|Growing up in Ann Arbor, I do remember people talking about Gov.
Milliken every once in awhile. Yes, theyâ€™d say, Milliken was a
Republican - but he was an â€œokay Republican.â€ Actually, I went to high
school with Bill Milliken Jr.â€™s stepson, and through this, heard a few
little anecdotes about the not-so-warm relationship between Milliken
and fellow Republican John Mathias Engler. This impressed me.
It wasnâ€™t until I was in college that I began to get a real
understanding of what this â€œokayâ€ Republican was all about.
One night in 1997, as a cub-intern reporter for Michigan Public Radio,
I had the assignment of covering a banquet where Gov. Milliken was to
receive a lifetime achievement award from the Michigan United
Conservation Clubs Hall of Fame.
The first thing I noticed was his calm, thoughtful, and heartfelt style
of speaking â€“ so different from the brash sound byte chatter that drips
so readily out of the mouths of todayâ€™s politicians.
Used to covering the antics of John Mathias Engler and Russell
Hardingâ€™s Department of Environmental Quality, I recall that while
listening to Millikenâ€™s speech, I was dumbfounded that a Republican could have such a
respect for the environment â€“ let alone that this person should ever have
been elected Governor of Michigan. Millikenâ€™s speech that night was
among the best â€“ if not the best â€“ I covered during my time in radio.
One quote in particular still stands out in my mind today, and Dave
Dempsey (who was in the room that night) includes it in his latest
masterwork, William Milliken,
Michiganâ€™s Passionate Moderate (UM Press):
The truth is that the quality of life in Michigan depends on nature.
The natural beauty of our state is much more than a source of pleasure
and recreation. It shapes our values, molds our attitudes, and feeds
our spiritâ€¦In Michigan, our soul is not to be found in steel and
concrete, or sprawling new housing developments or strip malls. Rather
it is found in the soft petals of a trillium, the gentle whisper of a
headwater stream, the vista of a Great Lakes shoreline, and the wonder
in childrenâ€™s eyes upon seeing their first bald eagle. It is that soul
that we must preserve.
I have never heard the soul and imagination of this state captured more
eloquently by anyone.
I still have the cassette tape I made of that speech â€“ along with the
interview Gov. Milliken kindly gave me afterwards.
Dempsey confirmed many of the impressions that Iâ€™ve heard about
Milliken â€“ that he was characterized by civility, and saw government
not as an enemy or something to be done away with, but as a something
could help make life better for everybody. However, one aspect to
Milliken Dempsey describes is one I hadnâ€™t realized: Milliken wasnâ€™t
always sunshine and roses. He could also fight if he needed to.
As it happens â€“ at least according to the book â€“ the biggest fights of
Millikenâ€™s political career seem to have come not with Democrats but
with other Republicans. In fact, Milliken actually won his first
election to the state Senate by knocking off a right-wing Republican in
a primary following the infamous â€œpayless paydayâ€ fiasco of the late
1950s. Says Milliken: â€œ I wanted to run for office because the party
was in the grip of some Neanderthalsâ€¦some of them were a disgrace to
the party and we needed a housecleaning.â€
Neanderthals? Could you imagine the howling that would occur if
Governor Granholm were to refer to the current Republican leadership in
such a way? Of course, Millikenâ€™s â€œNeanderthalâ€ comment comes 40 years
after the fact. Still, it suggests thereâ€™s more under the surface of
Milliken than his compromising â€œnice guyâ€ persona (which isnâ€™t to
suggest that he isnâ€™t a nice guy â€“ just that heâ€™s probably a bit more
During his 1960 State Senate campaign, Milliken favored adopting an
income tax â€“ not a popular position among his constituents. But he won
points for his honesty and forthrightness. After being elected,
Milliken quickly became a leader of the new moderate Republican caucus
in the Senate â€“ and bucked his party on a number of issuesâ€¦including
the income tax, and the right of African-Americans to buy or rent
housing in the place of their choosing.
In 1964, Milliken fought his way onto the Republican gubernatorial
ticket. Then Gov. George Romney - a difficult and temperamental
personality according to Dempsey - wanted State House Speaker Allison
Green as his running mate for Lieutenant Governor. As an older
conservative, Green would be less likely to upstage Romney than young
liberal Republican upstart Bill Milliken. Officially, Romney remained
neutral â€“ and through a combination of circumstance and his aggressive
organization, Milliken won a strongly contested race for the number two
slot. Upon winning the general election, Romney and Milliken had only
what could be described as a cold professional relationship with each
other. â€œNo one delivered the office to me on a silver platterâ€,
Milliken says. â€œI had to fight for the nomination.â€
Ironically, Milliken seems to have a more favorable view of one of his
predecessors as governor â€“ Democrat G. Mennen Williams -
than of his 1964 running mate, calling Williams a â€œcapable guyâ€, and
commending him for running a â€œclean administration.â€
When Romney resigned to join Richard Nixonâ€™s cabinet, Milliken became
Governor of Michigan â€“ serving for the next 13 years.
Another Milliken fight involved a company thatâ€™s now becoming all too
familiar to us: Amway.
In the mid-70â€™s, when phosphorus pollution was resulting in an
algae-covered Lake Erie, a proposed rule emerged to limit phosphorus
content in consumer detergents. Major conservative Republican backer
and Amway founder Jay Van Andel called Milliken. â€œI still remember how
incensed he wasâ€, Milliken says. It didnâ€™t matter. Milliken saw to it
that the rule was approved.
There is so much more to say about Gov. Milliken â€“ and Dempsey does a
superb job of describing his many accomplishments: his tough stance on
DDT and mercury, the bottle deposit law, and his unique and positive
relationship with Detroit Mayor Coleman Young â€“ just to name a few.
Milliken has some down sides too â€“ and Dempsey deals with them as well,
including charges of pandering on the issue of public support for
religious schools, a slow response to the PBB milk contamination
crisis, and his support of Richard Nixon. Yet, what political career
has ever come without some blemishes? And in the case of Milliken, they
are greatly overshadowed by his deeply held belief in a certain
principle far removed from the â€œdrown government in a bathtubâ€
mentality that pervades his party today:
â€œIâ€™ve always felt that good government is good politics. It certainly
has resulted in progress in this stateâ€¦not only in my time but in other
administrations as well. When people realize a public official is
trying to do an honest and open job, they tend to remember that at
election time. Good government is a precursor to a successful political
careerâ€¦And itâ€™s just as valid today. Itâ€™s key to maintaining the
publicâ€™s trust and respect for public officials. When that is lost, the
strength of our democracy is weakened.â€
Still, one question continues to bother me.
By todayâ€™s standards,
Milliken is now to the left of most Democrats. Yet â€“ despite breaking
with party ranks to endorse individual Democratic candidates, Milliken
to this day continues to insist that he remains a Republican. Dempsey
does explore this question, and attributes much of Millikenâ€™s
stubbornness on this point to family tradition.
Iâ€™m not satisfied with this explanation. Statistically, of course, most
people DO follow the lead of their forbears when it comes to political
persuasion. Yet lots of other people choose different political paths
for themselves. Bill Milliken is pro-choice, pro-environment, cares
about civil rights, voted for John Kerry, and believes that government
can play a positive role in making peopleâ€™s lives better. Michigan
Republicans today cringe at the name Bill Milliken and dismiss
virtually everything he ever says. Yet, at 84 years old, Milliken still
hangs on to the GOP. Why?
As Democrats, we have failed. Family ties or no, the Democratic Party
should be irresistible to someone with Bill Millikenâ€™s views. Yet for
some reason, he would rather stay in a party where he is loathed than
to join a party where his views would be heard with great respect and
esteem. Perhaps Iâ€™m just taking this too personally. But I really want
to know why! I want to hear Bill Millikenâ€™s critique of the Democratic
Party. What has kept him away? And what can we do to fix it?
Perhaps Iâ€™ll write him a letter and ask.