Bill Milliken was regarded as an accidental governor when he took office in 1969, when his predecessor resigned to join Richard Nixon s cabinet. He looked far younger than his years, was boyish, soft-spoken, and seen by many as too gentlemanly for the rough-and-tumble of Michigan politics.
Nobody suspected that he would go on to serve longer 14 years than any governor in Michigan history, a record that will now never be broken, unless the state some day repeals the term limits it enacted after he left.
What s more, among the sensible center, the class that led Michigan from 1960 to 1990, Milliken is still regarded as the very model of what a leader should be.
Two months ago, the Center for Michigan, a new think tank of raging moderates held a founding conference to assess the state s problems.
They included Democrats and Republicans, business and labor. And my guess was that the vast majority would vote for Milliken if he were running for governor this year. The rest would only hesitate because the man is now 84 years old!
Yet today, though Milliken is still very much alive, he is too seldom remembered. That s why this excellent political and personal biography is very welcome, especially now.
Dave Dempsey has written a thoughtful and deeply researched study of a political career and a man whose understated style helped conceal the fact that he was Michigan s most powerful political figure for well over a decade.
I always felt that good government is good politics, Bill Milliken said. It s a key to maintaining the public s trust and respect for public officials.
Other politicians say things like that. Milliken lived them. His good looks and polite manners concealed political steel. He grew up in Traverse City, a place that had few or no blacks in his youth.
When he was governor, few things could have been less popular with his fellow Republicans than helping Coleman A. Young and the city of Detroit. The brawling, often profane mayor, and the impeccably groomed, clearly upper-class governor seemed at first total opposites.
Yet Bill Milliken helped Detroit, time and again, and Coleman Young called William Milliken the finest example of a public servant he knew.
Helping Detroit wasn t the only area in which he took risks. Dempsey, who was Gov. Jim Blanchard s top advisor on the environment, nevertheless calls Milliken Michigan s first and only environmental governor. He was also a passionate civil libertarian and a supporter of women s rights.
Yet the good government coalition that he put together crumbled even before he left office. When Milliken finally decided not to run again in 1982, his own party repudiated him and turned sharply to the right.
Today, Michigan is in the same sort of ideological gridlock it was in the 1950s, with a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor mostly glaring at and blaming each other. The days when Bill Milliken met with the majority and minority leaders of each party in the legislature every week to try and find common ground seem far away.
That s not to say that Bill Milliken and his administration didn t make errors, most notably, their slowness to react to the PBB poisoned cattle feed crisis that forced the destruction of vast herds of cattle in the state.
And there is a question as to whether his style of solving-the-crisis-of-the-moment government worked against Michigan developing a long-range plan for the future. But it was universally agreed that the man had integrity. And that Milliken thought government should be an active force which could make a positive contribution to the lives of Michigan s citizens. And he felt he had an obligation to try to make that happen. If he thought something was the right thing to do, he did it, whether it was good for him politically or not.
What people now forget it that he won his first two elections by tiny margins. Even his easy third victory was smaller than John Engler would later score. If he was personally liked, his policies were always politically controversial.
Yet on the back of this biography there is a blurb praising Milliken from U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin, who is not only a Democrat, but the man Milliken twice defeated for governor in hard-fought elections!
How many politicians could get that kind of tribute from an opponent? There are those these days who wonder why Milliken has stayed a Republican, when his party has veered off far to the right. But he has remained loyal to the party of his fathers, preferring to work for change from within, boosting those candidates he sees as moderates. Yet his integrity led Bill Milliken two years ago to endorse a Democratic candidate for president for the first time ever.
Dave Dempsey concludes that in a time when we reflexively suspect the worst of many politicians, it is useful to remember an age in which the Millikens inspired many to believe the best of them.
And he leaves us hoping such a time might come again.
If I were Bill Milliken, I couldn t imagine a better way to be remembered.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade s ombudsman.
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