Jim Rhodes Explains His (Rather Limited) World View

Jul 29, 2017

Ed. note: Tales from the Trail is a column that will take you behind the scenes of politics to see some of the funny, and sometimes outright bizarre things that happen on the campaign trail, based on Howard Wilkinson's recollections of 43 years of covering politics. 

I cut my teeth as a young reporter on one of the toughest nuts to crack in Ohio political history – the late James A. Rhodes, four-term governor of the Buckeye State.

Rhodes grew up in Jackson County, in the foothills of Appalachia, and had that distinctive accent which made words like "fish" come out feesh and "issues" sound like eee-shews.

He was a crafty old character and could drive a reporter to the point of near madness.

One of this favorite tricks involved his mysterious floating hearing problem.

Let's say you are an earnest young reporter trying to interview the governor on serious subjects of the day.

If you were standing by his side and asked a question he had no interest in answering, he would cock his head, cup his hand around his ear and say, Sorry, can't hear you. A little deaf in that ear.

So you would move other to the other side and ask your question again. 

Same response. Rhodes, looking pained, would tell you, with a straight face, Sorry, can't hear you. A little deaf in that ear.

Former Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes
Credit columbus.gov.

This con game could go on for quite a while until either you ran out of gas, or he would move on to whatever was next on his agenda, which, more often than not, involved eating lunch.

Even though he could be hilariously funny sometimes and you would be tempted to like him, he was the Ohio press corps' burden to bear for the most part. The national news media's encounters with Rhodes were few and far between.

But there was one that stands out in my memory that gave the national reporters a good dose of what we Ohio scribes had to put up with.

It happened in the early fall of 1980 at a big hall in Westerville, filled with Teamsters. The Teamsters had broken with most of organized labor and had just endorsed Ronald Reagan for president; and the GOP presidential candidate came to the Columbus suburb to thank them and hold a big rally.

Rhodes was in his fourth and final term as governor at the time, so of course, he came into the hall with Reagan, to massive cheers from the union crowd.

Reagan was doing what Reagan did, working the crowd and charming the pants off everyone in sight.

Rhodes hung out in the back of the room, surrounded by a large gaggle of Ohio reporters and Reagan's traveling press. Rhodes was holding forth on a variety of subjects, most of which the traveling press corps didn't understand or care about and most of which the Ohio reporters had heard several thousand times.

At the time, one of the big national story lines of the presidential contest between Reagan and Jimmy Carter was the "Two China Policy,'' a dust-up Reagan began during August 1980 when he suggested that he supported official U.S. relations with Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China. Mainland China – the People's Republic of China – was furious over the suggestion. There is only one China, they said.

In 1979, Carter had broken off U.S. relations with Taiwan to cement relations with the People's Republic of China.

There was an awful lot of back-and-forth about this in the national news media coverage of the campaign, especially after Reagan had sent his running mate, George H.W. Bush, to Beijing to help smooth things over with the government there.

Which brings us back to Westerville.

One bow-tied reporter in a seersucker suit who was with the traveling party of national press cleared his throat and addressed the Ohio governor.

Governor, he said, pen and pad in hand, how is the Two China Policy going to play in Ohio?

Rhodes squinted his eyes and crinkled his nose like someone had just let loose a foul smell in the room.

The governor reached into the back pocket of his trousers, pulled out a rather thick wallet, and slammed it down on a nearby table, making the entire press corps jump back a step.

China?, Rhodes hollered. Nobody in Ohio cares about China!

You see that wallet? That's what people in Ohio care about. Politicians who put money in their wallets – they do real good. Politicians who take money out – well, they don't do so good.

Don't talk to me about China! Ohio cares about three things – jobs, jobs and jobs. You get that? Write that down!

We all wrote that down, including the somewhat shell-shocked reporter in the seersucker suit – who had probably by then concluded that this was not the time nor place to talk of international politics.

It was pure Rhodes. The Ohio reporters just rolled their eyes and chuckled. The national press seemed befuddled.

Which is exactly what Rhodes aimed to do.

Although, truth to tell, if Jim Rhodes had been around in today's political climate in Ohio, that little piece of political theater probably wouldn't go over very well. Since then, Ohio voters care a lot more about China in 2017 than they did in 1980.

But as always, the showman Rhodes lived in the moment.