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Mark Shields: Jack Gilligan Epitomized Rare Moral Courage in Politics, and in Life

In life, you don't get to choose your relatives, but you do get to choose your friends. I consider it to be one of the great, unearned blessings of my life that Jack Gilligan chose me to be his friend. We were both Irish-Catholic males of the 20th century, and anyone familiar with our peculiar sub-group knows we were never comfortable speaking about emotions or feelings — especially not to each other.

I never told Jack Gilligan I loved him. But I'm confident he knew that I did, because when it came to people or politics or policy, Gilligan knew almost everything. When he died last month, the obituaries recorded that he, a Democrat, had been a Cincinnati city councilman, a U.S. congressman and the governor who somehow was able in 1971 to persuade a Republican state legislature to enact Ohio's first personal and corporate income tax, all of which is accurate.

But to understand what was true about Gilligan, we have to remember Mark Twain, who found it curious that physical courage was so much more common than moral, which Twain found quite rare.

On the first week of April 1945, Navy Lt. Gilligan, having already seen combat as a gunnery officer, was on the deck of his destroyer during the invasion of Okinawa when the first of three Japanese kamikaze planes flew directly into his ship. Scores of U.S. sailors were killed, wounded or missing. The ship's guns, radar and communications were all knocked out by the suicide plane, the crash of which started a fire that threatened the destroyer's own store of ammunition.

Acting immediately and at great personal risk, Gilligan managed personally to get all the stored ammunition safely away from the encroaching flames and secured the safety of shipmates and his destroyer. For his bravery, he was awarded the Silver Star. He more than passed the physical courage test.

By 1968, Gilligan was 47 and the surprise U.S. Senate nominee in Ohio after his upset Democratic victory over the previously invincible Frank Lausche, who had won five terms as governor and two terms in the Senate.

Gilligan was a strong opponent and vocal critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam, while most of the leaders of organized labor, who had backed Jack in the primary, were enthusiastic supporters of President Lyndon Johnson's war policy.

Inviting the fury of the AFL-CIO hierarchy and the censure of the White House, Gilligan organized, wrote and championed the peace plank, calling for a negotiated end to the Vietnam War at the tumultuous 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. Why? Because he believed the war was wrong and immoral and that the convention's adoption of the peace plank could constitute a declaration of independence for the party's nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, from the war and from LBJ. Humphrey could then almost certainly have won the White House and spared the nation the Nixon-Agnew years.

For fighting the Democratic war policy, Gilligan was punished. Major labor leaders cut off campaign funds. Badly outspent, he lost a close Senate race in November. Let me assure you from painful personal experience, losing campaigns do not build character. But losing campaigns can reveal character. What Gilligan showed in risking almost certain defeat on principle was indeed character — and moral courage.

As governor, he made the improving of the care and treatment of the ignored and the overlooked, the patients in Ohio's discredited state mental hospitals, his cause. And he succeeded. But as you can understand, there is no political pay-off in such an effort. State mental hospital clients do not buy tickets, let alone tables, to campaign fundraising dinners. They mostly do not have a car on which to put your bumper sticker or a lawn on which to plant your yard sign.

To make this your cause is an act of moral courage and one more reason why I loved Jack Gilligan.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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