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John GilliganIf I told you that a 420-page biography about a one-term Governor was a must read, you’d probably tell me I need to pick a new topic for my blog.

Alas, “John J. Gilligan,” is an excellent book for anyone interested or involved in Cincinnati or Ohio politics. For those who prefer national politics during the late sixties and early seventies, this book might also pique your interest as it shows how the national mood was reflected in state political decisions.

The book is subtitled “The Politics of Principle,” which sounds like something that came from the campaign book name generator. Author Mark Bernstein doesn’t lay it on too thick in the book–he is not overly-fawning and includes some of the real criticisms of the Governor. Sure, it was published by the “Gilligan Institute,” but it is an important contribution to Ohio political history and deserves a place on the shelf of anyone who cares about Buckeye state history.

My first awareness that there was even a former Governor Gilligan was around the time I voted for him as he ran for the Cincinnati School Board. His re-election campaign coincided with my involvement in city politics and so I saw him on the circuit. 80-year-old guys on the campaign trail can be overlooked, so I’m sure I paid far less attention to him than I should have. He was the respected elder in the room. I wish I had read this book back then (it wasn’t published until 2013) because I’m sure I would have wanted to ask him to tell some of these stories to me and the younger politicos I ran around with.

The story is a full biography–childhood to 2013–and the first third of the book is very Cincinnati-centric. The Gilligan family history is very much a part of Cincinnati’s history. The family funeral home was and still is an institution. The Governor’s father and grandfather were both on the board of one of the city’s most famous companies, a little grocer founded by Barney Kroger, where I work today. Gilligan taught at Xavier, where I went to school. His first elected office was at City Hall, which is where I first worked in politics. So much of the book was familiar to me, and as such it was a ton of fun to read.

The Cincinnati politics section will interest anyone even mildly involved in politics here. (If you are a Cincinnatian who can’t fathom reading all 400 pages, just read these chapters.) There’s a discussion of the Charter Committee, proportional representation, the riots (in the sixties), early downtown redevelopment efforts, a red scare at City Hall, and even Ohio’s Right to Work ballot initiative in the late fifties.

Names like Ted Berry, Jim Luken, Ed Waldvogel, Sidney Weil, Bill Kircher, Dorothy Dolbey, Gene Ruehlmann, Carl Rich and John “Socko” Wiethe, familiar to Cincinnati politicos, are key players in the Governor’s early political life. Socko is the antagonist into one of the best stories recounted in the book: how Gilligan and his fellow activists (progressives?) worked to overthrow Wiethe as chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. Gilligan and others called themselves “Democrats United,” and what struck me is how hard they had to work to get what ended up only being brief control of the local party. They organized for months and months throughout the entire city, and presented a vision that allowed them to pick off broad constituencies that expanded their base. Even still, they only won by a nose. Party politics are rough and tumble and the lesson is that they aren’t something that can be radically changed if you are only working on it as a project “off the side of your desk.” (Some people who are currently engaged in politics locally would be wise to look at the book’s lessons on this subject.) Socko got the last laugh and was back in power after a short interregnum, as the activists’ interests eventually flamed out. (By the way, a friend of mine who knew him loves to quote one of Socko’s favorite lines: “Don’t worry about anything, nothing’s alright.” Had to work that in somehow.)

Gilligan went on to be a surprisingly influential member of Congress in 1965-66, during the bulk of Johnson’s Great Society legislative program. His political gifts earned him respect from the Broders and Germonds of the world and that served him well over the years. At this point, Ohio’s political legends enter the tale, starring Jim Rhodes, Mike DiSalle, William Saxbe, Robert Taft, Vern Riffe, and Frank Lausche. Great stuff here. All stories that are mostly lost now, but really shouldn’t be.

(And speaking of references that were personal to me, Bernstein mentions a famous Life Magazine article called “The Governor and the Mobster,” which is about Governor Rhodes, Yonnie Licavoli, and Michael DeAngelo, who happens to be my great-grandfather and who was rumored to have tried to bribe several Governors of Ohio to secure Licavoli’s release from prison.)

After losing a few races, Gilligan eventually became Governor, (the stories of how he parlayed his political losses to “fall up” contain another important lesson for today’s politicos), and the book focuses on the biggest fight of Gilligan’s term as Governor, the creation of the state’s personal income tax. This is finely written legislative history. Another note for Ohio/Cincinnati history buffs: the task force that provided support for creating the personal income tax was led by Jacob Davis, the CEO of Kroger. John Mahaney, the former head of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants said it was the most impressive task force he ever had seen. Mahaney would know. He’s been one of Ohio’s most influential non-elected officials, ever.

The book rambles a bit during the rest of the Governor’s administration. There’s quite a bit of staff drama and four chapters that cover themes that Gilligan likely felt were his biggest accomplishments. These chapters could have used a stronger critical voice–it’s mostly favorable without perspective of the political opposition. Later on there’s a story of how Gilligan and allies tried to ram through legislation after the election and before he left office, during his lame duck period. It’s hard to square that effort with much of the rest of Gilligan’s career, and Bernstein, I thought, mostly let him off the hook when writing about that period.

As an aside, I’ve noticed that many books about politicians and elected officials struggle organizationally. Often political biographers choose to highlight themes by chapters, one about a political battle over taxes, another about environmental legislation, and so on. It’s helpful to the reader, because it keeps the chapters focused. But what this style always misses is the reality of governing: none of these things happen in a vacuum. Governors, Mayors, Presidents never get the luxury of focusing on just one thing at a time–it’s always 20 things at a time. Readers don’t get the chance to see how that dynamic makes governing so difficult. A book written chronologically would be more honest about what is most challenging about governing, but it would be much harder to both write and read.

The reelection campaign chapters are great and are evidence of what most campaign people know: Campaigns matter. The structure, field effort, message, AND personnel actually do matter. At the beginning of the chapter, it’s hard to imagine he could lose. But he did, and not by much. The campaign was described as uninspired and without a clear message. All of American history may have changed but for a few thousand votes in 1974; Gilligan was already thinking about running for national office and most believed he made a plausible candidate for President.

The book winds down content-wise with his departure from the Governor’s mansion, as Gilligan went on to have great influence at US AID, Notre Dame, and of course, back to the Cincinnati Public Schools Board. He lived the life of someone who embraced the Jesuit ideals–lifelong learning, endless searching for what is right, and a dedication to helping others.

Gilligan died last year and this book is a worthy examination of his important and consequential life. He is one of Cincinnati’s most accomplished native sons and this is history worth reading. Highly recommend this.

Thanks for reading.