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Published: Sunday, 5/16/2004

Book review: DiSalle's true potential unfulfilled

BY JACK LESSENBERRY

CALL ME MIKE: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF MICHAEL V. DISALLE. By Richard G. Zimmerman. Kent State University Press. 322 pages. $32.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt died, one historian, struggling for balance, summed up his immense career by saying, "Whether you liked him or not, he was a rare one."

The same could easily be said about Mike DiSalle, the only Toledoan ever elected governor of Ohio - though no one would ever compare him to FDR.

Roly-poly, mercurial, Mr. DiSalle, who first made his mark as a young mayor of Toledo, was anything but a howling success on the state, much less national stage.

Elected governor by a landslide in 1958, he was defeated by an even greater landslide four years later. Following his defeat, he puttered around on the fringes of national politics, a figure of steadily diminishing influence. He chased skirts with regularity, and the odd dollar, with rather less success than a Washington-based lawyer, former governor and early John F. Kennedy backer should have had.

Politically, he backed a series of dark horses that mostly remained in the stable, and a string of unsuccessful presidential candidates - three in 1968 alone. Alienated from his wife and son, he died in 1981 in Italy, in bed with his then-steady companion, an African-American woman considerably less than half his age.

It would be easy to conclude that he sort of frittered away his life - and at first blush, it might seem a trifle baffling that anyone would have written a full-length biography of a failed one-term governor who lost races for congress and senate as well. Yet Richard Zimmerman, a longtime political reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has written a biography that makes it clear that Mr. DiSalle was something more than one more hack politician. Mr. Zimmerman, the son of a longtime Ohio Supreme Court justice, covered Mr. DiSalle through most of his political career, and has produced a readable and extremely well-researched book.

The author, a highly respected reporter, draws no sweeping conclusions, which is the book's only fault; a proper assessment of his legislative legacy would have been useful. But this volume strongly suggests that the tragedy of Mike DiSalle was that his good heart and decent mind were not complemented by focus and discipline. Elected in what was a solidly Democratic year both in the nation and Ohio, there is no denying that Mr. DiSalle fought hard - and with some success - to raise basic state services above a level of funding so low that Ohio was often far behind other northern industrial states.

He generated ideas faster than Lyndon Johnson in his prime; worked with seemingly boundless energy, and tried gallantly to interest the citizens in the deplorable conditions of the state's mental health facilities and his crusade against the electric chair.

Yet he did not know how to pick his fights, and warred unproductively with everyone from newspaper editorial boards to the legislature. He did not know how to capitalize on his successes or avoid blame for public relations failures on his watch.

This reviewer, who remembers conservatives attacking Mr. DiSalle for his opposition to the death penalty, was startled to learn that there were more executions carried out in Mr. DiSalle's one term than in the administrations of the next four governors combined!

Yet even his bitterest foes found him impossible to hate. Following his drubbing at Mr. DiSalle's hands, outgoing governor C. William O'Neill told his opponent, "I'm speaking for all Ohio citizens when I say we like you."

That was the verdict longtime U.S. Rep. Thomas "Lud" Ashley would deliver, after Mike DiSalle came home in a casket to Toledo in 1981, a city he first saw as the son of Italian immigrant parents in 1911. "His first inclination was always to help people, unselfishly. His word was always good. His friendship was always good. He didn't hate."

Someone, as this book concludes, who should be remembered. The tragedy is that his gifts were such that he could have been remembered for so much more.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman. Contact him at:

OMBLADE@aol.com.



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