Tuesday, March 06, 2001

A politician anybody could like

        The thing that set James A. Rhodes, who died Sunday at the age of 91, apart from other politicians was that you could not stay mad at him.

        Whether you were a reporter assigned to write about him and paid to listen to his stream-of-consciousness rants on everything from building bridges over Lake Erie to turning over the median strips of highways to farmers to increase Ohio tomato production.

        Or you were a political adversary talking to him in the language of political philosophy and getting answers in horse-trading talk, you were bound to walk away doing two things: (1) scratching your head in amazement and (2) liking the guy.

        People liked him. Even people who had nothing at all in common with a lunch-meat-loving coal miner's son from Jackson County who scratched and joked his way to great wealth and even greater political power.

        It was the thing that set him apart from the run-of-the-mill, self-important politician who was born in a suit and wouldn't be caught dead walking in the muck at the state fair swine barn.

Salesman and showman

        He was a salesman, a showman, the carney who separated you from your dollar bill.

        A campaign trip with James A. Rhodes was always a journey that started out with more or less an itinerary but would always end up getting diverted.

        A Rhodes trip would start in the early morning in Columbus on a customized motor coach. There would be a cooler in the back loaded with the governor's favorite foods — Dutch loaf, Lebanon bologna, several kinds of cheese, a jar of mustard and a loaf of Wonder Bread.

        You might find yourself barreling down U.S. 30 from Lima to Upper Sandusky, when the governor would spot a Dairy Queen. The bus would wheel around into the parking lot; the traveling road show would storm into the restaurant.

        Mr. Rhodes would then announce that he was buying ice cream for everybody. Reporters would demur, citing the professional code that says they do not accept gifts from news sources. The governor would wrinkle his face in disgust; and deliver his verdict on journalism ethics:

        “If I thought I could buy you for $10, I'd offer $5.”

Sound barrier

        If you had a tough question the governor didn't particularly want to answer, he had a miraculously simple way to dodge your questions.

        He was somewhat deaf in one ear, although trying to figure out which ear it was was like playing a game of “hide the pea.”

        If you stood on his left side and asked an uncomfortable question, the governor would squint at you from behind his oversized Buddy Holly glasses, shake his jowly face and say, “I can't hear you.”

        So, you would move over to the governor's right side and shout your question so that everyone within a football field's length could hear you.

        Somehow, the governor's deafness would skedaddle to his right ear. What? Can't hear you. Deaf in that ear.

        There wasn't a great deal you do about this but fume for awhile and then laugh.

        Which is what he wanted you to do in the first place. That, and learn to love Dutch loaf.
        Email hwilkinson@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/wilkinson


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