Saturday, September 25, 2004



The recent recall of mayor Bauer and the visit of George Bush and John Edwards to River City set me to reflecting about Portsmouth’s politics and history.

The dirtiness of politics is proverbial. How can anyone participate in, without being contaminated by, politics? The butcher is going to have a bloody apron and the plumber a gucky snake, but we never stop being indignant when a politician has sticky fingers, deep pockets, deserving friends, and enough skeletons in the closet to supply every anatomy class in the nation.

Politicians as a class are despised and distrusted even more than lawyers, and they are often of course one and the same. The very worst of them belong to the opposing political party. There is a name for politicians who are not lawyers: fools and amateurs.

Politicians, like lawyers, do our dirty business, as we used to have washerwomen do our laundry. Politics does not attract the sensitive or morally squeamish. Politicians are usually ambitious and shrewd but seldom honest. A lack of principles is not a requirement for public office, but it is harder to succeed with principles than without them. Count on it: anyone who speaks reverently of “the American people” or “the people of Portsmouth” is probably trying to screw them.

Lawyers and politicians know how sausages are made. The sausage eaters, the electorate, don’t want to know about it. Who cares how many porkers get slaughtered. Just keep those sausages coming.

Politicians are men not of steel but of pig iron. The first mayor of Portsmouth, a gent name Tomlin, “kept a hotel on Pig Iron Corner,” as Evans wrote disapprovingly in his History of Scioto County. Did Tomlin rent rooms by the hour as well as the day? Evans does not say. When he came to Portsmouth in 1831, Tomlin married the daughter of a local saloonkeeper and made his living supplying whiskey and pork to the people of Portsmouth. Booze? Pigs? Inevitably, he got into politics. A Democrat, he was appointed Associate Judge of Scioto County. (“The devil is an Irish judge,” an old Irish proverb says.) Tomlin was also elected to the Portsmouth town council. In March 1837, he was elected first mayor of Portsmouth and subsequently was reelected. He was reelected again in 1844, defeating the Whig candidate with the help of what Evans calls “defamatory circulars” distributed just before the election by the Swift Boat Veterans for” . . . no, wait I am getting things mixed up. It was the Committee to Re-Elect Mayor Bauer, no, that’s not it, either.

They did not have Recall back then; they apparently didn’t need it. After several terms as mayor, during which time he continued as Associate Judge, Tomlin ran afoul of the town council, which voted to remove him from office claiming he was sick, deaf, and incompetent. They appointed another man to fill out his term. Tomlin was a candidate in the next mayoral election, but he got only one vote, presumably his own.

There is no mural on the flood wall for the first mayor of Portsmouth, nor is there one for the infamous “Black Friday,” January 21, 1830, when the eighty or so African-Americans of Portsmouth were driven out of town in accordance with the “Black Laws” of Ohio.

The floodwall is where Portsmouth’s history gets laundered. The Flood of 1937 and the drowning of a black woman, the flood’s only fatality, washed away all our sins, or most of them anyway.