Ed Rendell Still Thinks We’re a Nation of Wusses

In an excerpt from his spirited new memoir, A Nation of Wusses, the former DA, mayor and governor dishes on the cheesesteak that changed his career, his buddy Bill Clinton, and why exactly the U.S. seems to be losing its mojo.

A Smart Jewish Lawyer

My political career almost ended in 1987, when I lost my second major election in 12 months. (The first was for governor; the second, for mayor.)

In politics, as in life, the world loves winners and outright shuns losers. I went back to practicing law and trying to raise enough money to pay off my campaign debts, including a second mortgage taken out on our Shore home. Good luck! People would actually cross over to the other side of the street when they saw me coming, because they thought I would ask them for money. Lose two elections in 12 months and you find out who your friends are, and there aren’t a whole lot of them. I could barely raise $100, but one day a check for $5,000 came in the mail from Leonard Tose, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, with a note that read, “Hope this helps. You did the right thing in running. Hang in there and don’t get discouraged.” I barely knew Leonard, but I never forgot his kindness, and when he fell on hard times near the end of his life, it gave me great joy to be in a position to help him.

Well, I settled into my routine at the law firm. Every once in a while, someone would write an article about the 1991 mayor’s race. I was always mentioned, but immediately written off as a two-time loser, a hopeless also-ran. Everyone had counted me out, but the embers still burned deep in my heart.

I was sincerely torn. On the one hand, I hadn’t lost my desire to serve. I still thought I had something to contribute and could help turn Philadelphia around. On the other hand, I didn’t want to lose another high-profile election and subject myself, my wife Midge and our son Jesse to the derision and abuse that come with that. And besides, I wasn’t sure I really had a chance to win.

By March 1990, I knew I had to decide soon. If I was going to run, I needed to start raising money almost immediately. I agonized over it until one night when I was coming home—Midge and Jesse were away—and I stopped at a cheesesteak place close to our house. I placed my order and stood back to wait. I saw an older lady also waiting for her order. She looked Irish, somewhat disheveled, and almost toothless. She kept staring at me, and finally she said, “Are you Rendell?” I said that I was. She then asked, “Well, are you going to run for mayor?” I was surprised and replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” She paused and thought about it for a little while, rubbed her chin, and then said, “You have to. This city is so fucked up that only a smart Jewish lawyer can turn it around.”

I was juiced! If this little old lady understood that the city was in such bad shape that it needed someone smart to turn it around, then I had a chance.