Ed Rendell, Buzz Bissinger, and the Indignity of Having Done It All

After you've been to the mountaintop, maybe being a schmuck is all that's left.

It was Tuesday afternoon, April 9, when we realized that something both inevitable and unexpected had occurred: Ed Rendell had finally lost his touch.

The signal came in the form a tweet that, on its own, seemed innocuous enough:

What’s wrong with this message? Three things come to mind:

• First, it came more than 24 hours after news of Margaret Thatcher’s death—an eternity in Twitter time.

• Second, it was transparently self-promotional—”wussiness” being a Rendell meme ever since he criticized the Philadelphia Eagles for not being more cavalier with the lives of their fans, then spun the ensuing controversy (such as it was) into the title for his book.

• Third, the tweet itself was kind of … wussy. “Lover her or hate her?” That’s a coward’s way out of articulating an opinion. Nobody disputes that Margaret Thatcher was forceful in the articulation and pursuit of her policies. So what? Were those policies good? Bad? Mixed? Ed might have well as tweeted: “You know what’s really breathable? AIR!”

Those three factors—wimpy, ill-timed self-promotion—gave Rendell’s tweet a tin-eared quality that actually seems to be the stock-in-trade of his post-gubernatorial life. Consider the highlights of Rendell’s career since leaving office:

He split up with his wife less than two weeks after leaving the governor’s mansion—and just a couple of months after posing for Philly Mag with his rumored paramour—and after 40 years of marriage, sending the signal (intended or not) that wedded life was just one more item on the power resume checklist that he could give up now that he was entering retirement.

• He helped broker the sale of the Inquirer and Daily News to their current roster of uber-rich hometown owners, only to drop out of the group just as the deal was made—a sudden abandonment that only seemed to make sense when news broke the same week that he was under investigation for giving a speech to a group on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

• He wrote a big newspaper piece praising “fracking,” without disclosing his financial ties to gas-extraction companies that use the practice. Nobody was fooled.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion: The man who loomed so large over Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics for so long is now, post-power, just kind of a … schmuck.

Realizing that made me think of Buzz Bissinger.

Bissinger, after all, helped paint that larger-than-life picture of Rendell, chronicling the then-Philadelphia mayor 20 years ago for his book, A Prayer For The City. (David Cohen, now the “consigliere” at Comcast, was also given hagiographic treatment in the book, which is excellent and a must-read for all Philadelphians, even now—a lot of the issues remain painfully relevant.) And Bissinger, of course, just last week quite publicly proclaimed his addictions to sex and leather pants in a story for GQ, then promptly checked himself into rehab.

Each man helped make the other’s career. And now, it seems, they’re fading into late-career ridiculousness with each other. It’s bit awful to contemplate.

Think: If you’d spent your life trying to be top dog, had spent all your working minutes trying to outwork and out-hustle everybody so you could be the Alpha Dog in the room, what would it do to you to wake up, one day in your late 50s or 60s, to realize you’d already been to the summit and were on your way down? That there were plenty of good years left, yeah, but the very best ones were definitely behind you?

Would you accept your fate? Would you rage against the dying of the light, as Bissinger appears to have done? Or would you just cash out? I guess I’d rather see Rendell walking around town in leather pants and Gucci cowboy boots, but that doesn’t seem to be the path he’ll choose.

Maybe it’s simply not possible to age gracefully in the Twitter Era, especially if you’re making TV appearances a couple of times a week. Maybe Ed’s political gifts require actual public service to be utilized fully. Whatever the case, one thing remains true: The Ed Rendell we’re watching these days isn’t the Ed Rendell we remember. He’s just somebody that we used to know.