By John Krull
It’s a quiet night here in the cradle of the presidents.
That’s what Ohio used to be called.
Between 1868 and 1920 — years when America made the slow, unsteady march from the cataclysm of the Civil War to an emergence as an industrial, economic and political power in the world — eight different native sons of the Buckeye state won the White House.
U.S. Grant in 1868. Rutherford Hayes in 1876. James Garfield in 1880. Benjamin Harrison in 1888. William McKinley in 1896. William Howard Taft in 1908. And Warren Harding in 1920.
Though not much remembered today, theirs were often tumultuous presidencies — consumed by battles over economic inequality, immigration and the squalor of institutionalized corruption. (Sound familiar?)
Two of these Ohio-born presidents died in office at the hands of assassins. At least three saw their tenures in the White House overwhelmed by scandal.
None ever finds his way into the top 10 of historians’ presidential rankings.
Why, then, did America keep turning to Ohio for national leadership?
In part, it was because Ohio was a kind of bellwether, a tipping point for the country. Lodged between the settled east and the emerging west, it was a fulcrum upon which America’s past and future balanced. Both rural and industrial, Ohio encompassed both America’s longing for a vanishing pastoral legacy and its nervous embrace of bustling urban destiny.
Ohio spoke to our country’s divided soul.
I’m walking in downtown Wooster, a pleasant college town about an hour south of Cleveland, a good dinner in my belly and time on my hands.
I saunter by the Wayne County Republican headquarters. The office is for lease. The Trump-Pence signs are stacked on the floor, waiting for a cleaning crew to clear them. The election’s over — no reason to pay rent until the next cycle starts.
Ohio went for Republican Donald Trump in November, giving him more than 51 percent of the vote and helping to put him in the White House. This county handed him 65 percent of its votes.
Even though Ohio no longer sends native sons to the White House, it still helps determine who will occupy the Oval Office.
And for similar reasons that Buckeyes once became presidents on as regular a basis as the ticking of a clock.
For the past 25 years, ever since American presidential elections stopped being LBJ-Nixon-Reagan-style blowouts and instead became nail-biting bare-knuckle brawls, Ohio has been a battleground state. It’s been one of the two or three states that decide the election.
And for the same reason that it sent Grants, Garfields, McKinleys and Hardings to the White House — because it speaks to our divided American hearts.
I was born in Cleveland, not far, as the crow flies, from where Garfield and McKinley made their homes. When I lived there, as a small boy, Cleveland was the seventh-biggest city in America, an economic powerhouse where everyone seemed to have a job.
Cleveland, though, began a slow slide that gathered force. Today, its population is less than half what it was when I lived there more than a half-century ago.
We moved from Cleveland to Marion, the hometown of the last of the Ohio-born presidents, Harding. His election was the town’s zenith, and his death, as the great Teapot Dome scandal began to unfold, accompanied its eclipse.
Ohio was ripe for Trump. Hungry to relive past glories, puzzled by a confusing present and uneasy about an uncertain future, many of the state’s residents were eager to believe he could make the old days live again.
It isn’t that simple.
It never was.
It never will be.
This state remains as divided as ever, a perfect reflection of our split nation. The cities — Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo — went for Democrat Hillary Clinton in November. The rural parts leaned hard for Trump.
The Republican governor, John Kasich, can’t stand his fellow Republican in the White House and almost spits Trump’s name when he says it.
Trump already has started his 2020 re-election effort. He’s begun collecting money and holding campaign events.
Soon, the battle will begin again, if it ever ends.
And, once again, Ohio will be at the center of the fight.
The night’s quiet here.
It’s about the only thing that is quiet in the cradle of the presidents.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].