Green Genes

They are the first family of Philly politics, having given us a dominant party boss (Bill Jr.), an enigmatic mayor (Bill III), and now a feisty new Council member (Bill IV). But in the Green family, the real drama has always been between fathers and sons

The man standing in front of me is nearing 70 years old. His great mop of hair is gray. His face is stern, softened only by his wedge-shaped nose. He lingers near a window at the Famous 4th Street Deli, and he refuses to sit down.

“We can’t stay here!” he says. “How am I supposed to give an interview with a tribute to a fallen fireman going on outside?”

On Bainbridge Street, visible through the window, a fire engine blocks traffic. Police and firefighters mill around, the by-product of City Hall pomp. Mayor Bill Green is now a quarter-century removed from his time in office, but says he still has certain responsibilities. “There is no way I can sit here and give an interview and not be outside with them,” he says. “It would be disrespectful. We have to leave. Now.”

In his eyes is a fierceness that comes with the experience of authority. Bill Green III, like his son, grew up with power. His father — the second Bill Green — is no longer all that well-known. But political analyst G. Terry Madonna calls him “one of the great political party bosses in the history of the United States.”

The son of an Irish immigrant and tavern owner, Bill Green Jr. was a Kensington boy who grew up to serve in the U.S. Congress. As party boss, he flipped this town on its political axis. In the 1950s, Boss Green used his post as Democratic party chief to dole out patronage jobs and replace a corrupt Republican majority with today’s ethically challenged Democratic machine. He developed a close friendship with the Kennedy clan. And he is widely credited with delivering enough Philadelphia voters in the 1960 presidential election to tilt Pennsylvania to JFK.

Today, Mayor Green fondly remembers an October 1963 elevator ride he took in the Bellevue Hotel, accompanied by his father and President Kennedy. He was just 25 at the time, but to the son of a Congressman, even light banter can suggest great expectations.

“What,” Kennedy said, gesturing toward the younger Green, “are you gonna do with him, Billy?”

“I don’t know, Mr. President,” said the elder Green. “What would you suggest?”

“Do what my father did,” Kennedy replied. “Run him for Congress.”

In a little more than three weeks, Kennedy was assassinated. Within a month of that, Boss Green was dead, too, the victim of a sudden fatal illness related to a previous intestinal infection. And a month after that, Bill Green III had indeed decided to run for his father’s Congressional seat. The eldest of his father’s children, he proved to be one of the most reform-minded politicians in Philadelphia history.

Before his run as mayor, Bill Green III served more than 12 years as a Congressman. But at the end, his career seemed somehow truncated — as if the promise of being Bill Green never culminated in the power and prestige people expected of him. He lost to Frank Rizzo in his initial 1971 run for mayor. He lost a heated battle for a U.S. Senate seat against John Heinz, in 1976. And after serving just one term as mayor, he never drank the champagne of a reelection victory — walking instead into the relative workaday obscurity of two decades in governmental law.

Theories abounded when he opted not to run for a second term. Pundits opined that the man just hated being mayor. And who could blame him? Pretty much every day of his term featured a battle. And he had already been serving in public office for more than 20 years. Others said he expected a stern primary challenge from his own managing director, Wilson Goode Sr. But Goode himself rebuts that. “I went to Mayor Green in his office and told him, ‘I have heard the rumors, and I want you to know I will not run against you. I would be honored to serve another four years as your managing director.’ I would not have been so ungracious as to have run against the man who gave me such an opportunity.”

Some intimates thought he declined to seek reelection because he had finally laid his own father to rest. “I think now that he had done something his father had never done — served as mayor — the decision was easier,” says a longtime friend. “I think he was able to leave after one term because he finally escaped his father’s shadow.”

Mayor Green denies any such motivation, and says the midlife career change worked for him: “I enjoyed the chance to spend more time with my family. There was no comparison with the number of hours I worked as mayor.”

But he admits the reason he didn’t seek a second term had everything to do with being a Bill Green. It was summer, 1982. He and his wife were expecting another child, their fourth. And they were walking in Chestnut Hill when she asked him if he intended to run again. The question surprised him. Of course he wanted a second term. But what she said next changed everything. “Do you,” she asked, “want another political orphan?”