January 2010 Issue
Legacy of Leadership
As secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in the cabinet of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Gardner may not have grasped the full import of the times in which he lived. But certainly in later years — Gardner died in 2002 — he was to witness and understand the impact of Johnson’s Great Society domestic agenda in which, although he was a Republican, he played a principal and defining part.
Gardner’s insightful observation about the nature of history comes to mind for a couple of reasons when reading the profile of former Ohio Gov. John J. Gilligan in this month’s issue (“Life of Service,”). A progressive (dare I say it?) long before it was fashionable, Gilligan no doubt had neither the time nor the inclination to “feel” the weight of history during his single term in the governor’s office.
As governor — and as a Cincinnati city councilman and congressman before that, and as the director of the United States Agency for International Development and member of the Cincinnati Board of Education afterwards — he was perhaps too busy making history to feel it. That’s why we called on Contributing Editor Ron Rollins to engage the modest Gilligan, now 88, in a reflective conversation on the subject of his historic role in Ohio politics.
Gilligan’s political legacy is evident in many ways, not the least of which is another reason that Gardner’s observation about history is apt. Gilligan’s daughter, former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, now serves in the cabinet of President Barack Obama as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), successor to the HEW department Gardner headed. (Gardner succeeded former Cleveland Mayor Anthony J. Celebrezze, who was HEW secretary for President John F. Kennedy as well as Johnson.)
Clearly, Gilligan and his like-minded contemporaries fostered ideals that thrive in 21st-century American politics. His term was sandwiched between administrations of a remarkably different kind of governor, the legendary James A. Rhodes. That may be one of the reasons Gilligan’s term particularly stands out. Then, as now, it was an amazingly fractious time in America, marked by the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
Although opinions of Gilligan’s politics are as varied as Ohioans themselves, few would disagree that he serves as something of a model of outstanding public service. The courage of convictions he demonstrated throughout his political career, and his willingness to serve on the local level long after the national spotlight had shifted elsewhere, combine to create compelling evidence that he was and is much more than a politician. It may not have looked like history to him when he was making it, but John Gilligan truly qualifies to be called “statesman.”
“History never looks like history when you are living through it.” — John W. Gardner