- John J. Gilligan: The Politics of Principle by Mark Bernstein
In the 2007 anthology Ohio Politics, Alexander Lamis and John Gargan note that John J. Gilligan “would be a terrific topic” for a book.1 And now we have it. [End Page 92] John Gilligan (1921‒2013) is best known as the sixty-second governor of Ohio, from 1971 to 1975, a Democrat elected between Republican James A. Rhodes’s record-setting four terms. Gilligan’s one term is the crescendo of Bernstein’s biography. In those four years, Gilligan created the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and enacted reforms in the administration’s state mental health and penal institutions, for example. He also persuaded a Republican-dominated legislature to finance this agenda by passing the state’s first-ever income tax.
These efforts and others are Gilligan’s answer to his question “What is politics for?” and alludes to the book’s subtitle, “The Politics of Principle.” Politics was “the self-conscious act of changing society for the betterment of those individuals who comprised it” (304). In contrast to Rhodes, Gilligan gave the voters what he thought they needed to make their lives better, not necessarily what he thought they said they wanted. As Ohioans drive through the beautiful and reclaimed strip-mined hills of eastern Ohio, they can see that Gilligan’s one term helped to make the state better than it otherwise might have been. It even helped Governor Rhodes. The taxes the General Assembly enacted during the Gilligan administration helped Rhodes to balance the state’s budgets in his second set of terms.
Expanding exponentially on the Hugh McDiarmid essay “The Gilligan Interlude, 1971‒1975” in Ohio Politics, Bernstein presents the comprehensive life and times of the man. Although the readers know how Gilligan’s story ended, he did not and Bernstein spends due time laying out the paths that young Gilligan followed before a life in politics. The scion of a prosperous family of Irish Catholic funeral directors, Gilligan had aspired to be a Jesuit priest and then an academic after graduating from Notre Dame in 1942 and doing combat service as a junior officer on a navy destroyer during World War II. Elected to Cincinnati’s city council in 1953, he found his calling and served ten years. In 1964, on the coattails of Lyndon Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater, Gilligan won election to Congress in Ohio’s heavily Republican First District. Following a failed bid for reelection in 1966 and another defeat in 1968 against William Saxbe for the U.S. Senate, Gilligan won the race for governor in 1970.
Gilligan’s failed reelection in 1974 marked the end of elective office-seeking on state and federal levels. It did not, however, mean he was finished with the question, “What is politics for?” Gilligan went on to serve as the director of the United States Agency for International Development and to teach and found the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies at Notre Dame. Retiring from Notre Dame, he returned to Cincinnati, also to teach, and, at age seventy-eight, won a seat on the city’s school board. [End Page 93]
Gilligan is an “interview-driven book” (479) and relies on those with Gilligan himself, his associates, and his family. Bernstein also mined the papers of these associates, held privately and in various archives, as well as the John J. Gilligan Papers at the Ohio History Connection in Columbus and the holdings of the State Library of Ohio, the Cincinnati Historical Society, the Library of Congress, and Gongwer, a news service that provides daily reporting about the Ohio General Assembly. The book also includes a comprehensive bibliography of secondary sources, a gold mine for students of post‒World War II Ohio history and politics.
Bernstein is the author of ten other books, most about Ohio history, and approximately one hundred articles for magazines such as Smithsonian. His skill as a writer shines through his prose. Gilligan is a page-turner...