Before there was Lee Harvey Oswald, there was Leon Frank Czolgosz.

And before there was Dallas, there was Buffalo.

In September 1901, the Queen City of the Lakes that was made so luminous by hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls became the first place outside Washington to be enshrouded in the darkness brought on by the murder of a president of the United States.

Twelve years ago, Lauren Belfer brought that time in Buffalo's history to life with her brilliant debut novel, "City of Light," and now Scott Miller has provided an ideal nonfiction complement with "The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century."

Miller's fast-moving and richly detailed work not only revisits the jarring juxtaposition of an extravagant world's fair -- the Pan-American Exposition -- with an aspiring anarchist's point-blank shooting of William McKinley, but vividly explains the forces of history that were ending one century and beginning another.

"They streamed among the manicured flower beds and dewy lawns of Delaware Park that early September morning in Buffalo, New York, a portrait of America in the Gilded Age" is how Miller invites the reader in, reminiscent of Belfer's line that if landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted "had been a painter, Buffalo would have been his canvas."

Miller makes no mention of Olmsted, but that's a minor oversight considering the grand albeit troubling context he provides as Buffalo ascends toward its zenith, a 45-state nation expands across its continent and beyond, and a rapidly changing world seemingly warrants all manner of American intervention.

The backdrop is America's embracing of empire to start an era of seemingly limitless economic expansion and imperialist reach. Miller does a masterly job of weaving parallel and eventually intersecting stories of passionate personalities confronting capitalistic exuberance that permanently transformed the national identity.

Because of the Spanish-American War and its ripple effects, Miller writes, "the United States had, overnight, become a global power now stretched from the Caribbean to the farthest reaches of the Pacific." He quotes journalist-historian Henry Adams as finding America "so cheerful, and so full of swagger and self-satisfaction, that I hardly know it."

Prominent on the American landscape, too, though, was the incendiary discordance of unbridled capitalism and exploitation of labor. This gritty, grimy hothouse of social injustice fomented resentments -- accompanied by deadly violence -- that bred not only high-profile firebrands such as Emma Goldman, "the high priestess of anarchism," but seething loners such as Czolgosz.

Presiding over this bubbling stew was the affable McKinley, the most popular president since Lincoln. In his second term, he had a new vice president, the irrepressible young Theodore Roosevelt, whose trajectory from San Juan Hill would soon catapult him toward an inevitable rendezvous with Mount Rushmore.

In Roosevelt's view, McKinley had "the backbone of a chocolate eclair." So the president's political marriage of mutual self-interest with Roosevelt, who "belonged to a group of jingoists who advocated a more aggressive approach to foreign affairs," was as volatile as it was portentous. Manifest Destiny was being taken to the next level.

Above all, McKinley wanted vast global markets for the goods from America's consolidating businesses -- a global commercial hegemony. The tectonic plates of the world's economy were shifting then, as they are now.

When the president sent the USS Maine to Havana's harbor, his political guru, Mark Hanna, likened it to "waving a match in an oil well for fun."

Thus the kindling was provided for the Spanish-American War, even though studies ultimately showed that the explosion that killed 266 sailors -- "Remember the Maine!" -- was an accident. The Maine's "bituminous coal stores had spontaneously combusted, a not uncommon occurrence on ships of the day."

Miller, a Seattle-based former international correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Reuters, crafts a skillfully paced narrative that becomes especially compelling when Czolgosz, a blacklisted steelworker, meets Goldman at her Cleveland speech four months before the assassination. It was his 28th birthday, and he "seemed from this night on to have resolved to pursue the life of radical social revolutionary" and perform what anarchists called "the propaganda of the deed."

Goldman's fellow anarchists were suspicious of Czolgosz, however, but he was hellbent on proving himself.

Miller's chronology guides the reader to "the rural area of West Seneca," where Czolgosz rented a room for "three dollars a month, washing included." Czolgosz returned to Cleveland by Lake Erie steamer for a while before visiting Chicago and reading a newspaper article about McKinley's impending visit to Buffalo.

Sixty-two years before Oswald used his $19.95 rifle to obliterate the most powerful person on the planet, Czolgosz -- a Polish immigrants' son then calling himself Fred C. Nieman -- would alter history with a $4.50 pistol.

When McKinley arrived for the Pan-American Exposition, Czolgosz was there, too. He stalked the president on the first day. And on the second. Before firing twice into his abdomen on the third.

Dr. Roswell Park, the city's foremost physician, was performing throat cancer surgery in Niagara Falls when he got the word, and by the time he returned, the emergency operation on the president had been done by a gynecologist. But one of the bullets remained in McKinley's body. Eight days later, in the Milburn House at 1168 Delaware Ave. (which would be razed in 1957 to make room for a parking lot), he was dead at 58 of blood poisoning.

For the assassin, justice was swift. A month and a half after the president died, his killer, too, was dead, from 1,700 volts for 45 seconds in the electric chair at Auburn State Prison.

Unlike the Sixth Floor Museum, overlooking the site where President Kennedy was killed, there's little to see at the place where McKinley was shot, just a plaque on an unremarkable boulder that could easily be mistaken for one of the flower boxes or barrels in a median on residential Fordham Drive in North Buffalo.

Part of the McKinley legacy, Miller writes, is "what would become a familiar pattern of sending troops to foreign shores to 'defend American interests.' "

Four days after Czolgosz was executed, a two-column headline atop Page One of The Buffalo Evening News marked the finale of the soon-to-be demolished Pan-American Exposition with a poignant, even prophetic sentiment for what then was the eighth-most-populous urban center in America:


Gene Krzyzynski is a veteran copy editor for The News.


The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century

By Scott Miller

Random House

432 pages, $28