Chris Matthews and Ed Rendell Talk (and Talk) Politics

On Obama, Hillary, Philly’s millennials, and whether Ed is (maybe?) running for mayor.

Chris Matthews and Ed Rendell. Photograph by Justin James Muir

Chris Matthews and Ed Rendell. Photograph by Justin James Muir

PM: When did you guys first meet?

ED: [laughs] I have no idea.

CHRIS: I just remember that he and Billy Green [then Philadelphia’s mayor] were trying to take my job away. This was back in 1980. I was speechwriter for Jimmy Carter. All the big-city guys ganged up on us.

ED: This was the Kennedy-Carter presidential primary. I was supporting Kennedy.

CHRIS: Teddy came to town, and he was eating Philly pretzels and meeting with the Cardinal. You could do that in those days. And Carter was in his Rose Garden because of the [Iranian] hostages. And I’m handling Philly. These guys rolled us over.

ED: But we only won by 7,000 votes statewide. It was almost a Pyrrhic victory. Because by the time [the nomination battle] reached New York and Pennsylvania, it was over.

CHRIS: I first heard about Ed because my dad was a court reporter in Municipal Court.

ED: Huh.

CHRIS: Eddie was one of the great D.A.’s, one of the great prosecutors. My dad would know who was good and who was bad — he was writing it down all day.

ED: And you listened to all that crap.

CHRIS: It’s true. Eddie was an early hero of our family.

PM: You’ve both seen politics in a lot of places. Is there anything about Philadelphia politics that feels unique?

ED: I’d say it’s just big-city politics. Wouldn’t you, Chris?

CHRIS: You know, I was thinking: This guy’s great contribution as mayor — he brought that New York we-can-win stuff. Philly had the old Gene Mauch, ’64 Phillies we’re-gonna-choke thing. And Ed didn’t have a choke in him.

ED: You’re talking substance more than politics.

CHRIS: I’m talking … morale. You built the morale of this city up.

ED: [Philly Mag] did an article while I was mayor — why Philadelphia has an inferiority complex. And they interviewed four psychiatrists. Three of the four psychiatrists said, the reason Mayor Rendell is different is because he grew up in New York. But it is true. We’re our own worst enemy. It’s interesting — with the influx of millennials living in this city, I think that’s going away. We’re not New York yet in attracting young people, but young people are dominating the city now. And they have a much more can-do attitude.

CHRIS: Will they stay? My daughter went to Penn, like you, Governor. And all those kids come into town with money — they go out to the clubs at night. It’s great. But I wonder if a lot of those guys are gonna stick around like you did.

ED: I think more of them are sticking around. And we’ve now got a lot of young tech companies and venture companies.

PM: A big part of whether they’ll stick around is what happens with the public schools, right?

ED: That’s the battle. If you could choose your public school, you could get a great education. You can send your kids to McCall or Greenfield, and then in middle school and high school get them to Masterman. Masterman, Chris, has higher college board scores than any school in the state, including Penn Charter and all those places.

CHRIS: What happened to Central?

ED: Central is still solid. You get a great education, but not quite Masterman.

PM: Let’s talk about national politics. For the past six years, D.C. has been dominated by hyper-partisanship. Is anything going to change that?

CHRIS: I think somebody’s gotta win big. My fear is — I’m not close to Secretary Clinton like Ed is …

ED: [laughs]

CHRIS: Ha! He’s laughing because he is close. If you can win big and have a mandate, you can get a lot done. But I think we gotta stop hedging our bets. And if the voters hedge their bets with a squeaker win for Hillary, if she runs, and a House that’s Republican, that’s gonna be a real problem again.

ED: I think you’re gonna have a divided government no matter who wins in ’16. But I would say there are two people in the field who have the ability to maybe bring the Congress together: Hillary on the Democratic side, and Jeb Bush on the Republican side. Part of it, Chris, is just the interpersonal skills. I had a Republican legislature for six of the eight years [I was governor], and yet everything I talked about in the 2002 campaign, we made significant progress on. Because I knew how to sit down and horse-trade.

PM: Give President Obama a letter grade.

ED: I’d say C-plus.

CHRIS: I think if you step back and look at this 10 years from now, he’ll be up there around A-minus. Because of health care. It’s the completion of the social agenda of the Democratic Party.

ED: When I say C-plus, he came in with tremendous wind at his back, and he had the opportunity to do great things. He’s failed to do the politics, small p, necessary to do the great things. Interestingly, I think he has a chance to change that legacy — ISIS has given him that. He did a brilliant job putting that coalition together. You’ve got Arab jet-fighter pilots dropping bombs on other Muslims. That’s a huge achievement. I think if he pivots off this, if after the election he gets immigration reform done, maybe cleans up a few things in the Affordable Care Act, and maybe his last year does the bargain on the debt — if he does all that, then he gets the A-minus.

PM: Governor, what are the chances your friend Hillary doesn’t run?

ED: I don’t think she’s crossed the Rubicon just yet. [Matthews laughs] Chris does. But she’s gotta make a very personal decision. When you get to be a certain age, you start looking at the actuarial tables. And you figure, I’ve got X years left. How do I want to spend those X years? Hillary’s gotta decide, does she want to spend the next two years in hell, with every scumbag saying bad things about you? And then do you want four or maybe eight years of intense pressure?

PM: So it could go either way?

ED: I think she’ll overcome that. But if Hillary announced tomorrow she wasn’t running, I look at the remaining Democratic field and I say, jeez, I never thought I was presidential timber. I just never did. It’s not that I’m modest, but I always thought the president has to be A-plus. But when I look at the people who’ve run for president who are my contemporaries, I say to myself, well, why not?

CHRIS: Headline! Headline! There’s your headline: “If not Hillary, then me.” [laughs]

ED: [laughs] But let me finish. I don’t want to spend two of my remaining years in Iowa and New Hampshire, no offense to the Granite State or the Hawkeye State. Hillary has the same thought process. I think she’s gonna do it, but I’m not 100 percent certain.

CHRIS: I think Hillary will run because she has a chance to be president of the United States. There’s no walking away from it. Especially a woman who’s always been a leader. Women her age, my age, the Governor’s age, they’ve been waiting a long time.

PM: Who will the Republican nominee be?

CHRIS: Christie has a shot at it if he gets away [from Bridgegate] completely clean, but I don’t think so if the people around him are indicted and prosecuted. It’s too close to him.

ED: I don’t know the answer to your question. I don’t think Jeb is going to run, and I don’t know that Jeb would do all that well in the Republican primaries. I actually think if Romney runs again and says I told you so —

CHRIS: He just needs a personality. He’s a really smart guy.

ED: Really smart guy.

CHRIS: And he’s not a bad guy. He’s a gentleman. He’s old money. [In 2012] he’s in Iowa, he’s going around signing posters, having fun. And I walk up to him and I say, “Can you say ‘Let them eat cake’ in French?” And he mumbles to me, off-camera, “I can, but I won’t.” [laughter] There’s
so much he’s hiding about his class and his money. He’s so much smarter than how he comes across, because he’s hiding who he is.

ED: He also hid his real political views. He should have run on RomneyCare. When I became governor, we sat with Governor Romney to learn the ins and outs of RomneyCare. He was as proud of that — like it was his grandson. And then he ran away from it in the campaign.

PM: Do voters smell someone who’s not authentic?

ED: I think that’s correct. Likeability matters. Look, George W. Bush was president because he was more likeable than Al Gore. There’s no question about it.

CHRIS: Same with his dad against Dukakis.

ED: Romney would still be a dangerous candidate in a general election. More dangerous than Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or even Marco Rubio.

PM: Chris, a few years ago, your name was thrown around as a Senate candidate in Pennsylvania. How serious were you about that?

CHRIS: I always wanted to be a senator.

ED: Because you understood the Congress.

CHRIS: I’d worked for Tip O’Neill. I’d worked for Jimmy Carter. I’d worked for Ed Muskie, one of the greats. But I hadn’t been home for 40 years. I have a Philly accent — I’m clearly from here. But you know what the bottom line was? I didn’t have a campaign manager. And I didn’t want to be on the phone eight hours a day for the money.

ED: You probably wouldn’t have had much of a primary fight, but the general would have been —

CHRIS: Also, Arlen was still healthy, it seemed. I had nothing against the guy. I kept thinking, what do I have against Arlen Specter? He loves the Senate the way I would love it.

PM: Give me a grade on Mayor Nutter.

ED: I think Mayor Nutter’s a solid B. Again — missed opportunities. But he’s done a couple of important things well. One, he’s been a terrific cheerleader. People make fun of the cheerleading role of the mayor, but it’s very important. Two, he’s done a very good job in making the city younger — bike lanes, bike sharing, all those things that appeal to young people. He has made this a very hospitable city for millennials to come and live in, and that’s hugely important for the future. Where he’s failed — it’s ironic, John Street failed in this regard, too. Both being councilmen, you’d have thought they’d have great relationships with Council. But John Street was at war with Council. Mayor Nutter’s been at war with Council. I’d give him a B. I think nationally he’s probably got a pretty good reputation, don’t you, Chris?

CHRIS: I think he’s like you. He works against the grain. When he gave that speech about pulling your pants up, that works with everybody. And he won in the beginning with the issue of stop-and-frisk, because people are worried about crime.

PM: It’s tough to detect a lot of enthusiasm for the field in next year’s mayor race.

CHRIS: I got a candidate. [points at Rendell]

ED: There’s only one thing that’s stopping me from running for mayor again: common sense. [laughter] No, it’s interesting. A lot of people come up and ask me, and I’ve given it some thought. I don’t think I could do it as well as I did it before.

CHRIS: You said it was your favorite job.

ED: Oh, my favorite job by far. Because you can influence the dynamic by force of personality. You dominate the media market. But I don’t think I could do it the same as I did it before. People say, well, 70 percent of you is going to be better than any of these other guys. Maybe so. But I would know that I wasn’t doing it as well, and that would bother the heck out of me.

PM: Is the door still open a little bit?

ED: I can’t see any circumstance … I did say three or four years ago, if the city was in Detroit-like conditions, that’s the only thing that would bring me back. And Mayor Nutter’s done a good enough job hanging in there through the recession that the city is not in great shape, but it’s certainly not in Detroit-like shape.

CHRIS: How’s your polling going? [laughter]

ED: Actually, Chris, I still have a million dollars in the bank. But I don’t spend any of it on polling.

PM: Governor, you’ve been a guest on Hardball a lot. Anything you’ve always wanted to ask Chris?

ED: No. And the reason is because Chris — unlike a lot of the other hosts on any of the networks, Chris makes no bones where he stands. Chris is not predictable. And I’ll say this, he was an Obama lover. You remember he got in trouble with — what was the line? — the shiver down your leg …

CHRIS: Don’t make it worse. The shiver was up the leg. Please. A shiver down the leg would be different. [Obama] gave a very patriotic speech. I never heard anybody since Kennedy speak about America the way he did: “Only in this country is my story possible.”

ED: Chris was clearly a great fan of the President. And yet he has been critical at times, as I have.

PM: Chris, is there anything you’ve always wanted to ask the Governor?

CHRIS: No. I ask him what I want. But can I make one speech before we finish? When this guy came in, Philadelphia had a long period of “We can’t win.” Part of it was sports.

ED: The Phillies in ’64.

CHRIS: We had a magic number of two with 12 games to go, and we lost the pennant. And we’ve always had this New York thing. They’re this big new city, and we’re the old city. And from the time I was in grade school at St. Christopher’s, the Irish fire inspector would come around and teach us about the fire rules. But what he would really teach us was, don’t feel bad. We got the oldest museum, we got the oldest zoo, we got the oldest post office. We’re still trying to compete with New York. It’s in our souls, beating New York. [looking at Rendell] And he’s gonna help us get the Democratic convention in 2016. This is another competition. But I think he played a big part in giving us that we-can-win thing. And that’s why the black community likes him, too. Because he can win for the city.

PM: Thank you both.

ED: My pleasure. This was fun.

CHRIS: [laughs] And he will run. He’s gonna run.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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