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See Mayor Nutter talk about his experience as Mayor

Former Mayor Nutter will be speaking about, and signing, his new book at a couple of public events in Philly. See what he has to say about his time in City Hall—and what he thinks about our current state of politics.

Join the National Constitution Center on January 31st for a chance to hear from former Mayor Michael Nutter as he shares stories and insights about his time in office through his new book, Mayor: The Best Job in Politics. Find event info here.

Can’t make it to NCC event? Join Penn IUR, Social Policy and Practice, and Penn Press in February for an evening with Michael Nutter. He’ll discuss his book and talk about the challenges he faced along the way. More details here.

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Great books about Philly politics

A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger, Buy It Here

Media and the Mayor’s Race by Phyllis Kaniss, Buy It Here

Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America by Sal Paolantonio, Buy It Here

Richardson Dilworth: Last of the Bare Knuckled Aristocrats by Peter Binzen, Buy It Here

Shame of the City by Lincoln Steffens, Buy It Here

Video

Michael Nutter talks Trump on CNN

The Letdown of the Political Memoir

Michael Nutter has written a book that raises an important question: Why?

Michael Nutter has written a book that raises an important question: Why?

There are few literary endeavors at once so bad—and yet so revealing—as the political memoir. It tends to eschew the tenets of storytelling in favor of formula, some combination of shout-outs to friends and funders—a type of political payback—and warmed-over platitudes borrowed from campaign talking points, as in this gem from former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s Courage to Stand: An American Story, which should have been titled Courage To Bore: “We are free, because throughout our history, Americans have embraced the virtues of individual responsibility, integrity, courage and faith in God.”

Most of all, given that some toxic mix of narcissism and self-regard appears more often than not to be a prerequisite for the seeking of elected office, when pen hits paper those who recount their public service, instead of just telling a story, can’t seem to help themselves from writing a brief for how they should be remembered: Invariably, as smarter and more accomplished than was thought in their time.

While there are some stand-out examples of the genre done well—which we’ll get to—the problem with most political memoirs is the distance between why we read them and why they’re written. We read political memoirs to answer questions like What’s he or she really like? and What must it be like to do that job? The pressure, the stakes, the highs and lows. We read, in other words, for the human story. In too many cases, however, political memoirs are written for more self-serving reasons, as a type of continuation of political campaigns; they’re meant to reshape our memory of events. But, even in the case of those memoirs that just offer more spin, there is value in perusing these often unreadable tomes, in that they reveal, even if unwittingly, some essential character trait of their protagonists.

Recently, for example, we’ve been treated to Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, which Eric Zemmour characterized in the French newspaper Le Figaro thusly: “Hillary Clinton’s volume has the appearances of a book, but in reality it is just a product, perfectly elaborated, put together, formatted, marketed…The style is as flat as a lemon sole, and the attempts at wit have about them the feeling of the sitcom with canned laughter.”

In other words, Hillary’s book, far from shedding new light, underscores the problem with her campaign, showing her to suffer from the authenticity deficit a good portion of the 62 million Americans who voted for her narcissistic and rambling opponent saw in her.

Which brings us to Mayor: The Best Job in Politics, Michael Nutter’s recent book. Nutter is a good guy and he was a good mayor—as he spends many pages reminding us. He trumpets the fact that, in his eight years, there was a 31 percent reduction in homicides; the high school graduation rate climbed from 53 percent to 68 percent; and, he even posits, his rejection of layoffs during the 2008 recession in favor of multi-year tax increases led to, among other modern-day manifestations of Philly’s boom, today’s millennial influx.

Back on election night 2007, a lot of us thought we were getting Richardson Dilworth reincarnated. Instead, we got a mayor who, like his memoir, left us itching for more—more feeling, more righteous outrage, and more remorse that he didn’t turn out to be the agent of change he’d advertised.

But mostly, Nutter’s book—like his tenure—is a story of high expectations gone unfulfilled. Reading Nutter’s retelling of his mayoralty called up for me the same disappointment I felt about his tenure; that, yes, he did some good things, particularly around ethics and sustainability. But he could have been transformative, which—as he unwittingly reminds us in what is far too much of a blow-by-blow narrative—was the promise of his inaugural address:

We can choose to challenge the status quo that has been holding us back for
much too long. We can choose to try new ideas and new approaches. We can choose to make a shared commitment to return this city to one of the greatest cities in the United States of America. The next chapter in this great city has yet to be written because we now have an opportunity to write it ourselves…This is our city and we’re taking the city back—every day, everybody, every neighborhood, everywhere in Philadelphia!

To do as pledged would have meant spending political capital by getting in some rough and tumble fights. Even now, Nutter shies away from going bare knuckles. In his recounting of City Council’s shameful 2015 torpedoing of the city’s $1.8 billion sale of PGW, he hides behind a quote from an Inquirer editorial to gently criticize Council President Darrell Clarke, before writing: “My character and inclination when I was mayor—and still today—is to treat people like adults. I provided information about the PGW sale and trusted them to draw conclusions…Being mayor, you learn that people will do what they will do, and sometimes what they do doesn’t make much sense to you. You learn to accept responsibility for your actions or inaction.”

Wait, what? That’s a whole lotta passivity, right there. What happened to the guy who was going to challenge the status quo? Back on election night 2007, a lot of us thought we were getting Richardson Dilworth reincarnated, the legendary reformist mayor who once said, “Yes, I am an emotional man, but I am a fighter. Where would the cities of this country be if it were not for men like me who fought for them?”

Instead, we got a mayor who, like his memoir, left us itching for more—more feeling, more righteous outrage, and more remorse that he didn’t turn out to be the agent of change he’d advertised. Now, rather than hold up his incrementalism as mayor to introspective inspection, Nutter doubles down in his memoir, stressing that “we didn’t know a recession was coming” and that, once it did, “widespread layoffs were not the best approach.”

But actually, he’d been warned. Before Nutter even took office, David Cohen told Steve Volk of Philadelphia magazine that he’d studied the city budget and told Nutter that the city was actually in far worse fiscal shape than when he, as Ed Rendell’s chief of staff, helped rescue it from near bankruptcy in 1992. Tallying the city’s “uncontrollable costs” and mandated spending items—pensions, health care costs, debt service—Cohen concluded that Nutter would really only control 16 percent of the city’s operating budget.

Everything was aligned for some significant right-sizing of city government from a self-described reformer who got elected owing none of the usual interest groups, like labor and city committee. But instead, he blinked. Nutter’s first budget—before the effects of the recession took hold—increased spending by 3.2 percent. Nutter went on to raise taxes again and again in a city that was already among the nation’s highest taxed, which he now writes “set the stage of the ‘hot’ city that Philly is today.”

Sadly, most politicians don’t have Hickenlooper’s self-confidence, nor his confidence that voters are mature enough to embrace the real. That’s why, as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury may be proving this very week, the best way to get to big political truth with a capital T comes not from memoir, but from narrative biography.

If Hillary’s book revealed authenticity as her achilles heel, Mayor: The Best Job In Politics gives us Nutter’s: He campaigned as a crusading reformer, and governed as a bloodless technocrat. We don’t get analysis from Nutter as to why his results led many of us to feel he came up short, save for this acknowledgement, noticeable for its lack of introspection: “We didn’t achieve all of the things we wanted to in my administration, or single-handedly, but we certainly set the stage and built on the ideas and programs of other people to make them happen. And we passed on the baton of success, and challenges, to my successor.”

Reading Nutter’s tome—with its ho-hum voice, its absence of a flesh and blood protagonist (what must it be like to preside over such an impoverished city? What does that feel like?), and its dearth of voices from the city itself—sent me back to some dog-eared pages on my bookshelf, in search of more uplifting examples of the genre.

There sat the political memoir unanimously praised as the best ever (though Obama, a real writer, might ultimately have something to say about that designation): The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Thanks to Ron Chernow’s biography, Grant is making something of a comeback now, but to really feel him, go straight to the source. Grant wrote furiously while dying, penniless, of throat cancer. Something about such an actual deadline liberated him; he had no time for ego, score settling, or spin.

In spare but gripping prose, it feels like Grant is in the room with you—that’s the triumph of voice—and you revel in his wit, as in this description of General Winfield Scott: “He was not averse to speaking of himself, often in the third person, and he could bestow praise upon the person he was talking about without the least embarrassment.”

Closer to home, there was 2010’s A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost The Guts To Make Us Great, by Ed Rendell. In the same way that Bill Clinton’s My Life illustrated the former president’s lack of discipline—it clocked in at 1,088 pages and not a Friend of Bill went unthanked—Wusses gives us Rendell, an interesting mix of high-mindedness and frat boy mischievousness.

The book’s title comes from a Rendell quip that criticized the NFL for canceling an Eagles game when all of two inches of snow had fallen. Rendell uses that one event as a metaphor and constructs a book length argument: “In so many ways, we are becoming a nation of wusses…What sparked my comment was just a football game, but…can you imagine what would have happened if our leaders of yore felt the same way? There would be no Erie Canal, no intercontinental railroad, no national highway system, no Hoover Dam.”

As in person, Rendell’s book mixes the high-minded and the profane. Here you get tales of a young Rendell drinking so much he throws up running up steps while singing the campaign jingle of then-District Attorney Arlen Specter; you see the secret to his early political success—campaigning in bars late at night, talking sports with shot and beer guys, and, unlike Nutter’s tome, you get cameos from everyday Philadelphians that actually helps make the city a character, as in this anecdote, from a late night visit to a cheesesteak emporium in 1990, while the former DA was wrestling with whether to run for mayor:

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.’

Perhaps the best recent political memoir is The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics, by Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, a Narberth native who is often mentioned as a presidential contender in 2020. Woe tells the story of a laid-off geologist who opened Denver’s first brewpub before, on a lark, running for mayor and serving two transformative terms before becoming governor.

We read political memoirs for the human story. In too many cases, however, political memoirs are written for more self-serving reasons, as a type of continuation of political campaigns; they’re meant to reshape our memory of events.

“People are so turned off from politics now,” Hickenlooper told The Denver Post when the book came out in 2016. “Part of that is that people aren’t transparent, and they aren’t authentic. When they write a book like this, generally they try to push themselves as close to perfect or have a solution to everything.”

And so Hickenlooper (with the help of former Philly Mag writer Max Potter, a gifted writer) gives us a warts and all narrative, open and vulnerable. In the first chapter, we’re privy to the dissolution of Hickenlooper’s marriage; we’re literally in therapy with the first couple of Colorado: “The way she saw it, when my father died, half my heart cauterized; and, she said, while the half that was left was wonderful and lovely, it simply didn’t pump all of the emotion sometimes needed,” he writes.

What follows is a literary opening of veins. We see Hickenlooper as a teenager in Narberth, smoking pot for the first time; we hear about that time at Wesleyan University when he got high and took a nude self-portrait in a bathtub—this is before cell phones, y’all, so it required some work; we get his drinking and driving arrest, and the time he took his mother to see the X-rated movie Deep Throat. Not your typical memoir, in other words. By the time we get to how Hickenlooper’s entrepreneurship has shaped his third way of governing—he is neither classically left nor right—it feels as real as everything else in his quirky biography.

Sadly, most politicians don’t have Hickenlooper’s self-confidence, nor his confidence that voters are mature enough to embrace the real. That’s why, as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury may be proving this very week, the best way to get to big political truth with a capital T comes not from memoir, but from narrative biography.

Rendell’s book is a fun read, but Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer For The City, chronicling Rendell’s first term in the early to mid ‘90s as mayor of Philadelphia, paints a moving, visceral portrait of a flawed, committed, rumpled mayor who just feels too damned much, as when Bissinger is privy to Rendell’s pleas to rescue his city. ”Forget all the good things I’ve done,” Rendell tells a Clinton White House official, practically begging. ”Philadelphia is dying. It’s happened a lot more slowly since I took office, but we’re dying.’’

If you read nothing else, read that one. And, I hate to say it, but get ready for Jimmy Kenney’s memoir circa 2024, which, given that the Mayor has been known to tell friends and acquaintances just how much he hates his job, may be titled something like…Mayor: The Worst Job In Politics.

Photo: Ferrari250GTO via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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