Wanted: A Boswell for Tony Williams

In his classic A Prayer for the City, writer Buzz Bissinger chronicled the heroic efforts of Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell to revive his ailing city. Bissinger secured full access to Rendell’s day-to-day activities, and the result was a flattering account of a quirky mayor whose national fame stems in no small part from the book.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is looking for the same treatment. An ad posted on the job-search page of the D.C. Science Writers Association seeks a writer to tell “a compelling, insider story about the technological transformation of the nation’s capital.”

Mayor Williams, the ad says, is “eager to have the District’s technology reformation story told in the same exciting way that Tracy Kidder did in his 1981 Pulitzer-winning IT story, ‘Soul of a New Machine.’” And, the ad continues, he’s willing to give some scribe Bissinger-style “unlimited access” to do the job.

Why is a mayor who can’t even get his name on the ballot worrying about putting his achievements between covers? Mayoral spokesperson Tony Bullock says the book idea is new to him. Maybe, he suggests, it’s being planned as “a surprise.”

That would seem to be at odds with the promise of unfettered access to the administration. But nobody is stepping up to take credit. D.C. Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck, whose name, office phone number, and government e-mail address are listed as contact information, claimed shock when first told about the ad. “What ad? We didn’t place any ad,” she said on a voice-mail message.

Upon learning more details, Peck denied any knowledge of the ad: “Whoever did it,

t’weren’t me and it wasn’t authorized.”

Peck did concede, however, that she had discussed a possible Williams book sometime before May 21 with employee and IT guru Steve Crocker (“one of the guys who really invented the Internet”). And Peck said she remembered having a “casual conversation” about the concept “with a fellow” whose name she couldn’t recall, who belonged to the D.C. Science Writers Association. When read the text of the ad, Peck said it sounded like a brief e-mail she’d sent the unidentified man, who’d asked for a sentence or two describing the book project.

D.C. Science Writers Association President Craig Hicks tells a different, more specific story. He says Peck talked with him on May 9 to discuss the book idea. Hicks told her the association could run an ad, he says, and Peck sent him some text to post. He made some changes and sent it back to her, he says, and she wrote back to approve the edits.

“I definitely did talk to her,” Hicks says. “She definitely saw the ad before we posted it and said to go ahead.”

Either way, the writing community seems uninspired by the “exciting story” of a mayor “pressing the city forward as a municipal and regional technology force.” That pitch has the ring of false advertising: The major technology stories of the Williams administration include the botching of utility cuts for the installation of fiber-optic cable as well as the farcical breakdowns of the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Destiny computer system.

So far, according to Peck’s assistant, only one potential author has inquired. CP