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For over 40 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives.With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?Look for a new Tales from the Trail column every Friday.

How Bob Taft Learned Being Jim Rhodes' Running Mate Was No Fun

Jim Nolan

Look, we can sit here all day and argue about whether Robert A. Taft II – Bob Taft, as he is known, was a good or bad governor for the state of Ohio.

That's a matter of personal judgment.

We can say, without fear of contradiction, that he was the 67th governor of the state of Ohio, serving from 1999 to 2007 as a Republican.

Another thing we can say about Bob Taft: His political party owed him an enormous debt of gratitude for agreeing to put up with the embarrassment of being former governor Jim Rhodes' running mate for lieutenant governor in 1986.

Taft made his bones as Rhodes' sidekick in that truly silly campaign.

That service to the GOP, along with one other four years later, earned Taft the right to run for governor.

Credit Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Former Gov. Bob Taft and his wife, Hope

In 1990, Taft – a Hamilton County commissioner at the time – was rarin' to go as a candidate for governor, but he agreed to get out of the way for George Voinovich – who was ultimately elected governor that year.

Taft agreed to run for Ohio Secretary of State in 1990. He won and kept that job for eight years before running for governor in 1998 and reaching The Promised Land.

But it is hard to forget the humiliation, the embarrassment and the abuse Taft had to put up with being on the same ticket with Jim Rhodes in 1986.

A case in point:

It was the summer of 1986. Ohio political reporters arrived at a motel outside the Neil Armstrong Museum in Wapakoneta to go on a western/northwestern Ohio bus tour with Rhodes and Taft.

After a campaign event in Wapakoneta, the campaign bus took off on Interstate 75 and traveled the 60 miles northeast to Upper Sandusky.

Rhodes spotted a Dairy Queen on the road into Upper Sandusky and started barking at the bus driver: Pull in here! Pull in here!  The man could not resist Dairy Queen. 

Reporters, campaign aides, and the two candidates, Rhodes and Taft, bounded off the campaign bus and headed into the already crowded Dairy Queen. It was packed with locals and they recognized the former governor immediately.

They were all solid Buckeye citizens, and residents of heavily Republican Wyandot County, so they all knew the silver-haired, jowly politician who had been their governor for 16 of the past 24 years.

And most of them had voted for him over and over again.

Rhodes, as was his wont in such situations, began running around the room, offering to pick up the tab for everybody.

Banana splits for everybody! C'mon, people, order up! Ice cream on me!

Taft was standing quietly in the corner, as he would often do. Taft wasn't unfriendly, but he was not the most gregarious politician Ohio ever produced. Rhodes, on the other hand, would fit that bill.

Bobby! Bobby! Get up here! What do you want? A banana split?

It was a scorching hot day in the farmland of northwest Ohio and Taft was sweating up a storm.

Just a cup of ice water please.

Rhodes couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Ice water? What's the matter with you?

Soon, everybody in the place was having a good laugh at the expense of the man from Cincinnati who might have been lieutenant governor.

Just another day in the humiliating life of being Jim Rhodes' running mate.

No Republican Party leader in his or her right mind believed Rhodes had a chance to take down Dick Celeste, who was already being talked about as a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 1988.

Rhodes' final campaign of his political career was a disaster from start to finish.

It was a campaign that crashed and burned in a series of embarrassing and downright nasty attacks on Celeste that proved Rhodes was past prime time.

There was a live TV debate in Cincinnati where the former governor babbled about how Celeste had allowed "Australian Nazis" to open a booth at the Ohio State Fair.

There was a lot of head-scratching over that, until people realized he had been talking about Austrians, not Australians. And the Austrians were trade mission officers, not SS Troops.

Taft had to spend way more time than he wanted to trying to explain away that piece of nonsense that had come out of Rhodes' pie hole in a debate that was televised statewide.

Then, when Rhodes' wife Helen fell seriously ill with only a few weeks to go in the campaign, Rhodes disappeared from the campaign trail and turned the entire campaign over to Taft.

From then on, Taft had to battle both Celeste and his Democratic running mate, former Dayton mayor Paul Leonard. Taft was left holding the bag, trying to keep the whole GOP statewide ticket from disappearing into oblivion.

It was too much for Taft. There was no saving the Rhodes-Taft ticket.

On election day, Celeste took 61 percent of the vote to Rhodes' 39 percent. A major landslide.

But, four years later, party leaders promised Taft he would have a free ride if he would get out of the way of their favored candidate for governor, Voinovich.

And eight years later, the immensely popular Voinovich did his part by loudly endorsing Taft to be his successor as governor.

After all, Voinovich knew how much Taft had suffered in 1986.

Voinovich had been Rhodes' running mate in 1978 when Rhodes beat Celeste. And, at the first opportunity, he fled the Rhodes administration to run for mayor of Cleveland.

Life was not always a bowl of cherries being around Jim Rhodes.