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· The Lede

…Ay, oh, way to go, Ohio

– Chrissie Hynde

Deanne Stillman

While Democrats and the Beltway punditocracy obsess over Joe Biden’s mental acuity in the wake of last week’s debate, Republicans have not been idle. The Heritage Foundation, once a conservative but rather staid organization, has in recent years turned hard right, going all in for Trump and his baseless charges of election fraud. As Democrats divide and waver, the foundation’s lawyers are pro-active, readying lawsuits to stop the substitution of another candidate on ballots in at least three swing states if Biden steps aside: Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin.

“The mechanisms for replacing Biden on ballots vary by state,” the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project told Fox News. “There is the potential for pre-election litigation in some states that would make the process difficult and perhaps unsuccessful. “

One Ohio Republican behaved quite differently, just a few weeks ago. Countering a right-wing attempt to remove President Biden from the state’s ballot in November, Ohio governor Mike DeWine signed legislation on June 2 ensuring that Biden would remain on the ballot for the 2024 election. DeWine, a party man and not exactly a liberal, nevertheless stood up for democracy.

I grew up in Ohio, just like Chrissie Hynde of Pretenders fame. I fled too, taking my cue from the slogan on license plates - “Fasten your seat belts” - and getting out of Dodge as soon as the chance arrived. But strange as it may sound, given Mike DeWine’s positions on such things as unions (he had a zero percent rating from the AFL-CIO when he was a senator) and bump stocks (he opposed the ban when he was Ohio’s attorney general) I now find myself thinking of him as one of the surviving remnants of the Ohio I remember.

Ohio was once a place where an artist of international stature would arrive to fanfare, and his work stand as a monument to aspiration, and, yes, decency, for generations. I have fond memories of visiting Auguste Rodin’s most famous sculpture, The Thinker, a centerpiece at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It’sthe sculpture that portrays a seated man with his bowed head on his fist, pondering…what exactly? Part of a bigger work called “The Gates of Hell,” an allusion to Dante’s Inferno, The Thinker is said to suggest Dante himself, considering the characters in his masterwork, or perhaps Adam, pondering his own sin.

This colossus of my youth was placed in Cleveland by Rodin himself in 1917, although he died shortly before it was fully installed. As it happens, there are 20 other Thinkers around the world, at the Musée Rodin in Paris, atop his own grave in the town of Meudon, at the entrance of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, and in Argentina, Switzerland, and Germany, among other locales. The Thinker in Cleveland is “one of the last casts that Rodin supervised personally,” according to the Cleveland Historical Society.

After its installation at the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Thinker “quickly became an object of intrigue for Frederic Whiting, the museum’s first director,” according to an article in Harper’s. “It was one of eight Rodin statues acquired for the museum by collectors and benefactors by 1918. Loïe Fuller, dancer and friend of Rodin, visited the museum in 1917 to raise money for the Red Cross, and to give a lecture on the sculptor. A few months later, more donations from Fuller made the Rodin collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art one of the finest outside of Paris."

My mother, Eleanor Stillman, was a sculptor whose own work came to be included in the museum’s collections. She would often take me and my sister to the museum, making sure to point out The Thinker – at the entrance it was hard to miss – and there were always a number of people paying homage or just stopping by, as it was kind of a de rigueur local experience. If you spent more than a moment within the statue’s radius, you couldn’t help, well, thinking….what was on this fellow’s mind? Did he represent all of us? What’s the meaning of everything and can we now go get a sandwich?

Personally, I had no knowledge of Dante’s Inferno at the time, and matters of who resided in its circles and why were not part of my childhood or teenage considerations. Nor was Adam’s plight, although I certainly knew who the guy was. However I was well aware of the fact that the statue was a point of civic pride, and indeed, I liked visiting the museum, for nearby The Thinker was a famous wishing well, and ’twas many a penny that I tossed in, wishing, I think for all of the grand things that we all wish for and kind of stunned into silence by the overwhelming nature of Rodin’s permanently engaged individual.

Over the past few years, since Trump’s ascendance onto the national scene, actually, I’ve flashed on The Thinker. The statue, rather sadly, has become an overshare, Photoshopped into a million bad jokes all over the internet. But I recall the power of the image conveyed by Rodin, a sculptor whose work transcended the personal, tapping into archetypal human experience. The image of The Thinker often came to mind during the 2016 campaign for the presidency. In fact, as soon as Trump descended the golden escalator at his eponymous tower, I knew the election was over.

Having written about American grace and despair for many years, and those who were among the desperate, I knew that he was the guy many of them aspired to be, that they all considered themselves apprentices and now that fantasy was just one vote away.

Having written about American grace and despair for many years, and chronicled those who were among the desperate, I knew that he was the guy many of them aspired to be, that they all considered themselves apprentices and now that fantasy was just one vote away.

While Ohio remained the home of a renowned museum, it had also become a destination for East Coast reporters who buttonholed locals in diners to ask them why they supported a man so obviously dishonest and unqualified for the presidency. Upon his nomination for the presidency in Cleveland at the Quicken Loans Arena – and perhaps it was an act of providence or warning from the universe that the venue bore that name – I was even more alarmed, for now the reality that this grifter from Queens would soon be in the White House was even more apparent. I warned friends and wrote about the likelihood of Trump becoming president.


This was not something that people in many quarters wanted to or could hear. Yet the fact that his nomination was sealed in Cleveland made Trump’s election certain, in my mind. It was the perfect location for the launch of this man into the national ethers and here’s why.

As a native of Cleveland, I can tell you that the city has long been struggling with identity. While many of its residents are tried-and-true blue collar workers who often align themselves with Democrats, Cleveland at its heart is a Rust Belt enclave, home to the struggling steel industry, and its residents harbor serious resentments of the upper classes in bucolic suburbs on the east side of town. Many on the western and rural edges of the city check the ballot box for Republicans, especially Trump, and probably will continue to do so. While its long-vaunted renaissance finally occurred awhile ago and it still has a veneer of cool (The Rock and Roll Museum and Hall of Fame is based there, for instance, and it’s the progenitor of the term “rock and roll,” coined by legendary 1950s deejay Alan Freed), the phrase “crabs in a bucket” can be said to inform the place.

Cleveland is the place that says “It’s okay to dream, but not really.”

Many like things just as they are, or were, as in the magical place known as MAGALand, and I can remember while I was growing up and planning to go to college, I had certain friends who said “Why? Are you going after an M.R.S. Degree?” Today, it’s a throwback term but the idea still exists, judging from the vociferous nature of recent political campaigns waged in Ohio. Cleveland may indeed may be more metropolitan – read sophisticated – than the rest of the state (and in certain ways, there are two states in Ohio, one centered around Cleveland, and the other around Cincinnati) – but it’s indicative of a certain belief system that doesn’t require too much thinking, doesn’t want it, and will do what it can to discourage escape from a place of being stranded. As I’ve often told my friends, Cleveland is the place that says “ It’s okay to dream, but not really.”

This quashing of dreams radiates across Ohio and is intertwined with it. In the past decade or so, we’ve seen the rise of Joe the Plumber, the Sarah Palin-adjacent character whose very name was designed to make liberals ashamed of their jobs, and J.D. Vance, who defeated the brilliant working class advocate, incumbent Tim Ryan, in a race for the Senate, mostly because he had written Hillbilly Elegy, and has now graduated to advance the idea that women should remain in violent marriages for the sake of the children. He is now on tap for either a slot as vice president or a cabinet role, should Trump win. In short, high-profile figures and shabby ideas emanating from the Buckeye State have factored into where we are now.

On the other hand, Ohio has a lot going for it, to use a high school phrase, when you look at its history. It was a destination for the underground railroad. It has the now cleaned-up Lake Erie and Cuyahoga National Park, a gem in our treasure chest of protected natural wonders. It has produced more Presidents than any other state, eight of forty-six (although not since the nineteenth and early twentieth century). This includes such figures as James A. Garfield (assassinated in office), Warren G. Harding (of the notorious Teapot Dome Scandal, possibly the most corrupt President behind Donald Trump), and Ulysses Grant (revered Union general during the Civil War, established Yellowstone National Park, the first in the American park system). This tally of Presidents tells us that certain leadership qualities are nurtured in Ohio, for better and for worse, but nevertheless, men of impact have come from this soil and assumed the mantle of Commander-in-Chief. And let us recall the great Shawnee, Tecumseh. He created a powerful pan-tribal alliance against the white man in the early nineteenth century, believing that only in unity could Native Americans withstand the newcomers, and he was revered for his eloquent oratory.

In 1970, The Thinker was vandalized by anti-Vietnam War protestors, upended from its pedestal by a bomb. No one has ever been busted for the act, which means that no one wanted to take credit. Perhaps they were influenced by the sculpture and thought about what they did, and became ashamed. After all, why on earth would anyone want to accost this symbol of man’s quintessential state – wonder and contemplation and self-awareness – things that are all too lacking in today’s discourse?

When I read that Governor DeWine had to wage backroom maneuvers so that Republican representatives would send him legislation placing the president on the ballot for possible re-election in 2024, I was not surprised. Yet I sighed out loud at what has transpired in my land of origin. Once the state where elementary school students recited the historical rhyme “Ohio where the residents keep right on growing Presidents,” it had now become the state which was trying to obliterate President number 46 and prevent him from becoming number 47.

A few years ago, I met Governor DeWine at the ceremony for the Ohioana Book Awards. I had won the citation for best nonfiction by a writer from Ohio for my book Blood Brothers, about Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill in the Wild West Show. It also includes Annie Oakley, the celebrated sharpshooter from Greenwood, Ohio who was part of the Wild West spectacle and who had facilitated the alliance between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, having been a friend to both. It was kind of an Ohio thing in my opinion; heraim was true and in facilitating this strange although shortlived accord, she had gotten to the heart of the matter. I was proud to be honored by my home state, joining such native writers as Douglas Brinkley, David McCullough, Mary Oliver and Toni Morrison; as it happens, the latter two are from Cleveland. At a gathering for the award, assembled authors had been told not to approach Governor deWine. Basically the mandate was to keep your distance.

This was in 2018, when the state was aflame over the abortion debate, as it is now. I guess people everywhere were warned off of getting too close to the Republican governor; possibly there had been threats or maybe he was becoming nervous about the nature of the volatile situation. Since Trump had become president, the country was on fire. In any case, it was clear that the leader of the state wanted no contact with strangers. Nevertheless, I approached him, extended my hand, introduced myself, and thanked him for presiding over the awards event.

Did he have a wet dishrag handshake?

Why I approached him I’m not exactly clear. Always a rebel is one answer. The other is that I just wanted to get the vibe, see if I could feel anything by way of a brief encounter involving physical touch, the grasping of hands. Did he have a wet dishrag handshake? as my mother would have asked. That was always a tell; it meant that you were weak and not to be trusted. As it turned out, Governor deWine was quite gracious, albeit a bit taken aback, and he shook my hand somewhat firmly and that was it.

After it was bombed by the anti-war protesters, The Thinker was not repaired. But the museum returned it to its base. "We wish to maintain the figure in its present damaged state as a historical document and in accordance with what we believe Rodin's thinking would have ben," said museum director Sherman Lee.

“Tragically damaged through vandalism, March 24, 1970,” the plaque at its base says. Perhaps this is a commentary “stronger than the statue itself,” observed Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times in his blog Every Goddamn Day.

Yes, The Thinker has been assaulted and yet there he sits, an enduring gift from Auguste Rodin, who endeavored to make a gathering point for humans so that they could stop for awhile and engage in thought and dream of how to find redemption. "What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips,” Rodin said of his momentous work of art [], “but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes."

Had Governor DeWine looked past the Gates of Hell and into the Inferno and decided that the Buckeye State should not consign America to the flames below? It’s kind of what many are doing right now, locked in deep consideration of whether or not Biden should be kicked off America’s ballot. I say let him run. “This is an absurd and ridiculous situation,” DeWine said,  referring to the months-long attempt on the part of the most right-wing factions in the Ohio state assembly to kick Biden off the slate , citing some sort of minor snafu regarding a filing deadline, one which has been ignored in the past.

Here was a chance for a powerful official to jam up the works in the next election and place himself on a fast-track for higher stature in MAGA World. And why not? Everyone else was doing it, dark cravings overpowering morality on a daily basis. I give Governor DeWine props for considering what was at stake - a noteworthy act in a thoughtless time. Can’t say the same for Ohio Senator J. D. Vance.who in his advocacy for women to remain in violent marriages for the childrens' sake, is singing his own hillbilly elegy.