By John McMahon
In the May 7th issue of Artvoice, columnist Bruce Fisher marked the passing of former Republican Congressman and Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp with a highly partisan piece entitled "The Kemp Legacy."
While some Democrats would probably agree with many of the writers conclusions about the negative effects of Reaganism, few can argue that Fisher's ad hominem attacks, aimed at casting Kemp as a personification of all the evils of the Reagan era, have any place in a newspaper obituary.
After reading the piece I thought that it said more about the writer than the subject. In order to put the piece in this context I wrote a letter to editor wherein I explained to readers some background information about the writer, Bruce Fisher, so that they might better understand the toxicity of his tone. Artvoice editor Geoff Kelly wrote back saying that while he thought my letter was funny, he didn't think that Fisher "crossed any lines" in his piece.
Below is my letter to the editor of Artvoice. They essentially refused to publish it.
In formulating a response to Bruce Fisher's rather unusual obituary of Jack Kemp let me start by focusing on the positive. It did remind to mix some manure into my garden beds in advance of planting my tomatoes. While I'm told this is most effective when done a month in advance of planting, I'm following the maxim of “better late than never.” Unfortunately, I don't think that same maxim applies to Fisher's partisan screed against the freshly deceased Kemp.
Dead people aren't very lively debaters and so writers who launch attacks across the great divide often do so in search of a straw man as opposed to the truth. Not exactly profile in courage- type stuff. but when it comes to mucking about in political dung heaps, Bruce Fisher is quite obviously a man with a golden shovel.
While Mr. Fisher very astutely criticizes the negative effects that resulted from the policies that the former Congressman and Reagan cabinet member embraced, the nasty, partisan tone of the “Kemp Legacy,” really says more about the writer than the man he is so intent on burying. So before we go any further perhaps we should examine “the Bruce Fisher Legacy.”
Fisher got his start in politics in Chicago. That alone might give some readers a reason to pause. Upon his return to Buffalo, he underwent something of a political conversion. While Kemp was a leading light of Reaganism, Fisher was the architect, for better or worse, of the Giambracrat Era in Erie County government. Although Bruce may not have personally changed his party affiliation to the Republican Party, he was the Chief of Staff for the former County Executive, who for a number of years was a fast-rising star for the GOP. Working in a Republican administration for a number of years you have to ask yourself, if Fisher was truly as hot and bothered about Kemp as he appeared to be in his recent column, couldn't he have brought this to the attention of Jack Kemp himself while he was still alive? Apparently not while there were paychecks to be cashed.
While Fisher was still in the Giambra Administration, he spoke about regionalism at the Frontier Democrat Club, I asked him directly at that event, why he was lecturing City Democrats on this while it is the GOP that benefits most from the politics of sprawl. The reason he was not busy convincing supporters of his own administration became obvious later -. local Republicans had had enough of Bruce and his boss. Perhaps they had stopped listening because of the now infamous “Friends and Family Plan,” overseen by Giambra's $80k per year driver. Or maybe it was the Aurora garage scandal that saw County resources being siphoned off to greedy cronies. All of this culminated in “Green budget/Red budget crisis” authored by - you guessed it - Bruce Fisher.
Fisher knowingly formulated a budget on phoney numbers in order to create a highly dramatic showdown that was as nasty and partisan as it gets. It was one of the worst political miscalculations we have ever seen in county politics because when the fertilizer hit the fan it caused a schism in the local GOP. The hard right, Newt Gingrich faction called Fisher's bluff and demanded that the red budget be adopted replete with drastic cuts to government across the board. Having been flushed out into the open, Fisher then sought retreat. The budget crisis moved to a place where democracies die - behind closed doors.
When the now disgraced NY State Comptroller Alan Hevesi set up a control board for the County, he said it was because the County needed adult supervision. Judging from Fisher's latest clumsy attempt to prove his progressive bonafides at the expense of the late Jack Kemp, Hevesi may have had Mr. Fisher in mind when he made that statement.
In assessing Mr. Fisher's legacy, then, the thing that looms the largest is the County Control Board. It's something that both the current Republican County Executive and every Democrat in the County Legislature would love to get rid of, but can't.. Thanks Bruce!
I don't have time to go into the privatization of ECMC, the County's public safety building boondoggle or the free SUV, Mr. Fisher's used for his ardous commute from Allentown to the Rath building, because I need to bring attention to the bad writing and sheer journalistic laziness exemplified in “The Kemp Legacy.”
. . Fisher echoes himself repeating the phrase, “sweet and positive man,” twice in the opening paragraph perhaps in an effort to make a sarcastic point of emphasis. This is why we teach students to rewrite their opening paragraphs after they've completed their essays.. I'm guessing the reason Artvoice editor Geoff Kelly didn't pick up on this defect is that Fisher did what all lazy, self-important writers do – he turned the piece in late, so his editor couldn't do his job.
In his haste to bury the corpse in excrement, Fisher dismisses the notion that a Reaganite such as Kemp could have possibly written a letter expressing joy at the election of Barack Obama. Had Fisher done a little research or perhaps talked to a real Bills fan he might have known that this was not quite as far-fetched as he imagines.
Jeff Klein's article about Kemp's legacy in the New York Times gives Kemp a little more credit for his positions on race. He writes, “They (Bills fans) knew that Kemp was involved in organizing and leading the A.F.L. players union. They weren’t aware that he was a key figure in getting the 1965 A.F.L. All-Star Game moved out of New Orleans to protest racial segregation in that city — such matters were not widely reported in the sports pages at that time. But they did notice the ease with which he worked with black players, a rare thing in that racially charged era. That earned him still more admiration, among black and white fans alike.”
Having personally listened to Kemp speak about this and other incidents from that time at a Bills alumni dinner, I witnessed nothing that would indicate that Kemp was not genuine in his beliefs about race. While we can argue about whether Kemp's policies during his tenure at HUD hurt the African-American community, I would strongly disagree with Fisher's insinuation that this was somehow Kemp's true intent.. Fisher tries to distill Jack Kemp, the man, into the personification of the evil of Reaganism. There's one problem with that: reality. Kemp was more complicated than that and if people are indeed remembering him as a “sweet and positive man,” you really have to put politics aside and at least entertain the possibility that this was actually the case. Fisher's unwillingness to do so leads us to the next problem with the Fisher Legacy and that is that his means often prevent him from accomplishing the ends he seems to desire.
Fisher refuses to accept the fact that the so-called “Friends and Family Plan” did as much or more to kill his attempts to implement regionalism in County government than anything else (and that includes the machinations of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership).Forget about the “kitchen cabinet” that was set up for Giambra at the Buffalo Club for a moment. The “Friends and Family Plan” proved to all those in the little fiefdoms that needed to be liquidated in order to create a metro government, that it was really just politics as usual. It proved that regionalism was only a code for bringing corrupt City Hall politics to the larger community. Many of those folks were – and still are- white Republicans in the 'burbs. If the Friends and Family Plan of the Giambra Administration failed to convince them of their need to make a sacrifice for the greater good of the region, it's highly unlikely that Fisher's hatchet job on Kemp will persuade anybody either.
As Artvoice, the newspaper, pursues openness and transparency on Buffalo' school board through the fine reporting of Buck Quiqley, guess what is looming in the background jeopardizing the credibility of those efforts? The Fisher Legacy. In another instance proving that he still doesn't get it, Fisher tried to use his influence with Buffalo School Board incumbent Chris Jacobs to have his daughter enrolled in City Honors. It's embarrassing. Get thee to the blogosphere!
Artvoice just lost its case against the School Board over its lack of campaign finance disclosure, it's probably a pure coincidence that the judge, Fred Marshall, is yet another crony from Fisher's days with Giambra, but it kind of makes you wonder.
That being said, this is America and we all get to reinvent ourselves and pick ourselves up after falling down. Bruce Fisher's career as a high ranking official in County government seems to have come to an end. He is at his best when writing about the need to reinvest in the City and move away from the policies of sprawl in order to make our region great again as a whole. It's not the best of all possible worlds being a part time commentator for an alternative newspaper. In fact, it's a hardscrabble patch to work especially after having tasted the fruits of political power, but it can also be productive if tended properly.
Finally there's little doubt that Republicans might overstate the greatness of Kemp in memorializing him. Few parties do political hagiography better than the GOP and their attendant house organ, Fox News, but at the end of the day Jack Kemp is dead and buried. His legacy will mean different things to different people. Will the same be said for the legacy of Bruce Fisher? Time will tell.