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Book review: 'William G. Milliken: Michigan's Passionate Moderate'

by: matt

Mon May 15, 2006 at 14:02:25 PM EDT




On my recent walk from Lansing to Detroit, I made a point to travel lightly. But I did make room in my pack for Dave Dempsey’s latest book: William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate. I’m glad I did. Like all of Dave’s books, it’s both well written and readable. Dempsey gives us a refreshing look at a true Michigan statesman who possessed a unique blend of civility, compassion and courage. Michigan desperately needs more Bill Millikens.

The conventional wisdom around Lansing these days is that William G. Milliken, Republican of Traverse City, Governor of Michigan from 1969 to 1982, represents everything that is good and decent in political governance. He harkens back to an era when the Governor and the Legislature could disagree but still be civil and – in the end - get things done. Most old timers will tell you this perception is perhaps a little more rosy nostalgia than the reality. Personally, I can’t say one way or another about that. I was born midway through Milliken’s 13-year reign. The first time I learned we even had a Governor, I was six or seven years old and by then his name was Jim Blanchard.
matt :: Book review: 'William G. Milliken: Michigan's Passionate Moderate'
Growing up in Ann Arbor, I do remember people talking about Gov. Milliken every once in awhile. Yes, they’d say, Milliken was a Republican - but he was an “okay Republican.” Actually, I went to high school with Bill Milliken Jr.’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 wasn’t until I was in college that I began to get a real understanding of what this “okay” 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 – so different from the brash sound byte chatter that drips so readily out of the mouths of today’s politicians.

Used to covering the antics of John Mathias Engler and Russell Harding’s Department of Environmental Quality, I recall that while listening to Milliken’s speech, I was dumbfounded that a Republican could have such a respect for the environment – let alone that this person should ever have been elected Governor of Michigan. Milliken’s speech that night was among the best – if not the best – 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, Michigan’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 spirit…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 children’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 – along with the interview Gov. Milliken kindly gave me afterwards.

Dempsey confirmed many of the impressions that I’ve heard about Milliken – 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 hadn’t realized: Milliken wasn’t always sunshine and roses. He could also fight if he needed to.   

As it happens – at least according to the book – the biggest fights of Milliken’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 “payless payday” fiasco of the late 1950s. Says Milliken: “ I wanted to run for office because the party was in the grip of some Neanderthals…some of them were a disgrace to the party and we needed a housecleaning.”

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, Milliken’s “Neanderthal” comment comes 40 years after the fact. Still, it suggests there’s more under the surface of Milliken than his compromising “nice guy” persona (which isn’t to suggest that he isn’t a nice guy – just that he’s probably a bit more complex).

During his 1960 State Senate campaign, Milliken favored adopting an income tax – 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 – and bucked his party on a number of issues…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 – 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. “No one delivered the office to me on a silver platter”, Milliken says. “I had to fight for the nomination.”

Ironically, Milliken seems to have a more favorable view of one of his predecessors as governor  – Democrat G. Mennen Williams -  than of his 1964 running mate, calling Williams a “capable guy”, and commending him for running a “clean administration.”

When Romney resigned to join Richard Nixon’s cabinet, Milliken became Governor of Michigan – serving for the next 13 years.

Another Milliken fight involved a company that’s now becoming all too familiar to us: Amway.

In the mid-70’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. “I still remember how incensed he was”, Milliken says. It didn’t matter. Milliken saw to it that the rule was approved.

There is so much more to say about Gov. Milliken – 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 – just to name a few. Milliken has some down sides too – 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 “drown government in a bathtub” mentality that pervades his party today:
“I’ve always felt that good government is good politics. It certainly has resulted in progress in this state…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 career…And it’s just as valid today. It’s key to maintaining the public’s trust and respect for public officials. When that is lost, the strength of our democracy is weakened.”
Still, one question continues to bother me.

By today’s standards, Milliken is now to the left of most Democrats. Yet – 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 Milliken’s stubbornness on this point to family tradition.

I’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 people’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 Milliken’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 I’m just taking this too personally. But I really want to know why! I want to hear Bill Milliken’s critique of the Democratic Party. What has kept him away? And what can we do to fix it?

Perhaps I’ll write him a letter and ask.
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Thank you for the review (0.00 / 0)
I've been meaning to read the Dempsey's book, and I will do so once I get a couple of heavy-duty projects behind me. The words I've often heard used in connection with Bill Milliken are "gentleman" and "class." Both Michigan politics and the Republican Party have changed tremendously since the Milliken years, and sadly, not for the better.

By the way, Matt, aren't you glad you didn't pick last week to walk to Detroit?

A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul.


Quite welcome... (4.00 / 1)
...it was my pleasure doing it. Definitely read the book - if for no other reason than to remind yourself that it wasn't always this way - and perhaps someday the pendulum will swing back.

Darn tootin' I'm glad I didn't walk last week - or this week, for that matter! About a half hour ago, the Hannahdog and I stepped out to go for a cup of coffee and a walk. A downpour suddenly opened up on the way back. Nothing we could do. Just stand there and get sopping wet.

Poor Hannahdog, she wants to roll around on the bed and dry off but here mean dad won't let her becuase she's drenched. Oye ve!

A thought occurs to me: I wonder what America's chief pseudo-theological meteoroligist Pat Robertson would have to say about this? Apparently God didn't mind me walking to Detroit for good government. However, taking the dog to Beaner's is apparently a no-no. Perhaps it's the decor at Beaner's...maybe a little too gay? Yeah, that must be it.

"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never." - Winston S. Churchill

[ Parent ]
Bill Milliken (4.00 / 1)
My husband, the late Norris Ingells, spent many good hours with Gov. Milliken in his role as a reporter/photographer for the LSJ.  They had a comfortable and respectful relationship.  Norris used to tell the story of covering a visit to a health facility in Detroit with the Gov.  They found themselves momentarily alone in a room full of caged monkeys used for research/experimentation.  Norris said, "I dont' know about you, Governor, but this just doesn't sit right with this Manistee boy."  And Milliken replied, "It doesn't sit right with this Traverse City boy either."

I remember Nelson Rockefeller and George Bush, the father, coming here to campaign and "using" Milliken's popularity to their advantage.  At the time Bush was here, he "seemed" to be a Milliken-type Republican.  Yet, Milliken was never offered a job in his administration, as far as I know.  Even if he had been, I suspect he would have turned it down.

I am just amazed that he "allowed" such a relatively casual photo for the book cover, as he was known for his proper dress--always wearing a suit and tie. Maybe he's loosening up in his old age.

What an amazing man and another book, equally interesting, could be written about his cool wife, Helen.



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