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A Prayer for the City, Book Review Example

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Book Review

In the book A Prayer for the City, Buzz Bissinger tells the story of a true urban hero, Ed Rendell, who happens to be one of my favorite current political figures. I loved the book because I am familiar with Mr. Rendell from appearing on MSNBC, a liberal network that frequently features him as a commentator. During the 2012 election cycle, he was on the air a great deal, and on election night, he provided commentary for that network. I have always admired his bluntness, and his willingness to speak the truth even when it conflicts with mainstream Democratic punditry. I knew that he had been the governor of the state of Pennsylvania, but I really had no idea that he had also served as mayor of Philadelphia. Given the horrific financial situation, as well as the social and racial problems of that city at the time that he was mayor, my admiration for him has only grown. He showed himself to be as tough a leader then as he is now, although his term in office was certainly filled with failures and disappointments along with some progress. The book shows him to be extremely human and made it easy to understand his emotional upset and downs, since at some point during other, almost everybody experiences the crushing disappointment of having set goals that are not possible to achieve.

Some of the main themes of the book include hope and failure, racial tension, idealism and disillusionment, racial discrimination, and the many well intended but ultimately unsuccessful government policies designed to address crime and poverty. One of the most compelling parts of the book was following four Philadelphians who had started out as true idealists who were intent on helping the city survive and get back on its feet, but who were met with obstacles and challenges at every turn so that ultimately, they gave up.

There were many lessons to be learned in this book regarding managing a big city. What was very clear was that in order to resolve the fiscal mess that Rendell had found when he took office, he had to take drastic measures to try to come to some resolution on budgetary issues. Philadelphia’s financial ratings had dipped to the status of junk bonds. His response was to develop a five-year plan that included severe measures that were designed to eventually restore Philadelphia to a healthier, vibrant city again. The fact that he was willing to allow Bissinger such a close-up look at how he ran the city during those times reinforces the impression of Rendell being a take-no-prisoners kind of politician who welcomed scrutiny and whatever conclusion resulted. One of the assets that Rendell had which could have ultimately led to his failure was his honesty: when he took over the reins of the city, he talked about the likelihood that the city would ultimately have a billion-dollar shortfall. By being so public about this possibility, he was able to gain leverage that allowed him to negotiate with the most formidable unions in the city. The book makes clear that running a major city involves compromising, browbeating, making deals with the proverbial devils, in short, doing exactly what Rendell had to do to save his city. There were some successes in Rendell’s methods, but at least as many failures, so that one of the lessons learned about leading a big city like Philadelphia is that the job comes with its share of heartbreak along with an occasional smattering of elation.

Ultimately, as Bissinger chronicled, Rendell was able to bring Philadelphia back to become a more fiscally stable city. Once he was able to balance the budget, he tackled an issue that was probably even more challenging as well as pressing: addressing racial inequality in Philadelphia. At the time, whites and minorities each represented equal parts of the population, so that politicians who represented Philadelphia had frequently used the issue of race around every issue to enlist the support of his or her base. Rendell was one politician who did not engage in these tactics, but rather, he tried to assume the role of mediator between all groups, but ended up being demonized by the white, black, and Latino population. Despite his efforts to the contrary, these groups accused him of being indifferent to their communities’ wishes and requirements. Despite this racial strife, after the election of 1995, Mayor Rendell was reelected due to members of all three groups: whites, African-Americans, and Latinos.

The part of this saga that I found most surprising was how Ed Rendell had to turn into such a deal maker, at times forsaking his wishes and his own values, in order to advance the agenda for the city. All of that makes him a great politician; I just was unaware that this man that I perceive as a great liberal Democrat had to engage in so much wheeling and dealing in order to bring Philadelphia back to life. I think that he was a great Mayor, because he did whatever he needed to do, despite his original intentions, to build Philadelphia back up to become a credible large city. Again, since I have only been familiar with Ed Rendell as a governor and a political commentator, I was really interested in the ways he had to negotiate his way through crises, political opponents, and the urban decay that was confronting Philadelphia and other large cities at the time.

When Cohen left his position as Chief of Staff for Rendell, it was certainly a blow to the office of the Mayor. Nevertheless, Rendell did not try to talk him out of leaving, because after all, he had dedicated “more than seven years of his life to Rendell on a 24-hours-per-day basis” (Bissinger.) In any case, under Ed Rendell’s watch, with or without his former Chief of Staff, Philadelphia remained in excellent hands because it was the qualities of Ed Rendell himself that made for such a successful formula to rehabilitate the city. His brash, confrontive, tough but charismatic manner is what has helped him to be elected and reelected as mayor and governor of the state of Pennsylvania, so that the loss of any one person, no matter how important they were to him in his role as leader of the city/state, he would prevail.

I would recommend this book to people who are familiar with the current Ed Rendell, those who are viewers of MSNBC and have access to him on a regular basis on television; I also think this book would be useful for anyone who is considering a career in politics because it is so instructive about the bargaining and negotiating that one must do despite one’s conscience but in order to preserve or establish the credibility of any big city. He is a likable and extremely loyal party man (Democratic, that is) but has also been known to speak up in disagreement when someone in his party does or says something with which he does not agree. For example, he was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton during the election of 2008, and when she was being constantly lambasted by the Obama loyalists, Ed Rendell could be counted on to stand up for Ms. Clinton.

Finally, it is easy to describe the city in terms of the officials, the unions, law enforcement, budgetary constraints, and other tangible issues but I found some of the most memorable portions of this book were those that described individual Philadelphians and their struggles to survive in a failing city. For example, one of the women described, Ms. Morrison, was a woman who loved living in the city and struggled hard to help reforms to be passed, but ends up being mugged when she headed towards a meeting that was to cover ways to improve Philadelphia’s image and reputation. Another person, Mr. Mangan, loses his life’s career as a welder when the government shuts down his yard. A district attorney, Mike McGovern, hangs his career on a proud record of prosecuting some of the city‘s worst criminal elements, but ultimately becomes extremely defeated by the constant examples of random violence that come his way. The book is always effective, but never more so than when it takes a look at the individuals who have been the casualties of Philadelphia’s failures.

Work Cited:

Bissinger, Buzz. A Prayer for the City. New York: Vintage Books, 1997. Book.

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