I've Heard It All: The Best (And Worst) Of Jim Rhodes

Sep 6, 2019

The other day, I was having lunch in downtown Cincinnati with four old friends, all of whom I have known since our days at Ohio University, when we worked together at The Post, the student newspaper.

As old "Posties," we have a never-ending bond and when we get together, there are a lot of laughs, with little side trips down memory lane and those days decades before we would grow up to learn that we were "enemies of the people."

In those days, we just considered ourselves a bunch of goofballs.

Goofballs who bought ink by the barrel.

Our lunch conversation turned to politicians we had known; and the guys knew I spent a lot of time for The Post hounding Ohio's garrulous, unpredictable governor, James A. Rhodes of Jackson County, Ohio.

It was an up-and-down relationship with Rhodes. To him, one day, I was a smart-aleck, long-haired hippy playing reporter for the purpose of aggravating him. The next day, he would treat me like his favorite nephew.

Here's a guy from a remote corner of the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio who dropped out of Ohio State after one quarter with a report card full of "F's" who clawed and scrapped his way through the tangled mess of Ohio politics to become Columbus mayor, state auditor and, finally, four terms as Ohio's governor.

Being governor was all he wanted to do; he was relentless like an Ohio State running back rumbling to the goal line – three yards and a cloud of dust on each down.

And for a guy with no real college education, he did do much in his first two terms in the 1960s to expand the state's university system – even though the expansion left behind a trail of bonded indebtedness that plagued the state for decades to come.

His goal, Rhodes said, was to "put a college education within 25 miles of every boy and girl in Ohio."

At lunch, one of my Postie buddies asked me a question I have heard more than a few times over the years.

"Was Jim Rhodes just not very smart?'' my friend said.

"Lord, no, that was one of the smartest politicians I have ever met – maybe the smartest," I said.

Jim Rhodes with Wilkinson at the Ohio State Fair in the late '80s.
Credit Courtesy of Howard Wilkinson

He wasn't much on book-learnin', but he had the street smarts to outmaneuver nearly anyone or anything that got in the way of the only thing he was really interested in – putting people to work.

"There are only three issues in this campaign,'' Rhodes would say every time he ran. "Jobs, jobs and jobs."

After lunch, I started thinking about all of the crazy-sounding things I had heard Jim Rhodes say over the years – I say "crazy-sounding," because some of them, if you think about them, made perfect sense.

So here, for the edification of those who weren't around for the Rhodes era in the governor's office, are some of my favorite Rhodes quotes:

  • Once, in 1986, when Rhodes was trying to make an ill-advised comeback as the GOP candidate against Democratic incumbent Dick Celeste, I asked the governor why he seemed to be going out of his way to avoid addressing the issues Celeste was talking about. His response: "Every time I take a position on an issue, I lose two percent of the people. If I do that 50 times, I have everybody mad at me."
  • I've heard him say this of several politicians, Democrats and Republicans, whom Rhodes thought were too prissy: "He's the kind of fellow who would get out of the shower to take a piss."
  • This one predates me – it goes back to the 1968 presidential campaign – when he was yearning for the presidency himself and the governor of Michigan was a candidate for the GOP nomination: "Watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football."
  • Rhodes, at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, on the GOP platform: "Platforms are something you run from, not on."
  • When Richard Nixon came to Columbus in 1981 as the main speaker at an Ohio GOP fundraising dinner at a downtown hotel, Rhodes wanted no part of the disgraced former president. Asked by reporters if he would attend the fundraiser with Nixon, Rhodes said, "I've got to be home to pay the paperboy."
  • His reaction to seeing the Great Wall of China on a 1979 trade mission: "If they really wanted to make some money, they'd build a tram up there and charge $5 a piece."
  • In 1980, Rhodes brought GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan to a meeting of Teamsters in Westerville, where the Teamsters endorsed Reagan for president. Reagan was in the front of the hall, shaking hands with the Teamsters, while Rhodes hung in the back of the room with reporters. At the time there was a debate going on about whether the U.S. should adopt a "two—China" policy, recognizing both the communist mainland and the Nationalist government in Taiwan. An out-of-state reporter, who had never encountered Rhodes before, asked the Ohio governor how the two-China issue would play in Ohio. Rhodes, with a disgusted look on his face, pulled his bulging wallet out of his back pocket and slammed it on the table. "China? China! People in Ohio don't care about China! People in Ohio care about their wallets. Politicians who put money in those wallets do really good here. Politicians who take money out – not so good."
  • On the campaign trail in 1986, when reporters balked at Rhodes offering to pay for their dinners at the Lafayette Inn in Marietta: "What's the matter with you? If I thought I could buy you for $10, I'd offer $5."
  • That same night, in Marietta, after the waiter brought Rhodes his steak. It was smothered in mushrooms, which Rhodes hated. He was afraid they were all poisoned. I offered to eat his mushrooms. "Well, OK. But let me tell you something. When I was a boy back in Jackson County, every time it would rain, we'd go up into the hills with baskets and bring back lots of mushrooms. Then we'd have a big dinner. A few days after that, we'd have a big funeral. But you go ahead and eat those mushrooms. It's your funeral."

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.