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The Boston Phoenix Bubba Charms Goober

Skaneateles, upstate New York's "beautiful lake surrounded by fascists," softens to the Clinton touch

By Barry Crimmins

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  When I read the words "Lake Skaneateles" in Time, I knew I had to get home. The name was as weird to me as "Ocean Atlantic" or "University of Boston," because it's not Lake Skaneateles, it's Skaneateles Lake. I ought to know: I grew up in the town that shares the name nobody can pronounce.

"Skanny-at-eh-less" is how I was taught to say it, though many residents have bastardized it to "Skinny-atlas." Nobody really cares that much how it's pronounced. Now that Skaneateles, New York, has played host to President Bill Clinton, Candidate Hillary Clinton, First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, and First Dog Buddy Clinton for the final five days of their 1999 summer vacation, there's a good chance that you've heard of the place, and that's satisfaction enough for most locals.

Though it suffered from obscurity when I was a kid, nowadays Skaneateles is occasionally newsworthy. Most recently, well-liked local man James "Jeff" Cahill brought the place to statewide attention when he freaked out and beat his wife, Jill, to the point of brain damage. Then, while out on bail, he entered Syracuse's University Hospital disguised as an employee and finished Jill off with poison. Tried and convicted, the now not-well-liked Cahill has been sentenced to death.

But Cahill was an anomaly; usually the town makes news through whimsy. It used to host an annual short-and-fat-man race, and a few years ago it decided to market itself as a stress-free zone. Both brought national attention. Too bad Mr. Cahill failed to comply with the stress edict.

But a Clinton visit to the swank lakeside digs owned by Tom and Kathy McDonald beat all the town's murders and Chamber of Commerce stunts put together. Having spent a few years on the campaign trail, I could guess what was about to take place. After four or five New Hampshire primaries, you get pretty familiar with what happens when Goober meets Big Brother or, for that matter, Big Bubba. But guesses are sometimes wrong, so just to be sure, when the Clintons arrived on Monday, August 30, I was waiting.

Outsider politics

"Skaneateles" is an Indian word that means "beautiful lake surrounded by fascists." Well, it means something about a lake, anyway. Be prepared to put your time machine in reverse if you want to talk politics with the locals in this tourist mecca 17 miles southwest of Syracuse.

Not since Skaneateles was part of the Underground Railroad has it come anywhere close to supporting progressive politics. Thanks to recent gains by Democrats, it's now three-to-one Republican. In his four successful presidential campaigns, Franklin Delano Roosevelt never once carried the town. Connecticut carpetbagger James Buckley, running on the Conservative ticket for the US Senate in 1970, took Skaneateles with a bigger margin than any other town in the state.

I am almost always at odds with the prevailing opinion in Skaneateles. It's a pro-war, pro-death-penalty, anti-union kind of place. The worst of the town's politics are summarized thus: "I been nowhere, seen nothing, and hate everybody."

Only on environmental issues is there across-the-board semi-progressive thought in the Eastern Gateway to the Finger Lakes. You'd have to be completely deprived of all sensory awareness not to appreciate the splendor of nature in and around Skaneateles.

At the center of everything is the lake, 17 miles of the cleanest water in the Lower 48. The glacially carved body bends to the east just about halfway down its length, providing ideal picture-postcard views from the rolling hills that surround it.

Those views don't change much, but each time I have returned, the town itself has been less recognizable. The Genesee and Jordan Street business district has slowly evolved from a few strips of stores that sold things everyday people needed into a collection of Christmas-tree-ornament shops run by Republican ladies on Prozac. And this time, I noticed, they'd moved the post office. I'm still woozy.

But what most depresses me when I return is the town's festering bigotry. Sometimes the locals' prejudice shines through even when they're offering a compliment. A few years back I was in town and having a drink at the Sherwood Inn, a lovely restaurant and tavern, when a patron spotted me and bellowed, "Jesus Christ, Barry, I seen you doing comedy on TV a few times. You're doing pretty well. You must have a big Jew agent."

I said, "Yeah, he's 6'6" -- wears a 40-pound Star of David. I'm sure he could kick your ass."

Another time, at the same bar, while watching a Syracuse University basketball game, a couple of patrons referred to some players as "niggers" several times.

Granted, most townsfolk are not overtly racist, but when confronted with overt racism, the tendency is to conspire in silence, so the problem persists. And the bigots have no discretion -- they freely spew their hatred in front of me, simply presuming that I'm a bigot too. (It's like in the old days, when total strangers would lay out lines of coke, assuming that the best way to get to know someone was to commit a felony with him.) On the Sunday before the Clintons arrived, a man in the Sherwood was muttering loudly about "goddamned kikes." I was the only person who even seemed to notice the outburst.

The idea of the Clintons coming to Skaneateles conjured up irresistible visions of funny movies I saw at the long-gone Colonial Theatre when I was a kid. Films such as Bye Bye Birdie, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians are Coming!, and After the Fox -- films in which small-town people suddenly become part of the bigger world they both long for and fear. In this case, it was a matter of Democratic oil being poured on 17 miles of Republican water.

I am no fan of Bill Clinton's politics, but unlike many of his critics, I snipe from the left. I have no more use for the corporate-compromised, conscience-free-trade-initiating, welfare-reforming, Pentagon-growing, bombing-people-at-the-drop-of-his-pants policies than the next self-respecting political southpaw. But when reactionary crackpots accuse him of everything from treason to complicity in the Lindbergh kidnapping, I can't help but feel some sympathy for the enemy of my enemies.

And if Hillary Clinton were just half the threat to our way of life her detractors claim she is, I'd have long since moved back to New York and begun working for her unannounced yet obvious US Senate bid. Hillary isn't a radical-feminist rabble-rouser; she is a connected corporate mouthpiece. But I must say I have, on occasion, agreed with her when almost everyone else scoffed at her remarks.

Last year, for example, Hillary claimed there was a right-wing plot against the president. It doesn't take a paranoid imagination or a subscription to the Washington Times to realize that there has been a concerted and often far-fetched smear campaign against Bill Clinton. There were IMPEACH CLINTON bumper stickers before he even took the oath of office. It's only because the president provided his detractors with so much mud that it became easy to mock anyone who would suggest there was a plot.

So my first guess was that Hillary chose Skaneateles as a vacation destination not because she coveted retiring senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's job, but because she figured that after the national press corps spent a week in my reactionary hometown, nobody could ever again question the existence of right-wing conspiracies.

Fishing for compliments

When the Clinton trip was announced, local merchant Doug Clark seized the moment to declare: "If Bill and Hillary came to Doug's Fish Fry, I would refuse them service because they are intoxicated with power. And I could claim they appear to be intoxicated -- I have a beer license. I just don't want them in my restaurant." This yokel actually thought he was being clever. Of course, he had some support, but nearly everyone I spoke with made the same point -- if the president of the United States wants to walk into your greasy fish fry, kiss his hem and cook the fish.

Clark didn't give up after his original remarks. He went on to posit that other bistro owners would cave in and serve the Clintons because they couldn't pass up the publicity. Thanks to his principled stand against such weak-willed competitors, the media-shy Clark turned up on every TV network and all the wire services, and in several magazines and major newspapers. He blathered a lot about character during his brush with national notoriety.

Area residents first knew Doug Clark as the owner of a Syracuse joint called Doug's Working Man's Tavern. To promote his bar, Clark once had T-shirts printed that featured a picture of Doug and his partner kneeling Atlas-style, arms extended above them as each held up a gigantic naked breast. Of course, this was 20 years ago, and so perhaps the George W. Bush statute of limitations protects the current guardian of village morals from prosecution for being a silly little hypocrite.

Actually, Clark made a fatal mistake when he took his politics public. He forgot that inexpensive fish dinners appeal at least as much to Democrats as to Republicans. For the first time in memory, his restaurant did not have peak-season patrons lined up out the door.

One Skaneateles businessman deserves more distance from Clark than he has been afforded, though. I never thought I'd go to bat for a right-wing ex-cop, but fair is fair.

"I don't want to be tarred with the same brush [as Doug Clark]," said John Angyal, owner of Johnny Angel's, when he spoke with me on Wednesday morning in his hamburger hall just up Jordan Street from Doug's Fish Fry. "I'm aware that the 1964 Civil Rights Law says you will serve who comes in your restaurant."

Angyal, a former New York state trooper and Skaneateles judge, did rename his fried-bologna sandwich the "Hillary Special" in honor of the visit, but that was just a joke -- not a great joke, but a joke. He sent Hillary Clinton a case of Johnny Angel's Heavenly Water, bottled from the lake, as a conciliatory gesture.

It was pretty funny having a guy explain himself to me who, when I was growing up, was one of the toughest cops in central New York. But even though Angyal's politics are far from mine, he seemed like St. Francis of Assisi compared to Doug Clark.

Steak outs

Neither Clark's nor Angyal's dining establishment received a presidential visit, even though by Friday, when the Clintons made their last stop in town for ice cream at the Blue Water Chill (the stand in front of the Blue Water Grill), they'd hit almost every restaurant in Skaneateles.

The Sherwood (which, despite my experiences with its patrons, has never demonstrated any support for racism or anti-Semitism) scored first on Monday night, when the Clintons, who'd arrived in town that afternoon, surprised almost everyone by showing up for dinner at 9 p.m. All the diners in the Sherwood were permitted to remain, but no one else was allowed through the door after the president arrived. By 11 p.m., I had joined several hundred people outside. When the First Family finally emerged, dozens squealed as if the Beatles had just taken the stage at Shea Stadium.

Most of the crowd had bet that Bill and Hillary would be at Krebs, up West Genesee Street, and each night, Krebs became a scene of increasing hilarity as the Clintons avoided it. Krebs is an old-style restaurant that charges big money for a soup-to-nuts feast of heavy dishes and rich desserts served on large platters, Sunday-dinner-at-Grandma's style. It has always attracted a ton of tourists (two tons by the end of dinner), but it isn't the kind of place you go very often if you're interested in living much past 50. The best thing about the place is the bar upstairs.

On Tuesday, the First Family stayed in to eat pizzas that Bill picked up in person at Mark's Pizza.

About 9:10 p.m. on Wednesday, I pulled around the corner up the street from Krebs (headed for that upstairs bar) and saw several hundred people swarming around the entrance. Krebs's front porch and yard were mobbed with people, cordoned off by ropes to keep the entrance clear and the gawkers off the street. State police directed traffic and pedestrians. I stood in a crowd of maybe a hundred people across the street from the main crush. Although I didn't ask, a stranger volunteered, "With them Staties working the crowd and the ropes up, they're sure to be coming tonight."

"Here come the motorcycle cops!" an adolescent boy suddenly announced, provoking a collective explosion of joy from the throng.

"And there's the motorcade!" yelled a woman about six inches from my right ear.

The motorcycles, several police cars, and an armada of sport-utility vehicles whooshed past. From a brownish-gold SUV, Bill and Hillary Clinton waved at the crowd, which was now applauding furiously.

"Woooooooooooooooo!" whooped the people. Some began to laugh and congratulate one another for finally betting on the right restaurant. Inside, some patrons were eating their third humongous Krebs meal in as many nights, in hopes of being among the sequestered few to dine with the Clintons.

I wonder what they thought as the procession zoomed past Krebs and the "Woooooooooooooooo"s turned to "Noooooooooooooooo"s. For the third consecutive night, Krebs's staff and patrons, and the general public, had whiffed at Charlie Brown's football. The First Family dined at yupscale Rosalie's Cucina that evening. Most of the gawkers took it with good spirits: even if the Clintons hadn't arrived, at least they had driven past.

On Thursday night, when all hope had been abandoned at Krebs, Bill and Hillary Clinton walked in. They didn't have the big meal. He had a peach dessert and she had soup. Obviously they had read newspaper accounts reporting that one of the owners had been in tears when they didn't come Wednesday. So on Thursday, after fundraisers in Cazenovia and Syracuse, on a night when their schedule appeared to be crammed as full as the average Krebs patron, they paid their respects to the landmark.

People politics

There were some protesters in Skaneateles during the Clinton stay. One group was lobbying for "the freedom to protect the US flag from physical desecration." Legislative desecration of the Bill of Rights did not seem to concern these folks.

There was also an anti-abortion group that was barking rosaries in the park with such hostility that it almost sounded as if they were cops shouting instructions at Jesus's mother. Hail Mary, full of grace. . . . Blessed be thy name! Freeze!

None of these people were even from Skaneateles. The locals kept their complaints to a minimum -- most of the dissension came in the form of T-shirts carrying double-entendre messages like SKANEATELES, NEW YORK, 1999 -- CLINTON SLEPT HERE TOO!

But for every T-shirt salesman, there were 500 people who were charmed silly by the Clintons. Sixty seconds after the First Family got out of its SUV at the McDonald estate, my 11-year-old goddaughter, Bridget Huxford, not only met and shook hands with all three of them, but had the president's autograph to boot. She was one of the first of many locals to be flattened by the gracious Clinton steamroller.

To put it in the Republican parlance, the town grew kinder and gentler toward the Clintons as each day passed. Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea had been accessible to the townsfolk and supportive of local businesses. Most everyone admitted that the presidential visit was exciting and had gone well. Some even felt it had done the wealthy little town some good. Most shocking of all was the appearance of several lawn signs in support of Hillary's Senate candidacy.

Indeed, Rudolph Giuliani better come out swinging from the heels if he expects to have any chance of stopping the first lady. Hillary Clinton is already endearing herself to a voter base that can be found in every precinct and ward in New York state -- women. They like her more than they may ever let on to husbands who have annoyed them and betrayed them just as Hillary's husband has annoyed and betrayed her.

If there is anything upstaters hate more than liberals, it's the Big Apple. For every two upstate reactionaries who vote against Hillary because they perceive her as liberal, one will vote against Mussliani simply because he is identified with New York City. Many Democrats crossed over and voted for Rudy when he ran for mayor because they hold progressive views only until it makes their parking more difficult. But these people don't want Giuliani in Washington, where they favor limousine liberalism. After watching the Clintons charm good behavior out of my hometown, and considering that many New Yorkers may want to keep their thug mayor on a short leash, I think that Hillary is a near odds-on favorite.

In the end, the Clintons were about as intimidated by my hometown as I would be by Hope, Arkansas. They understood that these days, even Republicans are more swayed by People magazine than by the National Review. They took to the area so well, and were so well received, I half suspected they might buy a place 10 miles up the west side of the lake, in a hamlet called New Hope. Alas, before they left Skaneateles they opted to relocate to Westchester County and a $1.7 million shack in Chappaqua.

Still, the Clintons' upstate adventure wasn't without impact. When Bill and Hill, Chels and Bud waved goodbye and climbed aboard Air Force One at Syracuse's Hancock Field at 2:17 Friday afternoon, Skaneateles had gone from the town with the name nobody could pronounce to the town with the name everybody couldn't pronounce.

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