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 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.”