Rendell chronicler causes 'Buzz' at U.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
February 27, 1998

Buzz Bissinger

Buzz Bissinger

The Daily Pennsylvanian

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Buzz Bissinger attended a discussion in the Writers House yesterday amidst a panel of former city dignitaries who were dressed to impress. But the 1976 College graduate left his tie at home and his top button open.

Bissinger's informal style was reflected in the easy-going manner in which he spoke with a standing-room-only crowd of about 40 University students and administrators yesterday about his recently published book, A Prayer for the City , which offers an insider's perspective of Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell's tumultuous first term.

The event was moderated by College senior Mike Madden, former managing editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian , and English professor Peter Conn, who taught Bissinger during his days at the University.

Other panelists included Penn Vice President of Finance and former City Treasurer Kathy Engebretson; Penn Budget Director Mike Masch, a former city budget director under Rendell; former Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning Joe Torsella, a 1985 College graduate and the current president of the National Constitution Center; and Mike Nadol, former city labor relations director and current deputy water commissioner.

In writing the book, Bissinger, 43, got unlimited andn unprecedented access to Rendell's office and City Hall for four years. Bissinger said he wanted to write it because he was "struck by the sorrow" of a city whose streets and neighborhoods were plagued by "devastation and destruction."

"These houses were not meant to be this way. They were not meant to disintegrate and rot," Bissinger said, recalling a visit to North Philadelphia.

A former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, Bissinger covered Rendell's failed campaign for mayor in 1987. After Rendell's surprise win in 1991, Bissinger said he was curious about how the new mayor would fare in "managing the unmanageable," since Philadelphia was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Bissinger said the purpose of the book was to assess what can be done to save a "dying place."

In an effort to humanize and animate the book's coverage of municipal government, the author explored four other characters who were affected by city-wide decisions, making the book read almost like a novel.

Bissinger stressed that despite Rendell's efforts at improving Philadelphia's economic outlook, the needs of the city extend beyond any short-term reforms.

Addressing Rendell's specific achievements, Bissinger asked: "You can balance the budget and put down the unions, but how much impact does that have on the people who live there?"

"The needs of the city just seem to be enormous," he added.

After Rendell's 1991 victory in the mayoral election, Bissinger spoke for 10 minutes with then-Chief of Staff David Cohen about arranging exclusive access to the Rendell administration. The self-confident Rendell was surprisingly willing to let the journalist dissect him and his administration.

"I really think [Rendell] thought I would probably never do it," Bissinger said.

The panelists, all of whom worked for the city government during Bissinger's endeavors in City Hall, said they were struck by the difficulty of having to consider themselves as potential characters for the book.

"It's interesting to think of oneself as a potential character," Nadol said, adding that such a thought worked to "frame" the way the politicians presented themselves to Bissinger.