A time and place politicians could laugh at and with one another

They say that politics “ain’t bean bag.” That is true, but the expression means more in 2015 than it used to.

The current presidential campaign, where nastiness and even cruelty abound, is bean-bagginess on steroids. Donald Trump is by far the worst of the lot, totally lacking in civility or respect for others as he feeds his own ego and panders to be politically correct with the far-right wing that is now dominant in his party.

Politics is tamer on the local level than in statewide and national politics and government. Fortunately around Western New York, the exceptions are few – a judicial race, the Liegl/Morton county legislative election.  Most campaigns are civil.

A post on this blog last month concerned a recent visit Paul Fisk and I had with long-time Buffalo lobbyist JB Walsh. We talked about his efforts, and those of others such as Mayor Frank Sedita and former City Budget Director Jim Burns, to keep the City of Buffalo afloat in the 1970’s when city revenues struggled to cover expenses.  A lot of creativity forestalled a state control board for thirty years.

It was also a time when members of both parties socialized together and could even trade barbs in a congenial fashion. One of JB’s informal roles back then was to write and produce many of the songs used in the annual Capitol Hill Show, a bipartisan political production similar to the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington.  And, at 88, JB impressed us with his ability to sing the lyrics to satirical numbers he’d written four and five decades ago.

The Capitol Hill Club dinner was quite an occasion – black tie. It occurred in December for a number of years, late enough after the election for things to settle down.  The Dems and Reps also had their own special fundraising functions in December in those days.

The Capitol Hill shows were more than an hour in length and followed dinner at the Statler. There were multiple sketches, each involving dialogue and a song.  The songs were set to popular tunes, but the lyrics were geared to local politicians and events.  They were biting, but not in a nasty way.

We asked JB why the dinner and shows shut down in the late seventies. The explanation was pretty simple:  the show took a lot of work, and the driving force for the show (JB) spent a lot of time for his employment in Albany.  He had a family that he wanted to spend time with.  Plus some attendees were concerned about buying a Capitol Hill Club ticket plus one for their respective parties each December.

I believe that for a year or two in the nineties some local folks attempted to do something similar to Capitol Hill, but I expect that the effort also overwhelmed them.

There is still an annual Capitol Hill show in Albany and the National Press Club does its annual dinner and roast in April, an event that it seems has taken on a life of its own. Both of these shows have a major advantage over any local show:  the Albany event is mainly produced by the press corps, which has ample material to work with and a lot of potential contributors who have time to write and produce.  The national event uses a national comedian as chief roaster, and staff in the White House with their connections can get things together for the presidential response.

The trip down memory lane with JB was a refreshing reminder that representative democracy can indeed work to solve problems, have some fun and laughs, and remain reasonably civil. It’s unfortunate that collegiality and congeniality are no longer shared as they once were.

A footnote to the JB story

JB Walsh was happy to share his memories with us. After the previous post was published he called with a footnote.  Besides all his work on behalf of the City of Buffalo, JB also devoted a great deal of time and effort to helping the Buffalo Naval and Servicemen’s Park to develop and prosper.  A veteran himself, JB certainly deserves another round of applause and gratitude for solidifying one of the major positive achievements in what today is a prospering area known as Canalside.