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John Gilligan


By Thomas Geoghegan

SINCE THE medium is the message in politics, or can override the message, ownership of the media has lately become more crucial than ballot-counting in determining who wins elections. Campaigns are packaged into commodities that candidates may purchase from election market analysts; TV dispenses public policy on a county-by-county basis. This could theoretically make for moral neutrality, but its practical effect enables the moneyed candidate to come into more living rooms as man-of-the people.

In Ohio last fall, a two million dollar base bought Republican Senatorial candidate William Saxbe the campaign services of Market Opinion Research, MOR and Sexbe "saturated" the state, with the help of a party machine almost twenty years in power, and narrowly beat a liberal dove candidate named John Gilligan.

Gilligan represents some of the best liberal political talent now out of office all over the nation. As a visiting Fellow this spring at the Kennedy Institute of Politics, he has reason to be skeptical of just what the communications explosion is communicating. His campaigns in Ohio suggest that an issue-oriented approach may have liabilities when used on voters who have not heard and do not want to hear certain issues discussed. And since his Republican opponent out-spent him 5 to 1, Gilligan must wonder whether these voters ever got to hear him at all.

But those who followed the Democratic Convention in Chicago saw him and heard him. Gilligan informally chaired the Convention group that drafted the "peace plank," and he led the dove coalition on the convention floor. His job was to mediate between the Kennedy and McCarthy partisans--Sorenson, Goodwin, O'Donnell, and others.

In Ohio, Gilligan already had come to personify the New Politics by defeating right-wing, incumbent Senator Frank Lausche in the party primary that May. It was a shrewdly run intraparty coup, and it rid the party of an embarrassing conservative.

The winner--Irish Catholic, handsome, personable, intellectual, and quotable--attracted attention outside of Ohio, too. Throughout the campaign he projected the image of a candidate concerned with issues in a coherent way. Students turned in large numbers to volunteer, and liberal journals noted his potential for national leadership. Then he lost.

One evening early this month Gilligan talked with a small group at Quincy House about obstacles to political reform--and to reform candidates. He made no sweeping statements about the decline of democracy, but his remarks did suggest that electoral politics has become the dismal science. And in a painfully true truism, he also admitted that money talks. "I would have taken the financial aspect much more seriously if I had it to do over again," Gilligan reflected wryly. "I thought the money would always turn up somewhere once the campaign began to roll. It didn't. We had to close down the campaign for two months in the summer because we couldn't pay the phone bills."

He did not refer to the Senate race often. Instead, he steered the conversation toward topics like the Committee of 15 and student politics. But when the talk occasionally drifted back to the irresponsibility of those who made public opinion, Gilligan warmed. "This country has developed the most fantastic system of communications the world has ever known, but people living today know as much about what's going on as Mongolian tribesmen," he said. It was not just that TV, and the press failed to transmit both sides of a question to the public; they stupified the electorate as well.

The media operated on the theory that they should persuade potential consumers, not inform potential voters. "When television first appeared, it had the greatest potential of anything man had ever invented," Gilligan said. "The British were able to realize this [with the BBC] but we were not." Newspapers were not much better. Gilligan did not think that televised distortion of the news was more frequent or more harmful than selective exclusion of news by newspapers. Editors, he said, usually have no qualms about blacking out certain events or stories that offend their biases. He challenged his audience to count up the columns of straight political news in a metropolitan daily. "There's very little hard information about politics. . . . It's really impossible to get news on, say, a bill in Congress."

I GREW UP across the street from the Gilligan household in Cincinnati. I have always been a little awed by the impressive range of subjects on which my neighbor could deliver a fairly erudite opinion. But the last four years have been discouraging for Gilligan watchers, bringing three hard-fought battles and two narrow losses in unfriendly Republican territory. First came the nationally-covered Congressional race with Robert Taft, Jr., heir to the Taft political dynasty in Cincinnati. Then the loss to Saxbe, a nonentity on whom the state GOP lavished millions to defeat the man Republicans considered Ohio's Red threat.

Yet Gilligan looked relaxed, not burned out, when I saw him at Quincy. Some of the red has gone out of his hair--which should please voters who dislike flamboyance--but that is the only real change. He appears passive at first, a quiet-spoken man with unpolitical pale blue eyes. Few casual observers would guess his reputation as one of Ohio's most formidable debaters. During the campaign, Saxbe not only refused to debate him, but his staff had orders to make sure that he and Gilligan were never in the same building.

Though he is at odds with what is commonly known as "the system," the tone of Gilligan's voice is more dryly incredulous than righteous. His attitude towards the much abused middle class comes closer to sympathy than sarcasm. "The problem is ignorance, really," he said this month. "During the campaign, I'd often use a speech to reel off some statistics that would shake a few of them quite plainly: things such as, we spend twenty times as much on pet food in this country than we do on the food stamp program." He shrugged his shoulders and continued. "Then the only gripes you ever hear are that there are too many giveaway programs for the poor."

People aren't being presented the issues, that's why. If the average American--Well, 'average' is a bad word--if most Americans knew how it really felt to live in a ghetto, they would want to do something about it." Whether or not this qualifies as misguided liberal optimism, it probably does explain why Gilligan has kept on trying in Ohio politics.

"One thing that's attractive about the Senate," he remarked," is that it makes a good pulpit. If a Senator wants to talk about people who are starving, then the press has to report what the says. If he wants to visit a ghetto, there will be some cameraman to follow him. . . . Bobby Kennedy knew this. I think he showed how the office could be used."

THE PROBLEM of moving a lumpy public conscience, dormant but not dead, proved the most frustrating challenge of the Senate campaign. Voters were angry. The media played up the violence in the street, which had an entertainment value, but the causes of violence received scanty coverage. Gilligan's son Don, a senior at Harvard who spent most of first semester in Ohio, concluded" "We didn't really understand the way people were thinking. We hammered away at the solutions which were necessary: getting out of Vietnam, rebuilding the cities. But what people wanted to hear about were the riots and crime. In small towns, all they could talk about were campus radicals, though the nearest major university might be miles away."

These were the frothy issues that Saxbe seized. The Republican treasury financed a flood of full page ads in Ohio newspapers. These ads listed the platforms of the two candidates in parallel columns, Saxbe naturally came out for "law and order tempered with justice," while Gilligan was quoted as saying, "I urge students to take to the streets." It was a fraudulent quote. but it read well.

Saxbe headquarters issued five different position statements on the war, to be distributed in appropriate sections of the state. The stands ranged from a request for immediate pull-out to a call for all-out bombing. At John Carroll University, Saxbe argued that the U.S. should bring home its own boys and send in Japanese troops. Small wonder that Gilligan wanted a debate.

Though he could not afford to answer Saxbe's advertising campaign, Gilligan still would have won but for the disastrous returns from hometown Cincinnati. He had expected to come out about even there, but he ended up losing two to one. The morning daily had contributed by running a front-page editorial which claimed that a vote for Gilligan would be a vote for every arsonist and rapist in the state.

The night after Martin Luther King's death, Cincinnati had issued a curfew which threatened to punish violators with up to a year in jail and a $500 fine. Though most of those convicted had not heard about the curfew, ninety were processed and sentenced in a bizarre mass trial held the night of the arrests. When Gilligan called the trials a joke, press and public reacted hysterically. "Arson and rape" became the decisive ingredients in his defeat next November.

John Gilligan is officially on leave from politics for the moment. But he is still bothered by political questions. For instance, the people most in need of jobs and schools have not shown up at the polls. Three hundred thousands blacks who could have voted in Ohio in 1968 did not do so. All those votes are waiting to be tapped by someone with enough political imagination. John Gilligan is already working on it.

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