November 27, 2014

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Getting cultured, talking politics: Cleveland

Granted, Bostonians can brag about that soiree in which they tossed a bunch of tea into the harbor, an act that helped ignite the political powder keg that would explode in the American Revolution.

And yes, the city is also closely linked to the Kennedys, arguably the 20th century’s most famous political family.

Although Cleveland may not come immediately to mind when citing major episodes in political history, the old town has had its moments. Like putting one of its own into the White House. Born in Cuyahoga County in 1831 (close enough) in a log cabin (the last of seven presidents to have that distinction) James A. Garfield, the 20th president, campaigned from his front porch in Mentor. His tenure was short-lived — Garfield died 80 days after being shot by a disgruntled federal job-seeker. The presidential tomb in Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery is unexpectedly impressive and worth a visit.

Some other Lakeview “residents” are a reminder of the influence exerted over the nation’s political and economic landscape by titans who called Cleveland home: Standard Oil founder-baron and America’s first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, Western Union Telegraph founder Jeptha Wade, and Charles F. Brush, whose early electrical dynamo was to have far-reaching impact on the nation’s energy supply.

Two years before the Cuyahoga burned, Clevelanders made national headlines in 1967 by electing Carl B. Stokes the first black mayor of a major American city. Serving two terms, the Democrat went on to hold numerous other posts, including an ambassadorship under President Bill Clinton.

Speaking of Democrats, another member of the donkey party made bigger (and downright cringe-inducing) headlines when the chillingly boyish-looking Dennis Kucinich became the youngest mayor (age 31) of a major U.S. city when he won election in 1977.

During his lone two-year term, Kucinich won a fight to keep city ownership of Muny Light, ticked off local crime figures so much they put out a hit on him and sent the city into default when he stood up to banks and businesses by refusing to pay the city’s debts.

Long reviled for the economic chaos he stirred, Kucinich has since been championed for saving the city nearly $200 million. These days, the outspoken but well-intentioned Kucinich is finally looking his age. Running a no-chance-in-heck presidential campaign will do that to someone.

Back to the burning Cuyahoga for a minute. Hands down one of the city’s best-known — and zaniest — episodes, the river caught fire on June 22, 1969. In fairness, this event was blown way out of proportion by having the bad luck to occur just as national attention was beginning to be focused on the environment.

A few years ago, Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan A. Adler analyzed the episode and concluded Cleveland was unfairly ridiculed, despite taking steps to clean up the river and being hamstrung by inadequate national cleanup funds, and state laws that shackled the city’s ability to go after freewheeling industrial polluters.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7139 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.