LOS ANGELES - The black Cadillac is pinballing down the Santa Monica freeway, shifting lanes, passing cars on the right, passing on the left, rushing toward one more in a cascade of appointments.
"How much longer,'' demands the big guy in the back seat cloaked in smoked glass. After 31/2 hours' sleep, Ed Rendell's trying to make up for lost time on another frenetic day as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"Seven, eight minutes,'' reports Mark Holmes, the unflappable chauffeur, navigator and practiced mimic of the passenger he will pilot all over the Los Angles basin, to party pep rallies, television interviews, receptions for the party's deep pockets, and, most prominently, to an appearance at the podium of the Democratic National Convention to start a general-election campaign for his friend, Vice President Gore.
Over one more long day his moods will range as widely as his itinerary. Mr. Rendell talked about his love for the President and his melancholy over the lost opportunities of President Clinton's scandal-hobbled administration. He struck idealistic notes praising the work of he rank-and-file delegates filling the Staples Center floor. He offered head-shaking cynicism as he dismissed slights and leaks from backbiting party colleagues.
"I love politics, and I love conventions, and I truly believe they're for the delegates. They are our citizen soldiers,'' Mr. Rendell said. "For the President's speech, I went and stood in the delegation because I wanted to be with ordinary people. . . . I just wanted to feel their affection for the President, and it was just awesome.''
Mr. Rendell is effusive in describing his affection for the man who asked him to embark on a life out of a suitcase, drumming up Democratic money in cities from coast to coast. Pressing his case, he reels off a list of Mr. Clinton's private kindnesses. He describes his awe at the President's ability.
"It was so masterful,'' he said of Mr. Clinton's convention speech. "He's better than Kennedy, really. I think he's better than Reagan.''
But this anthem of praise ends on a minor key.
"Watching him [Mr. Clinton], all of the love I felt for him was touched with sadness for what might have been, for how he'll be remembered . . . that this great and talented man, with a wonderful heart, lost a year and a half of his presidency. I said last night in the [convention skybox], this guy is the epitome of Greek tragedy.''
Mr. Rendell started his day at 6:50 a.m., heading to the Staples Center to practice the speech that he would give. Before the day was over, he'd speak to delegates, raise more money, spar with Oliver North, and spread the Gore party line to CNN, MSNBC, and dozens of print reporters.
Two hours later, Mr. Rendell gives the New Jersey delegation a preview of his speech. They get to hear the unexpurgated version. Like all the convention speakers, Mr. Rendell has submitted his text to Mr. Gore's convention managers. They made a few changes.
"The Gore people thought for the last nine months that I wasn't tough enough sometimes, especially on TV,'' he says. "On the contrary, I believe I get rave reviews from ordinary people . . . because I smile and tell a joke, and I don't try to convince people that we're running against a party full of Simon Legrees and General Noriegas. . . . I try to have fun.''
"So this time I write a speech about 'compassionate is as compassionate does,' '' he said.
This is one of Mr. Rendell's pet peeves. He insists reporters give Gov. George W. Bush a free ride, failing to scrutinize his characterization of compassionate conservatism.
"[Gore aides] cut it, not all of it, but they thought it was too aggressive, and this is a convention where we want to be pretty much upbeat. But they let me keep some of it,'' he says with a shrug.
The New Jersey delegates hear some of the rest.
But the editing does not get Mr. Rendell down. As he cruises from stop to stop over the freeways, he rehearses the 'edited version,' amusing himself by supplying his own cheers at the calculated applause lines.
While Mr. Rendell professes to enjoy this job - "I'm a committed partisan; I think it's God's work,'' he says, - he has other grievances at unidentified fellow soldiers in the Democratic crusade.
Heading back toward the convention site, he takes a call from an aide alerting him to an article quoting an anonymous Gore associate critical of the fact that Mr. Rendell, before the selection of Sen. Joe Lieberman, publicly observed that the effect of a Jewish candidate on a national ticket was tough to calculate.
"Oh David, it's a tough business,'' Mr. Rendell says with a laugh. "You never have to worry about your friends in this business.''
After the call he explains, "An unnamed Gore aide said they were [angry] over what I said about Lieberman. . . . I made a mistake, although everything I said was true,'' Mr. Rendell says with a shrug.
The call reminds him of earlier anonymous backbiting.
"Somebody told the Wall Street Journal that although I was popular with the donors, I was spending too much time on my supposed governor's race in Pennsylvania''.
Mr. Rendell is widely expected to run for governor in 2002 and does nothing to discourage the speculation. But the months-old story still rankles.
"That came from our side,'' he said of the criticism. "In fact, in the first six weeks on the job, other than to come home one day a week to get my clothes, I hardly spent one day in Pennsylvania. And, in fact, I had been all over the country knocking myself dead.
"I've given the [national] party $127,000 already - $20,000 personally, and the rest out of my campaign account. If I was interested in running for governor, wouldn't I be interested in keeping that money for myself? . . . This is a tough business, and the Washington brand is a tough business. In Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, we play politics hard, but in Washington, they shoot the wounded.''
Mr. Rendell made a reputation as an accomplished fund-raiser in Philadelphia, where he was mayor, and he has practiced the craft on a national scale over the last year. But he insists that what he would really like to see is some effective way to curb the power of money in politics.
He says he would like to curb soft money and restrict independent expenditures by issue-advocacy groups. As a counterweight to campaign commercials, he says he would like to encourage the TV networks to stage a series of 90-minute, single topic debates among the presidential candidates.
"With 90 minutes on one subject, you'd have no place to hide,'' he says.
But for the imperfections and frustrations of his calling, Mr. Rendell says: "I still believe in the process, as crummy as it is. . . . I believe in what the President said about giving opportunity to the people who wait on tables or work in the Staples Center. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but that's why I do this.''
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