The Cop who would be King: The Honorable Frank Rizzo.
by Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen.
Little, Brown. 344 pp. $10.00.
Frank Rizzo, the son of an Italian immigrant, never finished high school. Like his father, he became a policeman, and seemed destined to live out his life in the upper reaches of the police bureaucracy. In December 1963, he was appointed one of the city’s four deputy police commissioners. In 1967, after Philadelphia had experienced racial disorders of the kind that would soon engulf Detroit, Newark, Watts, and other cities, Rizzo was appointed police commissioner; though labeled a racist by many blacks, he soon became the most important political force in the city. As a candidate of “law and order,” he ran for mayor in 1971, first defeating liberal opponents in the Democratic primary and then going on to win in the general election against Thacher Longstreth, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and formerly head of the Philadelphia Urban League.
In the almost two terms he has been in office, Rizzo has managed to maintain his reputation among the city’s white ethnics as a hero who saved the city from anarchy (although he failed to halt the decline of the ethnic neighborhoods he had pledged to preserve). Always a colorful figure, he was at first something of a hero to the media too, in part because he was such good copy. But his performance has led to a noticeable cooling of that particular romance. In what is perhaps the best-known incident of his mayoralty, he submitted to, and failed, a lie-detector test, proposed to him by the Philadelphia Daily News, in connection with a political deal which he had denied having made.
Although they concede that he is not a racist, and credit him with holding the line on taxes during his first administration, Joseph Daughen and Peter Binzen appraise Rizzo harshly:
His leadership as mayor [has been] nonexistent. . . . Not a single program, not a single goal, not a single display of vision has marked his tenure. He proved to be a do-nothing mayor with a big mouth who spent his time trying to destroy his enemies while building his own power base, all at the taxpayers’ expense.
Not everyone would agree with this judgment. It is doubtful that any mayor, in fact, could have reversed such long-term recent trends—in Philadelphia and in other large cities of the Northeast—as the disappearance of the middle and upper classes to the suburbs and the consequent loss of money and leadership; the flight of jobs to other parts of the country; and the accumulation within the city of the poor and the psychologically maimed. Indeed, since this book was completed, and at a time when Rizzo has been seriously weakened by mistakes and the accumulation of public attacks on him, his administration has had some modest success on the economic front. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, which is no admirer of Rizzo, recently noted that “there is widespread agreement that the administration is doing all it can [to rejuvenate the city’s economy]—and doing it more professionally and imaginatively than at any time in the six years that it has been in power.”
The authors of this book, both of whom are long-time Philadelphia journalists, do succeed in capturing Rizzo the man. They are less successful in dealing with the forces that brought him into being. They operate from a premise which is shared by the city’s elite, namely, that Philadelphia experienced a sort of Camelot phase which started in 1951 with the election of two upper-class patricians, Joseph Clark as mayor and Richardson Dilworth as district attorney. (Dilworth later became mayor and Clark was elected to the U.S. Senate.) During this phase, which coincided with the post-World War II economic boom and the period of intense civil-rights activity, and which lasted roughly to the mid-60’s, Clark and Dilworth initiated a series of wide-ranging reforms: redevelopment projects that lured some middle-class whites back into Center City, a rewriting of the city charter, and an expansion of the civil service. But then—according to this view—the election of H. J. Tate, the city’s first Irish-American mayor, and of Rizzo, its first Italian-American mayor, brought reform to a halt. Blocked in city hall, the reformers moved on to school administration, where Dilworth as chairman and his hand-picked school superintendent, Mark Shedd, set out to revamp the city’s educational system.
Actually, the story of reform in Philadelphia is a good bit more complex than this reading would have it. Despite its unquestioned accomplishments, the reform movement worked better for the upper classes than for the “rowhouse” Poles, Italians, Irish, and lower-middle-class Jews and blacks. Slums were torn down, but their place was taken by multi-story office buildings and the former inhabitants were scattered to other slums in outlying areas. A new interstate highway was constructed, but it tore apart older, working-class white-ethnic neighborhoods. “The [reformers] may have understood the evils of machine politics, but in retrospect,” the current head of ADA writes in the Philadelphia Newsletter, “they had little understanding of the vital role played by neighborhoods in the life of the city.” As for the young men brought into the school system by Dilworth and Shedd, they mostly experimented with a variety of educational fads, some of which even Daughen and Binzen, who are sympathetic to their goals, admit were “clearly ill advised.”
Rizzo’s election was a reaction against elitism in city hall, but it was also a reflection of the changes that have taken place among this country’s white ethnics in recent years. Between 1960 and 1970, as National Opinion Research Council data reveal, the incomes of second- and third-generation Poles, Italians, Irish, and working-class groups in general rose sharply. Their children are now attending colleges in large numbers, and on the whole they have gained a greater degree of self-assurance. Thus, many no longer feel, as they once did, that they must look for leadership to older, more assimilated groups. This has happened not only in Philadelphia but all over the country, where state houses and city halls are now, or recently have been, presided over for the first time by politicians with names like Grasso (Connecticut), Dukakis (Massachusetts), Bilandoc (Chicago), Moscone (San Francisco), Caliguri (Pittsburgh). Alongside black mayors in Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles, white ethnics today govern many of America’s largest communities.
It would appear, then, that white ethnics, who were in recent memory mocked and then deserted by liberal reformers, have decided to stand up for themselves. Frank Rizzo, as the authors of The Cop Who Would Be King make clear, may be too idiosyncratic both in personality and in performance to be regarded as typical of the new breed of white-ethnic politicians, but within the not too distant future it should become possible to draw some conclusions about how this group behaves in office. It will be especially interesting to see whether they will be able to deal with the legitimate needs and grievances of their own white-ethnic constituents, and avoid stoking their prejudices and fears, while going about the seemingly impossible task of attempting to make our cities and states whole again.