At one of his final news conferences as mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell was asked if he might like to be vice president of the United States.
A few seconds passed. His eyes glistened. Maybe he was thinking back to a time when the idea would have been ludicrous--that point in the mid-1980s when he had lost successive campaigns for governor and mayor and his once promising political career appeared to have collapsed. But a lot had changed since then. Philadelphia had recovered and so had Rendell.
After two terms as the hugely popular mayor of a city that at one time couldn't pay its bills, Rendell's career possibilities seemed limitless: governor, cabinet secretary, and beyond. And why not? Al Gore himself had given Rendell the ultimate tribute, dubbing him, "America's Mayor." "Do I want to be vice president?" Rendell asked softly in a City Hall reception room decorated with formal portraits of mayors past. Damn tight he does.
The Rendell story sells. A gutsy; plain-spoken mayor in the New Democratic mold takes office in the early 1990s. Philadelphia is near bankruptcy. Its bonds have sunk to junk status. Even more worrisome, the city's self-image is suffering and its national profile isn't much better. It wasn't so long ago that police dropped a bomb on an anarchic cult called MOVE, incinerating a rowhouse neighborhood under the watch of former mayor W. Wilson Goode. Rendell wastes no time. He gets down on his hands and knees and scours a toilet in dingy City Hall.
He announces that the city is broke. Determined to cut spending, he wrings wage concessions from a municipal workforce that, he says, hasn't had "a bad day for 30 years." He balances the budget; ratchets down an oppressive wage tax; promotes Philadelphia tirelessly, luring hotels and restaurants and reinventing the city as a tourist destination, a center of culture and arts and sports and entertainment. The mayor's optimism proves infectious. Philadelphians begin to believe.
Through it all, Rendell has the time of his life. He opens a municipal swimming pool by stripping down to his trunks and leaping in--hairy back and all. When he leaves office in January 2000, his approval rating is through the roof. He moves to his next assignment, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, where he becomes one of his party's chief fund-raisers and spokesmen.
"Here's a guy who said it's the cities' responsibility to right their ship rather than expect the rest of...