The Madness of That Ed Lee Biography

Much has been written about the provenance of a curious paperback that turned up around the city last week, the glossy little hagiography that for 120 pages — plus endnotes! — testifies to the great spirit and accomplishments of the mayor too humble to admit he ever wanted to be mayor.

But little has been written about The Ed Lee Story as a read: How does it stand as a work of prose?

Not too well. It opens with this curious verse, which gets a full page: “A city and its citizens/ depend on one another/ like a language and its speakers.” Another two lines attempt to make sense of this comparison, but we stopped at the word “speakers,” which is weirdly limiting. If San Francisco is like a language, we would prefer citizens — and a mayor — who can read it.

Ed Lee can read, presumably, and so can his uncredited biographer, Enrique Pearce, who apparently spent a week or two cribbing “action words” from guides to résumé-writing. Here are two actual sentences from the book:

• “In a decisive move, Lee ordered the city to be proactive in the implementationof this law.”

• “Even prior to the effective date, Lee provided leadership in establishing a Policy Working Group and an Implementation Policy Group.” (Yes, real leadership is to sidestep accountability by establishing working groups and task forces to make decisions instead of making them.)

At other times, the writing is amusingly rushed. It's not easy to make sense of this statement from a passage about Lee's work with Willie Brown: “In addition to addressing the needs of women and minorities, another goal Mayor Brown had was to make the City more aesthetically accessible.”

“Aesthetically accessible”? Finally, ramps for the cultured?

You know those illustrations where a small fish is being eaten by a larger fish who, in turn, is dinner for a giant fish? This next sentence (about the standing ovation Lee received for passing the budget) is like that, with cliches as the fish: “And it only added fuel to the increasingly louder calls for Lee to throw his hat into the ring in the City's already-crowded mayoral race.”

Pearce, the consultant who flogged the “Run, Ed, Run!” campaign before holding off on the literary Kaopectate long enough to produce this book, makes many unfortunate word choices with regards to his hero. In the real world, Lee is perceived as unable to say no to power brokers such as Rose Pak and Brown — so Pearce describing Brown, on just the second page of text, as possessing “hypnotic charm” is unintentionally hilarious. At Lee's inauguration, per Pearce, “Even the most sophisticated audience member, who had seen it all before, seemed impressed.” Considering the Seal Team Six-efficient execution of back-room politics that led to Lee's ascent, the crowd's “sophisticated” audience members had every reason to be impressed — but not for the reason Pearce suggests.

Lee is praised for penning a pension measure without “talking politics” — yet this is the man who agreed to a union deal that would exempt the city's highest-paid workers from Jeff Adachi's proposed pension plan, but would not exempt them from Lee's own. That sounds somewhat political.

The mayor is also given salutations for passing a budget, with quotes cribbed from city officials who have openly campaigned for him, and directors of city-funded agencies who have penned laudatory columns about him on their websites. Left unsaid is that balancing the budget is something the mayor is required to do by law. Also left unsaid is that, under Lee's budget, if voters don't pass a $248 million bond measure the roads will go unpaved. And left very unsaid is that voters' failure to enact pension reform or pass a tough-sell sales tax in November will knock hundreds of millions of dollars off the city's five-year budget projections.

The book does imply, however, that Lee's budget magic led to such deafening calls that he break his promise to not run for mayor, he was all but obligated by plebiscite to run. And why not? After all, Pearce notes that Lee's selection as mayor by the Board of Supervisors was ratified by Mother Earth herself via a small earthquake — “a frisson of excitement or perhaps a portent of the changes that would soon take place at City Hall.” Appropriating this 4.1 quake registers 10.0 on the Richter Scale of hubris — and may be the first time anyone claimed an earthquake in San Francisco to be a good omen.

The adage is that history is written by the winners. In this book, history is written by a mid-level hack funded by a shadowy pop-up group backed by experienced political sharks. But, come election day, those may be the same things.

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