Tales from the Trail

barbara bush
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Editor's note, updated April 17, 8:03 p.m.: In light of the news that Barbara Bush has died at the age of 92, WVXU politics reporter Howard Wilkinson reflects on a time he met the former first lady. 

When you meet someone in politics who really cares about something, you take notice.

Not just the surface "caring" of political rhetoric written by a campaign speechwriter and delivered in fake sincerity, but someone who cares about certain things deeply, passionately and with every fiber of his or her being. 

Former first lady Barbara Bush is one of those rare people in politics. 

Last June, you might have read a short story about it in the local newspaper, heard a snippet on the radio, or vaguely recognized a face that flashed on a TV screen.

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.

I worked for newspapers, principally the Cincinnati Enquirer, for 38 years.

And, during that time, I was sent by those newspapers to cities all over the North America dozens of times.

But only once did my editors send me to the wrong city. It's a tale worth telling.

This tale stems from a news story which was one of the most tragic I've ever had to cover – the Air Canada disaster of June 1983.

Some people find it hard to believe, but there was a time early in my career that I was known to the public as primarily a humor columnist.

It's true. From 1977 to 1982, at the Troy Daily News, I had a column that ran in the Sunday magazine section called And Another Thing…Don't ask me how, but it became wildly popular in Troy; aside from the sport pages, it may have been the most read thing in the paper.

Beats me how it happened. But it made me a celebrity of sorts in that small town in western Ohio.

Having been something of a class clown growing up in Dayton, Ohio, terrorizing many an innocent grade school teacher at Cleveland Elementary School with my pranks and wise-acre behavior, I suppose it's not surprising that, as an adult, I would get my chance to be a genuine circus clown.

Complete with greasepaint, baggy pants, and dozens of skinny balloons stuffed into my oversized pockets to turn into balloon animals for the kiddies.

Part 2 of a two-part Tales from the Trail:

Sometimes, I don't believe it either.

I've had a career covering politics where I have gone to 16 presidential nominating conventions, Democratic and Republican.

More than any one human being should have to bear.

I shouldn't complain, though, even in jest. I've visited some great American cities, seen a few baseball games in some ball parks I might never have gotten to, and, from time to time, actually witnessed American history being made.

And told the story.

It's a fact; I have been to 16 presidential nominating conventions, Democratic and Republican, over the course of my career covering politics.

Some would say this cruel and unusual punishment is more than any one human being deserves.

After all, the political people only go to their own party's conventions. I go to both. Often in back-to-back weeks.

People often ask me which conventions have been the worst to cover and which have been the best.

Usually, when you look back at a long period of time working in the same place, it is the first day on the job that you remember the most.

The nervousness. The overwhelming desire to impress. The first time you have to go to someone and ask where the restroom is.

In other words, your general dorkiness.

That first day is something to remember.

But, for me, it is the second day I worked at the Cincinnati Enquirer I remember the most.

One of the most memorable interviews I've done in my career was with a man who was not a politician, but was a spiritual adviser to many occupants of the White House over the years.

Billy Graham, the world's most famous TV evangelist, who has spread his Gospel message to billions on television and in person all over the world since starting his ministry by pitching tents in a Los Angeles parking lot in 1949, is now 99 years old and living in retirement in his mountaintop home near Asheville, North Carolina.

It's not often in a political reporter's career that you find yourself in a room where you actually witness the moment an American president's chances of being re-elected go up in a puff of smoke.

I was in such a room on October 28,1980, at the old Convention Center Music Hall in Cleveland, for the only head-to-head debate between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter.

And, to this day, I believe that debate sealed Carter's fate.

I traveled Ohio on enough campaign trips with the late governor James A. Rhodes, one of the true characters of Ohio politics, to know that his tastes in food were eclectic to say the least.

On the campaign bus, it was sandwiches made from his favorite lunch meat, Lebanon bologna. At the Ohio State Fair, it was funnel cakes and a stop at the lunch wagon run by Der Dutchman, an Amish restaurant in Plain City, for an overstuffed roast beef sandwich.

Last week, Tales from the Trail introduced you to some famous eateries that have become must-stops for candidates running for office in Ohio – from candidates for county offices to the presidency. There are so many such places in Ohio, dishing out chili, piergoies, ice cream, hot dogs and hamburgers that we felt a "part two" was needed. And, in fact, there are so many, that Tales From the Trail may revisit the subject in the future. Here are some more dining spots that make up the political map of Ohio:

Price Hill Chili, Cincinnati

Food and good places to eat are the one constant of running for public office in Ohio. Every city and town, it seems, has a restaurant, a diner, a hamburger stand that is a candidate-magnet. I've been in dozens of them in every corner of the state. This is part one of a two-part Tales from the Trail on my memories of dining on the campaign trail. Part two will follow next Saturday.

The Maid-Rite Sandwich Shoppe, Greenville

I write this in the form of a confession.

The bad news is that I was once guilty of creating fake news.

The good news is I was only 13 years old.

Back when we were kids, growing up on the east side of Dayton, my buddy Mike and I put together a whopper of a scam that was meant to prank none other than the U.S. Air Force – specifically, Project Blue Book, the Air Force's long-standing program to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.

Reporting sightings of strange things in the skies was all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s.

There are some invitations to Christmas parties and holiday gatherings where you can thank the person inviting you and send your regrets for not being able to attend.

You might feel bad about it, but there's only so much time and so many places you can be.

In November 2009, I received one where "regrets" was not an option.

An invitation to the White House holiday party for print reporters.

Jim Rhodes, the late four-term governor of Ohio, could be a real pain in the neck.

He could also be a very funny man, in a Rhodesian, Southern Ohio kind of way.

I remember two days, both at the Ohio State Fair, where I experienced both Jims.

The first time was in 1994 and the second in 1998, long after Rhodes left office. Rhodes was getting up in years and couldn't walk the fairgrounds the way he did in the old days, when he was the grand poobah and chief architect of the annual summer event in Columbus.

I'm writing this for those of you who may be just out of college and looking for a job; or those who a bit older but who are looking for a change of scenery in the workplace.

It is the story of how you can do something incredibly stupid in the middle of a job interview and still get the job.

Not that I recommend this method, mind you. But I am proof positive that it can be done.

Allow me to explain:

If you are what we euphemistically like to call a "veteran" Reds fan, you no doubt remember watching the sixth game of the 1975 World Series between the Big Red Machine and the Boston Red Sox.

At noon today, two contiguous states – Ohio and Michigan – will be at a near standstill because of a football game in Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

The Ohio State Buckeyes versus the Michigan Wolverines. Quite possibly, the greatest rivalry in college football history.

I am a great fan of Thanksgiving. I love the feast; I love the fellowship of being with family and friends; I love the idea of a holiday all about giving thanks for our blessings in life.

I love the fact that I don’t have to cook; my sister Barbara in Dayton is the principal chef.

Not that I don't contribute to the family feast. I put together a relish tray. That's right – a relish tray. It's not exactly slaving over a hot stove, but, hey, those Spanish olives don't jump out of the jar by themselves, you know.

Pool reporter.

Most people outside of journalism don't know what that term means; and could not possibly care less.

I know, because I have been the local pool reporter on a countless number of visits to Cincinnati or environs by presidents, first ladies, vice presidents and others who have Secret Service protection.

And I consider it the worst job in journalism.

When you are on the road with a presidential candidate, campaign press aides will promise you the moon and stars to make you happy.

They promise to make sure you are fed, that you have plenty of time to file your stories, that you will have dependable transportation to get from one event to another.

They may even promise you some quality time with the candidate.

After a while, though, you learn to take these promises with a grain of salt.

I've done a lot of traveling in my years as a reporter, from one end of this country to the other. Lots of airports; lots of airport hassles; lots of long cab rides from airport to hotel.

And I've learned a thing or two about travel.

Meeting very famous people in politics and the media has always been part of the territory in my line of work.

It generally doesn't impress me much, especially when it is at a presidential nominating convention, where you don't have time to stand around and gape at celebrities. (With one exception, which I wrote about in this column a while back, when I encountered supermodel Christie Brinkley and chatted for a while at a taxi stand outside a Los Angeles hotel in 2000. That got my attention.)

Dan Quayle.

Now, there's a name from the past you probably haven't thought about lately.

The 44th  vice president of the United States.

First Lady Barbara Bush was one of the most popular presidential spouses of my lifetime.

She was also one of the most politically savvy First Ladies we've had.

I found that out in early October 1992 in, of all places, a chili parlor in downtown Cincinnati.

She was here for the day campaigning for her husband, President George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States. Her husband was locked in a brutal and ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign.

WVXU-FM

WVXU politics writer Howard Wilkinson spoke with News Director Maryanne Zeleznik Monday about the origin of his off-beat politics column, Tales from the Trail, and where it is going from here. You can find Tales from the Trail here.

One drawback to covering politics for a living is that you end up riding on a lot of campaign buses.

I've been a passenger on hundreds of them – some very fancy, others very plain. Some were reasonably comfortable; others were hot and sweaty and gave one the distinct impression mechanical failure was imminent and you might have to find an alternate mode of transportation.

But there was only campaign bus I rode on that was pulled over by the Ohio Highway Patrol for speeding.

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. 

Every presidential administration has its own way of getting its message out to the American people.

That's something we expect. Something we didn't expect was presidential communication via Twitter.

But that's another story for another day.

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