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Understanding Bob Brady

Catching up with the Congressman while he totes around a vial of the Pope’s “holy water.” Take that, Colbert

Understanding Bob Brady

Catching up with the Congressman while he totes around a vial of the Pope’s “holy water.” Take that, Colbert

Though some media elites have been lobbing grenades his way—what up, Stephen Colbert —early one morning after the news broke that he’d “stolen” the Pope’s water glass, Congressman Bob Brady was at a Wawa in Ardmore and there wasn’t a whole lot of criticism coming his way.

“Yo Bob,” shouted a smiling construction worker, while women in dresses and men in three piece suits smiled, “you got any of that Pope water with you?”

There was laughter all around. “Nah, nah,” replied the Congressman, wearing an old-school track suit, stopping to shake hands. “Not with me, but what the hell? Like I’m not gonna take that cup?”

Next to him was Serena, his granddaughter, a freshman at a nearby college. He was taking her to school. “All my friends think it’s the coolest thing he took that glass,” she said, and the others in line seemed to agree.

This is how Bob Brady sees the world: It’s us against them. And if you don’t get Bob Brady, you don’t get Philly. “I could care less about Stephen Colbert—fuck Stephen Colbert,” he says.

I just happened upon this scene, and it enabled me to ask something I’d been wondering about: When the Pope, addressing the joint session of Congress, mentioned that he’d be heading to Philadelphia, a loud cheer and applause could be heard coming from someone in the chamber. Was that…?

A hint of a smile played on Brady’s lips. “What do you think?” he said. “Yeah, that was me. You’re from Philly and someone says your name, that’s what you do. You cheer. It’s automatic. Someone else chimed in, too.”

Someone from the delegation? “Yeah, I don’t know who,” he said. (My bet is on freshman Brendan Boyle. He’s new).

Did anyone shoot you dirty looks? “Everybody looked,” Brady said. “But what do I care? They’re not from Philly.”

They’re not from Philly. That’s our boss in a nutshell. Few have been as critical as me of our antiquated machine politics, which Brady acknowledges: “I’ve seen your stuff,” he said, smiling. “Kicking the shit out of me.”

But here’s the thing: I don’t always agree with his backroom tactics, but I also have to concede that, every time he rescues a parade or the Dad Vail Regatta or a bike race from certain bankruptcy, just like every time his presence—and apparently only his presence—can get warring sides of labor/management disputes to find common ground, the guy is living his local patriotism. They’re not from Philly is how Bob Brady sees the world: It’s us against them. And if you don’t get Bob Brady, you don’t get Philly. “I could care less about Stephen Colbert—fuck Stephen Colbert,” he told me when I called him this week, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the meaning of Bob Brady.

When I got the congressman on the phone, he was in the car, on his daily ride to Washington, D.C. (That’s right; he’s so Philly, he doesn’t even sleep over in DC…he’s the one of 535 members not gripped by Potomac Fever). I told him that, when he grabbed the Pope’s water glass, the only difference between him and me in that situation is that I wouldn’t have his balls. C’mon, self-righteous scribes —you wouldn’t grab the glass if you could?

“I saw him drink from that glass three times,” Brady recalled. “And I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m getting that glass.’ I didn’t steal it. I asked the Sergeant at Arms if I could have it. It was just going back into a dishwasher. I got a vial of the water with me right now. There’s a guy in DC whose kid is sick and if I can make him feel a little bit better by letting him bless his kid with this water, why not?”

Bob Brady holds a glass that Pope Francis used during his speech to Congress. Photo: Stan White/U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's office via AP
Bob Brady holds a glass that Pope Francis used during his speech to Congress. Photo: Stan White/U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s office via AP

Since he got the glass, Brady says, that’s what he’s been doing: Letting others dip their fingers into what’s left of the Pope’s water and bless themselves. His grandkids, a cancer patient, a Channel 6 cameraman. “If I can make them a little happier, if I can help them feel a little closer to the Holy Father, why the hell not?” he asks. The Pope didn’t seem to mind. When Brady told him on the tarmac at the Philly airport that he’d taken his drinking glass, the Pope smiled widely and said, “Buono, buono,” squeezing Brady’s arm.

It’s telling, isn’t it, that Brady pilfering the glass went viral as a storyline, a kind of commentary on these media times, where non-stories get better placement than important ones, complete with false notes of outrage, and where clicks determine what we’re told and when? Maybe I’m guilty of the same thing right here, by revisiting the topic. But I do think there’s something important in the Brady/Pope story, because it serves as a window into understanding the man. We’ve made him out to be some shadowy figure in the smoke-filled room, and there is some truth to that—but not entirely. This is also who Bob Brady is: A behemoth with the square jaw of a street tough who is actually…all heart. Who takes his granddaughter to school. Who makes house calls—that’s actually what he calls them—so sick kids can dip their fingers into papal backwash.

I’ve written before that Brady’s view of the world strikes me as antiquated; his machine is essentially transactional. Things get done because favors are doled out, chits cashed in. In Bob Brady’s world, relationships trump all. No one will tell you that his word isn’t bankable. To political reformers, an ideology based on relationships can seem like it’s really just insular deal-making: One hand washes the other. It is government run for and by the connected, and the voting public knows the score: They don’t vote because they see it as a rigged game.

But to Brady, there are principles involved. Cities are about competing interest groups fighting over ever-dwindling slices of the pie. And he’s there to make sure that, if you’re on his team, you get your share. And if you’re not on his team, he recruits you by treating you like you are, no matter your party affiliation. In Washington, when he became Chairman of House Administration, he was responsible for overseeing members’ accounts. Democrats and Republicans alike would go to him with their travel or meal reimbursement requests, and he’d approve them all (sometimes ignoring the wishes of his leadership, which at times might have wanted to use reimbursement as a way to punish or persuade Republican members to their point of view). Why? Saying yes could only grow his power and influence by adding to his team. The irony is self-evident: The last big city Democratic party boss doesn’t have a politically partisan bone in his body.

So how is it that this carpenter turned politico has been able to hold together the nation’s last political machine? The answer is really twofold. First, though he wouldn’t win any debates at Oxford, you underestimate Brady at your peril. He has a street guy’s sense of how to play people. Second, Brady is as good on the issue of race as any politician I’ve seen—and that includes our first black president, Bill Clinton.

Throughout the nation over the last 30 years, old-style political machines were toppled by the rise of identity politics. In New York and Chicago, groups, particularly African-American, had had enough of being patted on the head by white male Democratic power brokers. Trust us, they were told, we have your best interests at heart—and don’t forget to pull that D lever. Here, though, Brady is the last to be be able to hold together a diverse coalition—through the power of his relationships and through the subjugation of his own ego. Keep in mind that while John Street was proclaiming that “the brothers and sisters are in charge” it was Brady who was still controlling the party’s thousands of foot soldiers and its tentacles into thousands of jobs.

When his mother passed away a few months ago, I went to the viewing to pay my respects. And I found myself in the most diverse setting in Philadelphia, as is often the case where Brady is concerned. Brady flits between his Catholic Delaware County pals—the whitest white guys around—and African-Americans with a rare ease.

“That’s because of sports,” he told me during his long car ride. “When I played football as a kid, if you caught a pass, I’d hug you no matter what color you were. You were my brother. If we’re on the same team, we’re brothers.”

Brady is the last big-city political boss in America thanks to the power of his relationships and the subjugation of his own ego. While John Street was proclaiming that “the brothers and sisters are in charge,” it was Brady who was still controlling the party’s thousands of foot soldiers and jobs.

So now the team is just a bit bigger? Team Philly?

Brady laughed. And then he went back in time, 40 years. Married to his first wife, they moved in with his mother-in-law. “We lived at 7409 Woodbine in Overbrook,” he said. “They sold 7419 Woodbine to an African-American family. And a bunch of neighbors got together to stop the sale because they didn’t want to live next to black people. It would have been the first black family in Overbrook. I went to that meeting and told them they were wrong. I said, ‘What you’re doing is illegal and if you go to that realtor and intimidate him, I’m squealing on you.’”

This wasn’t Bob Brady, party boss. It was young Bob Brady, a newlywed and aspiring carpenter. “Their name was the Cleary family,” he remembered, still thinking about a long-ago incident that was one of those moments where how you act in it will determine the kind of man you’ll become. “My daughter  and their daughter would go swimming together.”

There’s stuff to make fun of in Brady, as the pundits have since the Pope’s visit. And there’s plenty to criticize, as I have over the years. But there’s also much to learn, if only we’d look for it.

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