January 21, 2003

Pennsylvania has a new governor. Ed Rendell, a Democrat and the former mayor of Philadelphia, was sworn in today on the capitol steps. There followed a parade, and tonight there is a lavish formal dance. It will be held at the Farm Show complex that I visited on Friday, in the new equine exhibition area where I saw cows’ udders being admired. I don’t know how well the ladies’ high heels and long gowns will fare on the dirt floor. Maybe they’ll lay down a wooden floor, as they do for basketball playoff games. I also don’t know why there should be such a hoopla for a governor who has yet to do anything.

I didn’t vote for Rendell, although I am (as of this writing anyway) a registered Democrat. I voted for former attorney general Mike Fisher, the only politician I can think of with less charisma than Joe Lieberman. 

I’m a faithful voter, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a poet, not a politician. My reasons for supporting a candidate can be quixotic, and I tend to pay more attention to issues in local matters than in state and national. So I didn’t vote for Fisher because of what he stood for or what he promised to do for me as a citizen of Pennsylvania, because I don’t know what those things were. I voted for him because I can’t stand Ed Rendell. 

My dislike of Rendell stems from an anecdote told about him in a series of articles published just before the election. It was offered as an example of what a fun good-time regular guy he is.

Rendell is a son of privilege. Although his family was not fabulously wealthy, just very well off by dint of hard work, and although he lost his father when he was barely in his teens, young Ed went to private prep schools and took his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the iviest of the Ivies. A classmate recalled that there was a Spanish class he took with Ed whose professor was an elderly emeritus-type with a severe hearing loss. The old don wore a hearing aid. According to the friend, Ed was fond of bringing to class an electric toothbrush. When he turned it on it interfered with the professor’s amplifying device. The professor would have to stop, fiddle with the controls, be subjected to electronic feedback, lose his place, and then be assaulted by the increased volume of the room’s ambient sounds when Clever Irrepressible Ed finally turned the toothbrush off. Laughs all around. A good time had by all (except the professor).

That story disgusted me. This is not some tough teenager whose anger at his forced school attendance causes him to act out. This is a young man at one of the finest private universities in the country, preparing to be a leader.

I was an undergraduate at a nearby public college in the same years Ed Rendell was having so much fun at Penn. I had two teachers with physical problems. Dr. Huzzard had an artificial larynx, the result of a World War II injury to his throat. He spoke by gulping air into the hole in his neck and using it to power a scratchy robotic voice. The apparatus sprayed a thin mist and, as it neared the end of its air supply, wound down and made the voice sound like a record on the wrong speed. But everything Dr. Huzzard said was worth hearing, and his students learned to sit in the front of the room but not in the seats directly in front of his lectern and to listen carefully. I first knew Dante and Boccacio from that voice, “and every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal, pourin’ off of every page like it was written in my soul.”*

Dr. Spotts, a gentleman farmer who taught literary criticism and philosophy, had Parkinson’s. His head bobbed and his hands shook, violently sometimes. His voice could be wavery too, and if you were of the sort to be overly bothered by that then perhaps you didn’t have the heart either for literature or philosophy. Dr. Spotts was a man of extraordinary wisdom who knew not merely poems about the soil but the soil itself. Perhaps his lesson on ouisia (substance, essence, reality), in which he took us out to the campus lake on a glorious fall day to examine a Japanese maple, was the beginning of my longing to understand the gestures of trees.

It would never have occurred to me or to my classmates (at least the ones I traveled with) to make fun of these two learned men. I still have materials from both of them — the text I used in Dr. Huzzard’s senior poetry seminar and some work by a local poet he studied with, and a paper I wrote about Hebraic occultism that Dr. Spotts responded to with comments so rich they were a short course in themselves. Both men retired not long after I graduated, and I counted myself lucky to have had the opportunity just to be in the same room with them.

I’m not saying that I never did anything in my undergraduate days that was mean-spirited or petty. And if I ran for office I’m sure there would be many people whose names I’ve forgotten who could recount those stories, and worse, for publication. But the Rendell story, told by someone who still works for and with him, appears to be part of the picture he wishes to paint of himself.

I caught a little bit of his inauguration speech. He was talking about his promise to “fix” public education in Pennsylvania. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. They all say that. That public schools are broken and need to be fixed. Usually the fix takes the form of making things harder for good teachers rather than cutting bloated and inefficient (and often incompetent) administrations.

I did take a look at his education plan, available at Rendell for Governor. He’s against unfunded mandates (programs or curricula the state requires but which they don’t help pay for), particularly in the form of charter schools, which are essentially private schools that the local school district must support, and cyber schools (home schooling accomplished through a website which offers lessons and materials). His administration is described by neutral media as likely to be “teacher friendly.” 

Well, okay, maybe we do have a common language after all. But I wouldn’t want to go out with this guy.

(*Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue,” referring to the same poet)

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