THE GILLIGAN FAMILY assembled a few nights ago to honor John Joyce Gilligan on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Although most of the nearly 200 who showed up at the Renaissance Hotel in Columbus were related to him only in reverential memories of their times with the former Ohio Democratic governor, it was indeed a family affair. The warm seamless camaraderie was real, the brief after- dinner talks from the podium were from the heart and the anecdotal references to the man who referred to himself as a "banana-nosed Irishman" were restorative for those us who have soured beyond hope on the current Ohio governor.
The crowd included three previous governors - Dick Celeste and Ted Strickland and Gilligan's daughter, Kathleen Sebelius, twice Democratic governor of the religiously Republican state of Kansas and now Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama cabinet.
None of this should in any way suggest that we are talking about another Frank Skeffington here, Edwin O'Connor's Old Sod Boston mayor who was given a dubious place in ward-heeling political history in The Last Hurrah. Gilligan never disguised the genetic Irish humor that was a delight (and occasional frustration!) for his staff and for reporters who were paid to report his days at the Statehouse, this writer included. But we were deceived by his airy manner. He was deadly serious about what he wanted to accomplish as the state's chief executive for Ohioans.
Gilligan was a humane person, professorially educated faculty man and possessed of enormous courage, who believed that people besides himself counted. As a naval officer in WW2 his heroism earned him a Silver Star. As a Cincinnati councilman, he walked the streets during the rioting to defend innocent blacks returning from their jobs who were set upon by police. And as a gubernatorial candidate in 1970, he promised to support a state income tax to pay for the mounting bills. For the more traditional pols, he was no more than an inch from stepping off a very steep cliff. Still, the legislature figured it was the best route to go and enacted it. The Republican lawmakers who voted for it were far more enlightened then, don't you think?
One by one, the folks who stepped up to the microphone to pay homage to the "father of the state income tax" saluted his daring and his legacy of honest leadership. Jim Friedman, the governor's chief of staff, set the casual tone as the emcee by telling the folks to kick off their shoes, lean back and enjoy the tributes. And the credits rolled on with a dedication to the income tax. It was different. When, after all, was the last time that you heard anybody praised for whipping up any kind of tax? One speaker went so far as to mention that the state's current hapless antitax governor is able to channel $16 billion from the income tax into state services. In fact, all of Kasich's boastful talk about phasing out the tax has soon disappeared from his empty rhetoric.
It was a a reunion of sincere pleasantries and wistfulness over the one-term governor who was removed from office in 1974 by the margin of a handful of votes with the return of Jim Rhodes, a man of half of Gilligan's intellect but blessed by down-home basic political skills. When Gilligan wasn't looking, his inept campaign staff literally handed the election to Rhodes, whose safe conduct through the campaign was superbly handled by a TV ad agency that saw little reason to expose the often unintelligible Rhodes in their rips at Gilligan. (The word of the day was "put the message in the ads and hide the candidate (the rough-cut Rhodes) in the basement."
Frank Skeffington was among the missing at the birthday party. Instead, Gilligan, one of the great but unappreciated public servants that I witnessed for years as a political writer, was there instead, his mobility slowed by age but his magnetism reaching across the years to the throng in the big dining room who wanted to share the privilege of being in his midst one more time. In that sense, it was hardly his last hurrah. Let's hope not.