On the morning after Election Day, the front-page headline of the Philadelphia Daily News said it all, not just about the events of the day, but about the possible future of Philadelphia:
Goode Squeaks In
Rizzo Won’t Quit
Incumbent Mayor W. Wilson Goode won, by unofficial count, by about 14,000 votes (2 percent of the total) in a bitterly divided city. There was a palpable belief among many of the 318,500 people who voted for Rizzo that fraud may have accounted for many more than 14,000 votes. Two days after the election, a radio talkshow host was promising to check whether the owner of a residential property—even an abandoned one—may give permission to anyone to use his property as a voting address. And on election night Rizzo himself made a vague reference to reports of voters arriving at polls on buses.
These kinds of reports are nothing new in Philadelphia, where dead people have been known to vote in large numbers and even be elected to office. But whether or not Rizzo keeps his promise to finally retire from the scene, the resentment over Goode’s victory—justified or not—may remain for a long time to come.
On the Wednesday before Election Day, Kate and I decided to take the night off at the Pen & Pencil Club, the oldest journalists’ drinking club in the Republic. Chartered in 1892, the club is, among other things, a year older than the earthly remains of Mao Tsetung, a cultural hero to one-time students who are nowadays running the show in the major media.
The Pen & Pencil sponsors Wednesday evening off-the-record sessions with a variety of newsmakers (in both senses of that word). The evening before the election promised to be somewhat crowded because the guest was Frank Rizzo—one half of the political show which moved a local pundit to refer to this election as “the evil of two lessers.”
Democratic Mayor W. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first black mayor, had often been criticized during his first term for gross managerial incompetence, though he’s a Wharton graduate. The May 1985 MOVE incident—the famous police air strike against a row house (11 people killed, an entire neighborhood burned down)—was at the top of a long list of fiascoes which hinted that the city would be better managed by diviners, or the astrologers of the National Enquirer.
On the other hand, Frank L. Rizzo, a living legend of Philadelphia politics, is the embodiment of white workingclass frustration. A semi-articulate response to the semi-articulate fascism of the modern liberal, Rizzo was reputed to have caused a great deal of “racial polarization” as a Democratic mayor in the 70’s. But the actual polarization was between the liberal establishment and the former police commissioner who roused conservative instincts among normally apolitical citizens.
In his first comeback attempt, Rizzo ran against Goode in the ’83 Democratic primary and was soundly beaten. In last year’s rematch, running as a Republican, he came quite close to beating the increasingly unpopular incumbent.
The most amusing aspect of this race was the squirming of the town’s largely liberal media. Reading between the lines of the editorials following the primaries in May 1987, you could detect dissatisfaction not so much with the candidates as with the electorate stupid enough to offer up Goode and Rizzo for mayor.
The inconveniences of democracy had left the town’s progressive forces without a reliable standard bearer. In August 1987, the Philadelphia Daily News ran an editorial against endorsing either candidate. Goode, tainted by the MOVE debacle, was seen as too incompetent to accomplish the “progressive” agenda, while Rizzo was dismissed as a political Neanderthal.
One local liberal commentator even offered a scenario in which Goode would be indicted by a federal grand jury (a local grand jury indictment could be brushed off as “political”) on a MOVE-related charge, allowing the city council to name a replacement who would then run against Rizzo. In the end, however, most of the titans of the opinion industry accepted a failed and tainted black liberal rather than Rizzo, the antiprogressive who had once said he would make Attila the Hun “look like a faggot.”
A night at the Pen & Pencil is wonderful for anyone interested in the social psychology of big-city journalists. Kate is here because she suspects (hopes) that her least-favorite newspaper columnist in the history of columning may show up. Kate is a native of South Philadelphia, where liberal black establishment figures like the columnist are not highly respected. Some years ago, she wrote the man a rather nasty missive after her father had been mugged by several blacks.
She also mailed the columnist the pair of pants the muggers virtually tore from her father to get to his just-cashed paycheck. The columnist, I suppose, figured he was dealing with a nut case, not an extremely angry woman (with a South Philadelphia sense of humor) and did not answer. But all Kate wanted to know was how theories like “Poverty and injustice are the causes of crime” could resolve the issue of her father’s stolen money.
The columnist never materialized that night, and it was just as well. There was a feeling in white South Philly that black Philadelphia was thumbing its nose at the rest of the city, going one better on Chicago’s Harold Washington, who had said, “Maybe we did do a bad job these four years, but it’s still our turn.”
The Sunday before Rizzo’s Pen & Pencil appearance Kate and I had attended South Philadelphia’s Italian Festival on Ninth Street, where we bought cheese, listened to live music, and watched a juggler.
At one point, Mayor Goode was making his way along Ninth Street, working the crowd, when he ran into a performing Mummers brigade heading the other way. The Mummers did not move. Wilson Goode and his entourage had to push through the crowd and walk around them. To the people there, Goode was not their mayor, that day or since.
In South Philadelphia, there was a wait-and-see attitude through much of the campaign. If Frank got back in, the reasoning went, the trash would get picked up, favors would get done, and “heads would get busted” to control street crime. If not, well, South Philadelphia would survive, on its own terms, as it always has.
The only time people in South Philly became excited about city hall was when Mayor Goode proposed building a trash-to-steam plant in their part of town.
Yet something had changed this election. It was hard not to notice that this election was too gut-wrenching for South Philadelphia—and other white ethnic enclaves—to simply shrug off and get on with business as usual. It was fascinating and, in a way, frightening to think that even if Rizzo lost, Goode’s victory was, perhaps, to prove a quirk—a sideshow to a powerful and highly reactionary political force beginning to stir, claim consciousness, and look around for a leader.
In Philadelphia, you can walk through the nation’s early history in Independence National Park while, directly underground, underpaid (i.e., overtaxed) subway commuters sit in sullen silence, many of them secretly hoping for a Bernhard Goetz. Philadelphia during the Goode administration boasts of roving “wolf packs” of black youths who have trashed and looted on a grand scale.
The deep fear in the media during the campaign was that Frank Rizzo would dare talk openly about racial animosity, as if racial animosity went away if everyone remained silent. At the same time, the hatchet men were yearning for him to talk about such things and commit a “gaffe,” so he could be politically obliterated once and for all.
The campaign had thus fearfully offered to force attention on The Subject We Can’t Talk About—i.e., how the civil rights movement has degenerated into a system for rewarding or penalizing entire classes of people according to the color of their skin, or some other official designation of their status as either victims or oppressors.
While the media dogged Rizzo on the race issue, they did not savage him as much as in the past, when conventional liberal wisdom was not challenged by “serious” people but only by “clowns” like Rizzo. It’s one thing for a Frank Rizzo to say that the emperor has no clothes, but if “serious” people join in, the illusion comes under a real threat.
So while the media hinted that Rizzo embodied the hopes of white racists—”South Philly types”—they feared that what they were calling “racism” might really be a backlash against racial preference systems, and that only preference systems can lead to a Goode administration or a Geraldine Ferraro nomination.
Based on qualifications (and on a large loss of electoral support), a case could be made that Wilson Goode should never have become mayor in the first place, except that blacks as a class had been allotted their quota of big city mayors, and Philadelphia’s turn had come up “at long last.”
If that’s the case, the reemergence of Frank Rizzo and his appeal to white frustrations was a development best laid at the feet of the modern liberal mentality, responsible for the gross perversion of civil rights.
Or as a “South Philly” type might put it: “Bad enough that we get a black mayor just because he’s black, worse still that he runs the city into the ground for four years and kills 11 people to boot. But now, with a loss of support among even black people, and serious questions about whether he won the election fairly, he is still the mayor.”
At the Pen & Pencil Club, Rizzo arrived with a TV news crew trailing behind. Though off-the-record for content, the event itself was considered newsworthy. The turnout was huge by Wednesday night standards.
In the question-and-answer session. Rizzo said virtually nothing he hasn’t said in public on the campaign trail. An old Temple News colleague of mine did some of the best questioning of the night, with repeated attempts to force Rizzo to acknowledge that most black voters neither trust nor like him. “How will you prove you’re not the racist everyone says you are?” could have been a translation of his queries.
The TV newscaster found it necessary to remind Rizzo several times that the session is off the record. Translation: “Frank, if you say something stupid or utter a racial slur, we can’t tell anybody anyway, so come on, be yourself” But Rizzo wouldn’t take the bait.
Later, my questioner acquaintance told me that he was accused (by a black female) of being a racist because he went too easy on Rizzo. Hurt and perplexed, for he does not have a racist bone in his body, he couldn’t get over it. Two days later, a black female newspaper columnist reported on Rizzo’s “tone” at the session and concluded he still exhibited an “absence of moderation.” She never mentioned the immoderate tone of the questioning.
It’s ironic that the media, which helped create the Rizzo image, failed to comprehend the appeal it had among many voters. When Goode and Rizzo went at each other in the Democratic primary four years ago, it was Goode the symbol of racial progress versus Rizzo the reactionary racist. Rizzo was sent off to be the party’s elder statesman, while Goode went to city hall to preside over an administration of dunces. In the last election, however, Goode was a flawed symbol of nothing except perhaps anti-Rizzoism or second-chancism, while Rizzo remained the symbol of racism.
Still, Rizzo came across as a much mellower version of his former self, and the media never detected that he was a symbol of something other than racism. Rizzo was a focal point of rage of those who’ve been hectored for decades that race shouldn’t count, only to find out that it does—against you—if you are white. Rizzo could never articulate this very well, and the media would never discuss it. But the frustration was real, and since Goode couldn’t live up to his fairy-tale media image, this instance of reverse discrimination only deepened it.
Despite any number of opportunities, Rizzo committed no suicidal blunders to speak of—a major news story in itself Wilson Goode plodded easily along, and some took to calling him the “Teflon Mayor” because the MOVE disaster counted little against him.
The campaign was almost entirely devoted to endless dissections of the candidates’ respective records in office, so that it was easy to forget that another mayor—Bill Green—held office between Rizzo and Goode. Talk of the future was largely limited to whether a trash-to-steam plant should be built in South Philadelphia (Goode said yes, Rizzo said no).
Shortly after the election, Mayor Goode began a “housecleaning” in which a number of high officials were replaced, and the outlines of the new liberal consensus began to form. We will be increasingly hearing how the mayor has learned from past mistakes and is at last growing into the office, and how the time has come to forget past differences and unite for the common good.
In much of South Philadelphia, though, this blather will be dismissed, and city government will remain an object of bemused scorn. They would have preferred Rizzo in office, but, in the end, it makes no great difference. Here, the difference between politics and governance is well understood, and the latter is self-administered as much as possible. The inherent distrust of government in South Philly may be the counterpart to the intellectual mood of the men who met in this city 200 years ago to insulate governance from rogue politics—an experiment that, in Philadelphia at least, seems to have failed.