Jack Gilligan died at 92 on Monday and it’s regrettable that he wasn’t able to announce his passing to a bunch of reporters gathered at his table at the end a long campaign day. His eyebrows would rise slightly, and with a teasing grin he would report that “the old banana-nose Irishman had finally done something that pleased his critics.”
Gilligan, former city councilman, congressman and governor, had a disarming way of shaping his most serious ideas with the wit of one who wasn’t quite sure that his listeners were ready for dead-weight political discourse to carry the moment. But those of us who followed his footsteps over the years were left knowing full well that Jack Gilligan was a free spirit a breed apart from most politicians. And a crisply intelligent one at that.
Politician? Not really. A perfect politician he wasn’t, at least not the kind who would mask their thoughts in the safest cliches. No one on the stump could match his ready-aim-fire ripostes that revealed a guy who had the kind of courage that won him a Silver Star as a gunnery officer at Okinawa. Or led him through the riotous streets as a Cincinnati councilman to rescue homebound blacks from the hands of cops. “Bad poliltics,” another politician huffed to me at the time.
Even his campaign advisors doubted the merits of his promise to raise taxes if he were elected governor. And if the voters didn’t agree, he gave them a simple option: vote for the other guy. Once in office, he finally got his way to raise additional revenue for mental health, education and various other programs to help any Ohioan in need.
It became an inside joke among Statehouse reporters that after Jim Rhodes, the anti-tax candidate, nipped Gilligan ‘s bid for a second term by 11,000 votes, the Republican governor never raised a finger to abolish the so-called Gilligan Tax.
Gilligan’s over-confident campaign staff contributed to his defeat by focussing solely on a potential presidential race for him in 1976. When I reminded one that he still had to win the governor’s race, for which polls showed it to be narrowing to a tossup, he would hear none of it. Within shouting distance of election day, I and other reporters trailed him deeply into Geauga County for a campaign stop for a handful of voters. It was a costly waste of time.
Gilligan had a way of toying with his lesser-prepared opponents, convinced that satire was the easiest way to expose their pretenses. Once during a TV debate with a Birch Society leader, Gilligan set up his adversary by citing words from the Society’s Blue Book and asking whether the Bircher agreed. He then read more passages and asked the Bircher if he agreed. Again the answer was yes.
“Thank you,” Gilligan said with a satisfied look. ” I’ve now been reading to you from Mein Kampf.”
Despite his droll politically incorrect style, it was his true motivating mission as governor to pursue programs for the common good for Ohioans. In the encroaching Rhodes Era, the big business guys in Rhodes’ anti-tax grip cast Gilligan as an eternal threat to profits. Hardly a day passed that some critic didn’t describe Gilligan as a socialist; Republican newspapers saw no reason to disagree. They considered the rough-edged sit-spit-and-whittle Rhodes as a rising economic genius.
So what can we say now that he is gone? He was humane, a civilized being with a fetching sense of humor and a deep loyalty to the merits of a solid education who taught literature as Xavier University. He was fearless (“reckless,” the doubters hooted) promoter of whatever would upgrade the lives of others. A rarity of his times. A rarity now. In short, he was a pleasant no-bullshit guy when it was piling up all around his workaday world.
I wish he could read some of the pro forma praise coming his way from his opposites on the political right. Gov. Kasich offered his family’s thoughts and prayers while praising Gilligan for serving with “honor and distinction”.
Fellow hometowner Sen.Rob Portman of Cincinnati said the city and state benefited from Gilligan’s “rich legacy of public service”. Yadayadayada.
The banana-nose Irishman would smile with a knowing rejoinder:
“What took them so long?”