorest citizens. And we also need to become better educated, and less violent. We need to graduate from high school, and from college. We need our children to have families that stay intact. And we need to find solutions to these problems ourselves; no one is going to come in with a magic wand and make it all better.

Perhaps all these things are obvious—though we often behave as if they aren’t. Or we miss what is going on right before our eyes. And it’s easy to despair: It’s true that in the 50 years I’ve been writing this column, most of the changes I’ve seen in the city haven’t been for the better. So it may be a leap of faith to continue believing that we can solve our problems. Perhaps it is wholly unrealistic.

But I am sure of one thing: We will accomplish nothing unless we take a hard, honest look at ourselves, and try to understand exactly what is going on in Philadelphia. Which is exactly what the magazine will continue to do.

Off the Cuff: March 2013

One recent Saturday while reading the Wall Street Journal over coffee, I came upon a couple of editorials that got me boiling. One was about the rebirth of New Orleans after Katrina; as disastrous as it was, that storm provided New Orleans with the chance to start over—and the city took full advantage of the opportunity. From an incompetent city hall to dysfunctional schools (sound familiar?) to a corrupt police department, New Orleans took a hard look at its messes and started rebuilding in myriad ways. The other editorial was a tribute to the late Ed Koch, citing how he turned New York around as mayor: “Koch was a liberal mugged by reality whose three terms began the New York turnaround that has never arrived in Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, St. Louis or much of Los Angeles.”

While New Orleans is having a rebirth, Philadelphia is still known across the country as one of America’s worst cities. Maybe what we need is a natural disaster to wake us up.

I wish I were kidding. But as long as I’ve lived or worked in this city—some 60 years—I’ve watched as the inbred, do-nothing culture of Philadelphia takes a pass on tackling our many problems.

And when someone tries, he gets shown the door.

Last month, Philadelphia magazine profiled Jeremy Nowak, who recently left as head of the William Penn Foundation. Formed by the Haas family at the end of World War II to quietly give money away to worthy causes, the foundation brought Nowak in almost two years ago to use its $2 billion endowment to aggressively push for real change—or so he thought. Under his leadership, the foundation gave a whopping $15 million to the Philadelphia School Partnership, an organization that supports the charter-school movement.

But that meant a formerly below-the-radar philanthropic institution was sticking its neck out by actually trying to fix a long-standing problem. Jeremy Nowak lasted as the foundation’s head for all of 17 months.

Recently we talked to him again, asking what was wrong with Philadelphia’s culture. He cited two problems: Philadelphians have lost the “habits of accomplishment” because the city has been in decline for half a century, and in Philadelphia, “The past is well-organized compared to the future.” That’s a nice way of saying we’re afraid to depart from how we’ve always done things here, no matter how ineffective they might be.

And God forbid we try to raise the city’s profile. Back in the mid-’70s, I was on the board of the Bicentennial Commission. I remember a meeting at which we discussed what the celebration should be; a board member got up and said something like: “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I have concerns about whether we should do this. A celebration will bring a lot of strangers into town.” I remember that comment 40 years later because it speaks to the fear and caution of the Philadelphia mind-set, which hasn’t changed.

Now, with Nowak gone from the William Penn Foundation, everything is back to normal: The foundation recently announced that it will give $1 million to the Children’s Literacy Initiative, to help poor kids in Philly schools read and write—nothing controversial there. As Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, pointed out, “Everybody here is so interrelated in many ways, and you don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings and you don’t want to threaten other people’s jobs. But Jeremy raised the question: What price do we pay for that?”

Some 25 years ago, I wrote a column worrying that Philadelphia would become another Newark or Detroit. I’m beginning to come to a sad conclusion as to why we seem so stuck in our problems, and so determined not to change how we operate: We must like things just the way they are.

Off the Cuff: February 2013

Recently I saw the movie Lincoln, and when I left the theater, I felt highly energized but deeply depressed. Let’s start with the good news: What a wonderful movie! The Abraham Lincoln portrayed, caught in the crosshairs of simultaneously trying to win a war and end slavery in America, displayed a moral leadership that was both moving and necessary. Lincoln knew exactly what had to be done and went after it, staying the course even as he prolonged America’s bloodiest war and took a huge political risk. Lincoln, in fact, was a master politician. But he pulled political levers for one reason: for the good of the country.

That leads to what has me depressed. Our current president has taken whatever lessons might have been learned from his first term and come to a point of … whining. Of feeling sorry for himself. Of not using the beginning of his second term, before he becomes a lame duck, to actually accomplish something. At a time when we need great leadership, when our country’s future is in peril, there just isn’t any.

A couple weeks ago, Barack Obama used the last press conference of his first term to bait Republicans. He declared that GOP politicians “have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat.” Then he noted that on Congressional picnics, “Michelle and I are very nice to them, and we have a wonderful time. But it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and, you know, blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”

No wonder Lincoln was such a hit. We are hungry for an actual leader to step up, rather than this whiny, backbiting nonsense. Republican leaders in Congress, of course, are no better. But we don’t have time for the endless posturing and bad blood while our big problems get kicked down the road, left for another day of finger-pointing that will accomplish nothing.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently cited a Harvard economist on why we have a logjam in this country: “Our absence of growth is delivering political paralysis, and the political paralysis preserves the absence of growth.” Friedman believes that the only way to break out of that cycle is with extraordinary leadership. And that if Obama “really wants to lead, he will have to finally trust the American people with the truth.”

The truth, that is, about the problems our country faces and what can be done about them, instead of simply blaming the other party for everything. The crisis Lincoln faced is instructive. He understood that a 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was crucial, even with the North about to win the war; otherwise, Southern states might go right on with that abominable practice. But Lincoln needed the war to continue as leverage to help garner votes for the amendment, which put him in a terrible bind. It also required hardball politics—both schmoozing, and the offer of patronage jobs. But Lincoln held steady, because he kept the country’s long-term good in his sights.

Our current president isn’t willing to play the game, or he doesn’t get it. He might be the smartest guy in every room he enters, but Barack Obama continues to take a pass on true leadership.

Instead, he puts the responsibility for change squarely back on us. “Now, if the American people feel strongly about these issues and they push hard and they reward or don’t reward members of Congress with their votes,” he said at his press conference, “then I think you’ll see behavior in Congress change. And that’ll be true whether I’m the life of the party or a stick in the mud.”

It’s pretty clear, Mr. President, which one you’ve decided to be.

Off the Cuff: January 2013

A couple of months ago, this magazine ran a cover story about innovation in Philadelphia. It focused on more than 50 smart people in town who are doing impressive things, including Penn researcher Carl June, who recently made a revolutionary breakthrough in cancer. The package left me with a good feeling about what’s possible in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, the headlines over the past few weeks give me the sinking feeling that there’s still one thing in Philadelphia that hasn’t changed, and I fear never will: the way our political class consistently puts its own interests ahead of the public’s.

All you have to do is take a look around. Old friend Leland Beloff, the former city councilman convicted of trying to extort $1 million from developer Willard Rouse 25 years ago, is still finding creative methods to keep financially afloat, it seems. Another old buddy, John Dougherty, has popped up again, too. New details of an FBI probe from a half-dozen years ago were just made public; in an affidavit filed in court in 2006, an FBI agent alleged that she had evidence suggesting the electricians union head got $300,000 in free work on his South Philly rowhouse, turning it into a fortress that includes an alarm system with 32 security zones. (No charges were ever filed against him.) Meanwhile, Michael Nutter’s one farsighted idea—selling PGW, the gas utility, to reap $500 million that the city desperately needs—seems to be a dead deal. Why? Because if somebody who actually cared about the bottom line were running the Gas Works, union jobs might be trimmed.

The most depressing part of all of this is how the cast of characters always seems to be the same. A few years ago, I ran into Leland Beloff at a restaurant in Margate. He came up to me and said, “You’re responsible for putting me in jail”—the magazine had written about his bald attempt to squeeze Rouse. Beloff was so mad, I thought he was going to take a swing at me, which is another Philadelphia tradition I love: Blame the accuser instead of taking a look in the mirror.

Recently, the Inquirer detailed how Beloff got $1 million in state grants for the nursing home he owns in Delaware County, arranged by the Urban Affairs Coalition, a Philadelphia nonprofit with ties to State Rep Dwight Evans. Evans is another classic Philadelphia player, one accused a year ago of putting a backroom squeeze on an Atlanta charter-school manager about to get a $50 million contract in Philadelphia, so that a New Jersey company Evans backed would be used instead. The Urban Affairs Coalition, by the way, is supposed to help communities, not ex-con businessmen.

John Dougherty, of course, reemerged in 2011 as the power behind several newly elected councilmen, after learning the hard way he himself wasn’t palatable to the Philadelphia electorate. But old pols in this city never die; former state senator Vince Fumo, tucked away in a prison in Kentucky, is rumored to still have his hand dipped in the sewer of politics here.

The problem isn’t corruption per se so much as how open it is in Philadelphia, which is a sure sign that things will never change. More than one hundred years ago, journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote that our corruption “looked like bad politics” to him. But a local boss set him straight: “We reasoned that if we [did exactly as we wanted] fast enough, one-two-three—one after the other—the papers couldn’t handle them all, and the public would be stunned and—give up. … We know that public despair is possible and that that is good politics.”

Which is exactly why Philadelphia still deserves the infamous indictment St­effens bestowed on us: “All our municipal governments are more or less bad,” he declared. “Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.” Happy New Year, everyone.

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