Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Of politics, baseball and murder at the fair - part two

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve passed two days in Buffalo - mostly on foot - without becoming a crime statistic. In fact, I have been charmed, not just by the architecture, history and restaurants, but by the people, who have been uniformly pleasant and helpful. 

Last night, The Buffalo News (headline: 'GOP fires up troops') shared my table with a pre-dinner glass of Chianti. 

Cleveland and the Republican convention are 279 kilometres (173 miles) away. Road, air and water travel around Cleveland has been restricted. Security concerns about demonstrators in craft as small as kayaks mean they’re even limiting the movement of those. 

Buffalo’s separated from all the fuss, but conveniently in the States. One reason I came was for the sheer pleasure that comes from absorbing local commentary from a newspaper with its own reporters at the convention. And The Buffalo News is better than in many American cities of similar size and even larger. 

Perhaps it's also fair to mention that, despite decades of downturn, Buffalo, solidly Democrat, overwhelmingly returned President Obama in 2012.

I used to be closer to the action. Above is a presidential campaign pass found in a scrapbook and from which I’ve removed my name, network affiliation and identifying number. More than thirty years later, I distantly resemble the picture.

In that campaign, much of my time was spent with the losing candidate, Walter Mondale, who had been Jimmy Carter’s vice-president. Losing is being kind. Ronald Reagan took 49 of 50 states. Still, it was an experience.

Despite many presidential links, no national Republican or Democrat convention has ever been held in Buffalo. But, there was one significant gathering.

Opposite my hotel, where a Civil War monument stands, the 1848 ‘Free Soil Party’ convention was held in Lafayette Square (the lowered flag honours police officers killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge). Thousands, some reports say forty thousand, were here. This was a single issue party opposing slavery’s expansion in the American West. Free Soilers called for ‘free soil, free speech, free labour, and free men’. 

Buffalo was home to the 13th American president, Millard Fillmore. In the White House from 1850 to 1853, he was a Whig, last president not to be a Democrat or Republican.

As the country lurched towards fratricidal conflict, Fillmore faced bitterly divisive issues. Criticized by historians for his juggling of the slavery issue, Fillmore is often ranked towards the bottom of ‘best president’ lists. However, I do like one of his quotes: ‘May God save the country, for it is evident the people will not’. 

To find Mr. Fillmore I visit Forest Lawn, one of the loveliest cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

Atop a knoll of parched summer grass, Mr. Fillmore and family lie. I wonder aloud what he thinks of contemporary politics. No answer; perhaps he’s had enough of public affairs and fault-finding (reporters) or perhaps he only speaks to American taxpayers. 

To use the cemetery’s terminology, other ‘permanent residents’ include Doctor Frederick Cook, who claimed to have reached the North Pole before Peary; Alfred Southwick, inventor of the electric chair, and Willis Carrier, inventor of modern air conditioning, who’d be pleased to know I have a Carrier heat pump.

It’s hot and muggy, and air conditioning would be welcome, but I must carry on.

Buffalo, far from the American South, was, as we have seen, hardly shielded from slavery’s consequences, which last to this time. From 1845, the Michigan Street Baptist Church, in sight of today’s downtown towers, was a centre for the black community.  And, as the sign says, a stop on the underground railway to Canada. But, a hundred-and-seventy years later, Buffalo’s largely split into black and white areas, and this is a neighbourhood I was diplomatically warned to avoid.

In 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln - former Whig and then Republican - arrived at Exchange Street Station (not its unprepossessing, contemporary counterpart seen above). Thousands came out. These were momentous times as Civil War neared. Lincoln was greeted by former President Fillmore and spoke in Lafayette Square. 

Lincoln - I found two statues in Buffalo - returned four years later …

… as the assassinated president’s funeral cortège passed along Buffalo’s Main Street. It took fourteen days for the body to get from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, to be buried. Not just thousands, millions watched the coffin pass.

Buffalo’s next White House connection comes with Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th president, a Democrat. He was mayor in the 1880s … 

… and honoured by a statue at Buffalo City Hall. Cleveland - and what time for an American president hasn’t been tumultuous? - is generally seen not to have done a bad job. However, his personal life was complicated. A Buffalo preacher called Cleveland a ‘libertine’. He fathered an illegitimate child, survived the scandal and, while president, married a woman twenty-seven years younger. 

And so we return, in a manner of speaking, to my Pan-American Exposition paperweight. For the fair (which I’ll describe in my next post) was scene of a pivotal moment in American history.

William McKinley, a Republican, was 25th president. In Buffalo, on September 5, 1901, he gave a speech, part of which makes interesting reading as the Republicans meet in Cleveland:

‘My fellow citizens, trade statistics indicate that this country is in a state of unexampled prosperity … They show that we are utilizing our fields and forests and mines and that we are furnishing profitable employment to the millions of workingmen throughout the United States, bringing comfort and happiness to their homes and making it possible to lay by savings for old age and disability. That all the people are participating in this great prosperity is seen in every American community …’

To describe the events of the following day I find my way to a pleasant, middle-class street in North Buffalo. In 1901, here were not comfortable houses …

… but the exposition’s Temple of Music. This Spanish Renaissance extravaganza could seat 2,200 people and had one of the largest organs in the United States. 

In the middle of the Fordham Drive median, small American flags and plaque mark where McKinley was shaking hands with the public. 

The President was shot by a disturbed man influenced by anarchism.

MicKinley was rushed to hospital, treated in the manner of the times, then moved to a nearby house where he died a little over a week later. He was the third American president assassinated in thirty-six years. 

Vice-president Teddy Roosevelt hastened to Buffalo. 

At the Ansley Wilcox Mansion, now somewhat incongruously …

… opposite a 24 hour drug store on Delaware Avenue … 

 …  in this room, at 3:31 pm, September 14, 1901, Roosevelt was sworn in. Arguably the first president of the modern age and one of the few to be inaugurated outside Washington, D.C. became the office’s 26th holder. The room is small and it seems that journalistic competition (how could that be?) meant that bulky cameras were excluded. No photographs exist of the event.

Roosevelt ‘spoke softly and carried a big stick’, sent the Great White Fleet around the globe, duped the Colombians, kickstarted the Panama Canal and bequeathed us the teddy bear. No wonder he looks happy.

As for the assassin, less than two months after his deed, he was conveyed to Buffalo inventor Alfred Southwick’s electric chair. Let us hope the end was quicker than that of Southwick's first client. He had to be given another dose of alternating current after surviving the first.

Although presidents, those campaigning to be president and past presidents have passed through Buffalo in reasonable numbers, below is the most dramatic shot that I could come close to matching. 

In 1962, President Kennedy, who the next year would also be assassinated, spoke in front of Buffalo City Hall. 

A newspaper headline claimed ‘400,000 Welcome President’ for a day celebrating the city’s large Polish-American community. The Kennedy Presidential Library says he described ‘the Soviet Union's domination as temporary, but notes that in order to prevent the spread of communism, the United States must enact policies of economic flexibility and strengthen the links that connect Poland to Western nations’.

Kennedy was speaking from a specially constructed podium …

… so my picture doesn’t entirely match the original. But, as in any place that has witnessed something of history and huge crowds, there is a curious roar in the silence. 

Now to an extraordinary person, Democrat Shirley Chisholm, first black woman elected to Congress. Her campaign slogan was ‘Fighting Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed’. In 1972, she ran for president, not winning the party’s nomination, but getting a respectable number of delegates. 

In Buffalo, she and her husband lie together. In this year of another campaign, there’ll inevitably be comparisons, but I found my way back to a 2008 newspaper article:

‘This fall, for the first time in the American saga, either an African-American or a woman will be on the ballot as one of the two major-party nominees for president. Even the loser of the race for the Democratic nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will have broken new ground and earned a page or two in history books.

But before Hillary and Barack in 2008, there was Shirley in 1972’. (San Antonio Express News February 27, 2008)

Standing beside Shirley and her husband, I find myself talking to Ernie, who’s sweeping the mausoleum floor. He good-naturedly grumbles about cleaning up all the dead flowers, a wearisome task. But, like many cemetery workers I’ve met, Ernie is something of an amateur historian, even philosopher. He turns to Shirley and his eyes glow. And, although I can hardly understand Ernie’s lot, I think I have a faint idea of what he’s thinking. 

Okay, I’ve had a enough (and probably you, too) of my presidential excursion. I need a drink at Buffalo’s Founding Fathers Pub. 

The walls and ceiling are crammed with presidential memorabilia.

Hey! There’s former Buffalo mayor and president, Grover Cleveland.

Even the placemats have presidents. The bartender kindly fetches more for me to take home. 

‘Whaddya here for?’ asks someone at the bar. I stupidly assume he means what am I drinking, but no, why am I in town? 

‘Oh’, I say, ‘I’m intrigued by Buffalo’s political connections'. 

‘American politics, pah!’ he grunts, ‘You watching the convention?’ He indicates a TV on a shelf. Someone in Cleveland is shouting at the camera.

Before I can answer, he sweeps his arm around the vast collection of mostly dead presidents, ‘Look at all the dust! Presidents need dusting!’