The Sad Cake: My First Election Night As A Reporter

Sep 2, 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. 

For Ohio Gov. John J. Gilligan, the Cincinnati Democrat, 1974 was supposed to be a very good year.

He was a candidate for re-election to a second term as governor, facing the former Republican governor James A. Rhodes.

And Gilligan went into the fall campaign as the decided favorite. The Republican Party was a train wreck, from top to bottom.

In August, only about three months from the election, President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace rather than be convicted and of high crimes and misdemeanors and removed from office in the Watergate scandal.

The entire Republican Party, from the local level to the national, was spiraling down the drain. It was going to be a mid-term election in which Democrats running for governor, Congress and a host of other offices would hit the jackpot.

Former Ohio Gov. John J. Gilligan
Credit Ohio History Central

Nearly everyone – including most Ohio Republicans – assumed that Gilligan would easily win another term, with his opponent being James A. Rhodes, the garrulous and sometimes confusing Republican from the foothills of Appalachia who had served two terms as governor in the 1960s.

This turned out to be the first Ohio governor's race I ever covered as a reporter. I was still a student at Ohio University, writing for The Post, the five-day-a-week campus newspaper.

I teamed up with my pal at The Post, Ken Klein, and we became something of a well-known double-byline on campus. Not up to Woodward-Bernstein standards, of course, but pretty well-known in our little corner of the world for our sometimes off-the-wall, over-the-top writing.

Some journalism profs loved our stuff; others just shook their heads and muttered that those two would never amount to anything.

When election night came, Klein and I spent the night shuttling between the Ohio Secretary of State's office in the brand-new state office tower (named after Rhodes) and the legendary Neil House Hotel, which stood directly across from the State Capitol on downtown Columbus' High Street.

The Neil House is long gone now. But for many years, it was the epicenter of Ohio politics. On the ground floor was The Red Lion Bar, a bar frequented by state legislators, lobbyists, and bureaucrats of all stripes.

In fact, if you were looking for some legislative leaders, you started your search not in their offices but in The Red Lion, where you would find them in various states of composure.

Former Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes
Credit City of Columbus

That night, both the Gilligan and Rhodes campaign rented out one of the Neil House's many massive ballrooms for their "victory parties."  

Gilligan was, at the time, being talked about as a possible Democratic presidential candidate, or at the very least, as someone's vice presidential running mate. This was dead serious talk in those days.

Early in the evening, Klein was over in the Rhodes ballroom while I hung out for a while in the Gilligan victory party, as a crowd of Democrats from around the state gathered for what they believed would surely be a huge celebration.

At one point, white-jacketed servers from the hotel wheeled in a monstrously huge cake and placed it in the center of the room. This ginormous thing was made in the shape of the White House, with the lettering "Gilligan '76" in red-and-blue frosting.

Indeed, Gilligan held an early lead and things were looking good for the Democrats.

But the margin began to close late at night, even the TV stations were reporting on their 11 p.m. newscasts that Gilligan was the winner. In fact, before they went on the air, Rhodes had already gathered his supporters together in his ballroom and made a maudlin concession speech, in which he talked about "fading away and spending time fishing (pronounced 'feeshing' in southeast Ohio dialect) with my grandchildren."

Rhodes went upstairs to a suite in the Neil House and went to bed.

But Klein and I were working well after midnight, watching that Gilligan lead slowly disappear.

And, then, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Rhodes pulled ahead by the slimmest of margins.

Klein and I called in our final lede on the story at nearly 6 a.m., dictating it to our editor, John Kiesewetter, back in Athens.

Somebody woke Rhodes up and he got dressed and ran down to the ballroom, where a handful of supporters remained, where he gave a victory speech, saying he knew all along he would pull it out.

The headline on our final story was astounding: Rhodes up by 10,000; recount likely.

Rhodes had won by less than one vote per precinct statewide.

We were able to get the whole story when most Ohio newspapers had Gilligan winning because our deadlines were so late; we didn't have to get the paper out to the town newspaper, The Messenger, to be printed until after 6 a.m.

By 9 a.m., it was on news racks on campus.

There were a lot of reasons Gilligan didn't win.

He had shut down the state parks for a time as a budget-saving measure. And his sharp wit didn't always help him.

Once, he was at the state fair, touring the Junior 4-H animal barns, as is expected of all Ohio governors. In the sheep barn, surrounded by reporters, Gilligan was asked by a photographer to sheer a sheep.

I don't shear sheep, the governor said, I shear taxpayers.

You can imagine how that joke went over.

It was after 6 a.m.; Klein and I had finished our job, feeling good about getting the story and getting it right.

I wandered into the Gilligan ballroom. Nearly everyone was gone; there were just a few despondent Democrats.

The White House cake sat in the middle of the room. It looked stale and beat up and half-eaten. It had pretty much collapsed in on itself.

It was one sad cake. And one sad night for Ohio Democrats.