I once asked Jim Rhodes whether he would run for another term for governor. In his staccato voice with a rush of clipped words , he retorted: “Can you tell me if your wife is going to be pregnant?” The small clutch of bystanders got a laugh out of his nonsensical response. But for reporters who were paid to uproot answers from him, it was just another day at the interview. As Rhodes forever replied to modest inquiries:
“I generally don’t answer questions with a yes or no.”
It was his sanitized version of dismissing inquiries deviating from his mindset of what he wanted his constituents to see and hear, every minute, every hour, every week , etc. while he was cutting ribbons, breaking ground and otherwise dedicating his own ceremonial good deeds for mankind.
Rhodes had a practiced good ol’ boy style that frustrated his critics, entertained his well-heeled contributors with anecdotal politics, and massaged the voters that he had their best interests at heart. With considerable help from media elephants like Louis Seltzer in Cleveland and workaday loyalists at the Columbus Dispatch, he became a legend in his own time.
A newly published biography of the legend by three newsmen who toiled in the Rosy Rhodes Era captures some of the politics, myths and wackiness of the blustery four-term Republican governor, a college dropout from down Coalton way. The authors, the late Rick Zimmerman, Lee Leonard and Tom Diemer, offer a journalistic timeline spanning Rhodes’ four terms that left him pathetically grasping for a fifth term. The book’s title, James A.Rhodes Ohio Colossus, (Kent State University Press), is nothing less than a Karsh photograph, warts and all, of a politician’s control over the electorate’s expertly managed state of mind.
Less persuasive were the excessively kind forwards written by two Rhodes adversaries, former Ohio Governors Richard Celeste and Robert Taft, both of them on bended knee praising his motivating love of Ohio and, from Taft, his “blueprint for brainpower” that sought higher goals in college education, largely with bricks and mortar. (From my perspective, it was always left for others to find operating funds.) .
As one who also toiled through the remarkable era, some personal observations, some shared with the those in the book:
Rhodes carefully maintained his image as a soaring can-do governor (some of which is carried forward for Gov. Kasich by the very same Dispatch and the Plain Dealer.)
With Louis Seltzer reigning from the now-shuttered Cleveland Press, Scripps-Howard’s network of those newspapers that carried the state news wire left little doubt that a challenging Democrat had no chance. Those were the days when a much greater number of people read newspapers than today.
As a Sunday night city editor at Scripps’ Columbus Citizen Journal, I was able to witness the concocted day-to-day liquor scandal against Mike Disalle, the Democratic incumbent, that was so phony that the Scripps’ liquor department reporter in the Columbus bureau took a vacation rather then lower himself to cover it. Rhodes wanted you to know that he would “never run for editor” but regularly called editors at daybreak for their private conversations.
Meantime, Rhodes got along quite well while reporters lip-synced his jobs-and-progress sweet talk to the voters. He even covered his flanks with African-Americans by appointing W.O. Walker, publisher of black weeklies in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, to do his bidding as his industrial relations director. For all of his jolly-time comedy sketches, there was none better than Rhodes at covering his ass.
You could construct the entire James A. Rhodes with anecdotes, a guy who organized turtle races in Columbus; who commissioned a bronze statue of himself to be erected on the Statehouse grounds; a guy who wanted to build a bridge across Lake Erie to Canada that, he insisted, would create 150,000 jobs; a guy who slandered gays; a guy who touted Ohio tomato juice as the state’s job treasures; a guy who suggested that then-Gov. Celeste and his Austrian wife, Dagmar, were Nazi sympathizers; and a guy who dismissed the toxicity of acid rain, challenging a reporter to name one person who died from it. And when the going got sticky for him, the word around the Statehouse newsroom was that the governor was up to his old tricks of hiding in a weed patch.
He also was the guy who converted a half-million dollar loan from a Cleveland businessman into a fortune in Wendy’s stock. When I asked him about it, he blurted a sharp response, saying he never paid it back because the lender never asked him to.
And yet, for all of his bluster and hustle, he will be remembered – or should be – for his ill-conceived lone wolf decision against the advice of the police and other authorities – to send the Ohio National Guard onto the Kent State campus in the closing shadows of the Ohio gubernatorial primary. The authors should have come down much harder on this tragedy.
The readers of today’s generation may find it strange that a center-ring Barnum and Bailey act could, as the book’s authors note, “get away with it”. Well, it was a much different day, without the Internet, cell phones and cable – all of which can cause a daily brouhaha about this politician or that one, to wit: Can you imagine any major pol defending acid rain, or pledging as a candidate to fire any “homosexual sympathizers” in the Ohio Department of Health?
Yes, he could be cruel and profane. So we will close with this Rhodes quote from the book after he had defeated Mike Disalle. He described the vanquished Democrat as the “fat little Eye-talian son of a bitch.”