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Published: 11/6/2005

Michigan s governor Soapy was a true original

BY JACK LESSENBERRY

SOAPY: A BIOGRAPHY OF G. MENNEN WILLIAMS. By Thomas J. Noer. University of Michigan Press. 419 pages. $35.

There are now millions of Michigan residents who have no idea that for a dozen years they had a governor who everyone called Soapy who wouldn t be caught dead wearing anything except a green polka-dot bow tie.

Soapy Williams was well, one of a kind. Thanks to term limits, nobody will ever threaten his record of being elected governor six straight times. And as an old guy eating oatmeal in a diner told the author of this book, Old Soapy? Boy, he was a character! They don t make politicians like that anymore! As Thomas Noer, a distinguished professor of humanities at Carthage College in New York agrees, no, they sure don t. What is slightly baffling is that up to now, there has been no full-length biography of Williams, though he was one of the most important governors in Michigan s history. He helped break the GOP s near-monopoly hold on power with an upset victory in 1948 that was as startling as Harry Truman s. (He won two later elections by microscopic margins after recounts eerily like the fiasco in Florida five years ago.)

He caused the Mackinac Bridge to be built; was once thought to have a serious shot at a presidential nomination, and was crucially important in shaping American policy toward Africa during the Kennedy administration.

Later, he was ambassador to the Philippines, and served many years on the Michigan Supreme Court before a cerebral hemorrhage ended his life in 1988. Yet he was also too often seen as slightly goofy. His political glory years coincided with the first years that TV took over the living rooms of America, and in many ways he looked very much like a 1950 s TV comedian. Besides the bow tie, and frequently a flannel shirt, he had buck teeth, an angular nose, and a hairstyle that too often looked like it had battled Brylcreem and lost.

And he was a bundle of contradictions. The key to Soapy Williams is neatly summarized in a blurb on the dust jacket of this book. Buried between praise from a historian and the usual gushing from old Democratic warhorses is this marvelous quote from John Kenneth Galbraith: Soapy Williams had a deep talent not only to compel, but on occasion, to repel.

Soapy (the name came from the Mennen shaving cream firm founded by his mother s family) was a mixed bag indeed. Summarizing neatly, the author notes that he was the product of wealth and privilege, but he embraced an unrepentant social and political liberalism dedicated to fundamental economic reform and uncompromising racial equality.

Jovial and friendly even with his political enemies, he managed to provoke the wrath of nearly all of the major leaders of his party, including Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, and John Kennedy. Williams was a master political strategist, whose miscalculations plunged his state into bankruptcy, destroying his chance for the presidency.

But he was also fascinating. Actually, it is probably a blessing that he has waited so long for a Boswell, because Thomas Noer has done an excellent job.

With unusual modesty, the author, who never knew Soapy Williams personally, says of his work that it is merely a rather traditional biography and claims, I have no profound intellectual scaffolding to buttress my effort.

Yet he is wrong; the book is, in fact, what one distinguished historian has called it: A model biography of a fascinating political figure.

Why, however, should we bother to read this book, when there are so many other things to read and so little time?

For a number of reasons, one of which is that you can t know where you are going unless you know where you have been. The Michigan on the rocks era of payless paydays happened when the state had a fiercely partisan Democratic governor and a Republican legislature just as it does today.

Something else was true of Soapy Williams, too. He was a serious and deep and principled political thinker, who, as the author argued, had substance at his core, who believed deeply in issues and ideas and ideals.

There aren t enough men like that today, nor were there in his day. Perhaps there never are.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade s ombudsman. Contact him at: OMBLADE@aol.com



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