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Lynn Swann Goes Deep
BY MICHAEL BAMBERGER
February 27, 2006
In his first try at politics, the Hall of Fame Steelers wideout won the Republican endorsement for governor of Pennsylvania. Now he has to catch up on the issues in his race against a rabid Eagles backer
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February 27, 2006

Lynn Swann Goes Deep

In his first try at politics, the Hall of Fame Steelers wideout won the Republican endorsement for governor of Pennsylvania. Now he has to catch up on the issues in his race against a rabid Eagles backer

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Rendell is a politician in the Bill Clinton mold, an all-world talker who has mastered the details of issues that Swann, with the help of paid policy advisers, is just now learning about. During an appearance on the ABC News show This Week with George Stephanopoulos on Feb. 12, it became clear that Swann didn't realize that abortion would not automatically become illegal if Roe v. Wade were struck down. Four days later the candidate suffered another embarrassment when it was reported that over the last 18 years he hadn't voted in 20 of 36 state elections, including 13 of 18 primaries. He cut short a campaign stop in Montgomery County last Thursday after reporters repeatedly asked him about his voting record.

Regardless, Swann almost invariably comes across as a nice man, and Pennsylvania-- Philadelphia excepted--is more Midwestern in spirit than Eastern. Nice plays there. Plus, Swann on the campaign trail has a killer line: " Ed Rendell is a governor who wants to be a football broadcaster. I'm a former football broadcaster who wants to be governor. In November, give both of us the jobs we want!"

"It's a cute line," says Rendell, who was a reserve on the football, basketball and baseball teams at the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. When he's watching the Phillies or the Eagles or Penn basketball, he's often sweaty and hoarse from cheering and looks as if he's still waiting to get called in. "But it's not true. I don't want to work in sports full time. I'm a fan. Even if I were the commissioner of baseball, six months into it I'd be saying, 'What am I doing here?' My passion is to help people."

Rendell admires elite athletes the way true fans do. The shame, he says, is that so many pros "view the fan as a nuisance." Whom would you rather vote for, the hoagie-scarfing fan who knows the agony of defeat or the Hall of Famer who made winning look so easy?

But Swann has always been good with fans and is especially so now, when he knows he might win a vote every time he signs an autograph. At a hunting and fishing show recently he slipped out of his suit, put on spotless jeans and a gray turtleneck, and clipped his cellphone to his shiny black belt. In that setting, where camouflage outfits were the norm, he was in a definite minority-- Swann is not a member of the National Rifle Association--but by his fourth try at the tomahawk throw he was getting it pretty close to the bull's-eye. Rendell has thought out loud about challenging Swann to Pop-a-Shot, the rapid-fire carnival basketball game, but he might want to rethink that.

Swann has been in the newspapers since he was a two-sport high school standout at 16, and a photographer on the campaign trail says, "He knows how to hold the lens." He's got down the perma-smile, and he has a knack for saying nothing with a great torrent of words. Asked by a reporter what he had accomplished as chairman of President Bush's council on fitness from 2002 to 2005, Swann said, "I tried to be as proactive as possible. There was the opportunity to get the President's council to be more than it was in the past, with the problems of obesity being what they are. My idea is to always make things better than they were when you found them. But it was hard to be more proactive when you don't have a huge budget, you don't have a lot of money to go out and actually do things, when you have to rely on other companies and corporations for your funding and to try to get your message out." Et cetera. Eventually he mentioned having revamped the council's website with "more of the X Games sports, if you will." Rendell has mastered the art of cutting to the chase. When asked to describe his bowling game, he says, "I suck."

But Swann also has a knack for sensing the mood of an audience. On Jan. 7, at a Holiday Inn meeting room in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Republicans held a gubernatorial equivalent of the Iowa presidential caucuses. This was weeks before Scranton's man made his rich-white-guy comment and weeks before the Super Bowl. The three main candidates were Swann, Scranton and State Senator Jeff Piccola, and each was to make his case to the 120 members of the Central Counties Caucus. Piccola, the only candidate who was from one of the central counties, was expected to win the straw vote that day. He spoke first and unexpectedly announced that he was dropping out of the race because he saw the momentum going toward Swann.

There was a moment of confusion among the delegates, the way there often is when life suddenly goes off-script. Swann was up next and handled Piccola's news with grace. He praised the state senator and said his decision to stand down "could not have been easy for him. I honor him as a man." There was something moving in the simplicity of Swann's response. He then spoke and took questions for the better part of an hour. When he was done, his wife and four staffers stood up to leave, but the caucus members misinterpreted the move as the start of a standing ovation, and they all stood up and applauded.

Several hours later, after a long tour of the Pennsylvania Farm Show, Lynn and Charena were in the backseat of a rental car when a call came in with the results of the Central Counties straw vote: 77 for Swann, 32 for Scranton. Swann repeated the numbers out loud, trying to play it cool. But you didn't have to be a political junkie to understand the vote's implication: Swann was going to get the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Charena grabbed the lapels of her husband's topcoat with two hands, said, "Oh, baby," and kissed him hard.

"Thanks, baby," Swann said, staring straight ahead.

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