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.

My Friend, Bill Clinton

In January 1992, my first month as mayor, a former mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, Lottie Shackelford, introduced me to the governor­ of her state, Bill Clinton, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C. After talking with him for 15 minutes, I fell in love—and through the good and the bad of the next 20 years, I have never fallen out of love. I know he is a flawed person (aren’t we all?), and for an incredibly smart individual, he had some of the worst lapses of judgment you could ever imagine. But he was a very good president—and could have been a great one absent those lapses—who did great things for the American people and cared very much for the challenges and hardships that the ordinary person faced.

Bill Clinton was, and still is, a policy wonk. It’s hard to believe that someone so charismatic cares so much about the minutiae of complex policy matters, but he does, and is such a great, quick study that he masters those details almost instantaneously. At our second meeting, riding in a car in Philadelphia, when I had yet to commit to endorsing his candidacy,­ he blew me away with his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the problems facing American cities and the desperate need to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure (a lifelong passion for me as well). I was hooked, and decided I would do everything I could to help him become president.

Like so many Clinton supporters, I was rocked by the Gennifer Flowers revelations. Not because I thought they went to Clinton’s fitness for the presidency, but because I believed they spelled doom for his chances in the New Hampshire primary. I will never forget the Saturday night before the primary. I was at a Sons of Italy dinner in Philadelphia, and I was sitting next to the Italian ambassador to the United States. He was a charming, urbane and sophisticated man, and we were having an interesting conversation when he asked, “Mayor, I mean no offense, but what is wrong with your country? I read about the trouble this young governor is in because of an affair. In my country, it would help him, because the voters would consider it a sign of his vitality and energy.” Six years later, I thought about the ambassador when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.

The fall campaign was hard, and the outcome was almost always in doubt. Bill Clinton proved to be an incredible candidate. From retail campaigning to debating, there was no one better. It soon became clear that Pennsylvania would be one of the two or three key states in determining the outcome. I was resolute in driving the city turnout as high as possible to give him the winning margin. We did, and the Governor carried Philadelphia by 300,000 votes. He did better than any Democratic presidential candidate had in the Philadelphia suburbs and held his own in western Pennsylvania—once a Democratic bastion, but becoming increasingly conservative because of guns and abortion. Clinton was able to defend on the gun issue because he was an experienced hunter and could talk like one. This held true even when he ran for reelection in 1996, after he’d signed the Brady Bill and the assault weapon ban. I watched with wonder when at a rally in Westmoreland County, near Pittsburgh, he told the crowd, with a hint of hillbilly twang, “The Brady Bill has stopped a half a million dangerous felons from getting guns, and none of you have lost a minute in the deer woods!” He had them at “deer woods.”

The late, great Texas governor Ann Richards told a joke that crystallized the reason why Bill Clinton did well with hunters, and Al Gore not so much. It’s all about the lingo. Ann’s story was set in 2000 and was premised on Clinton trying to help Gore with the hunters’ vote. He took Al out and got him the right hunting duds and the right shotgun, and then, properly clad and armed, they went out to a lake and knelt in a duck blind. While waiting, they see a beautiful naked blond woman coming out of the water. She looks at them and says, “What are you doing, boys?”

Clinton replies, “We’re hunting for game.”

She rejoins, “Well, I’m game!”

So Gore shoots her!

You had to hear Ann tell it—with gusto and a Texas drawl.

During his presidency, Bill Clinton was a great friend to American cities, and he and Vice President Gore contributed mightily to the turnaround of Philadelphia. Their policies were designed to help cities in every possible way. And if there were other things they could do, they did them.

I’ll never forget when I heard that in a cost-cutting measure, the federal government was eliminating four of its 10 IRS centers. One of those centers was in Philadelphia and employed more than 4,000 workers. Our city was coming back, but we surely couldn’t afford to lose that many jobs. So on the President’s next visit to Philadelphia, I asked if I could ride in with him from the airport, which would give me 15 minutes alone with him to plead my case. My request was granted.

When we got in the car, I told the President of my concern and then handed him a piece of paper with numbers on it. It read:

9%             2%
20%           7%
81%           38%

The President asked what it meant. I told him it was a comparison between Philadelphia and Boise, Idaho, where one of the other 10 centers was. With the Philadelphia percentage listed first, the first line was unemployment, the second was the poverty rate, and the third was the percentage of votes he had received in his election in each city, with an astounding 81 percent in Philadelphia. He looked at them and nodded. Case closed. The jury understood clearly. The IRS center is in Philadelphia today and doing just fine.