At the beginning of his superb biography of Bill Milliken, author Dave Dempsey warns against idolizing the former governor.
The trouble is that it is hard not to do that, even for a nasty old cynic like myself. Bill Milliken made mistakes, and I am not sure Dave Dempsey was hard enough on his administration for its handling of the poisoned PBB cattle feed crisis that traumatized the state.
Yet he is, in my opinion, a great man, one of the very few who I have known. That’s not because he did so much more right than wrong, although that was the case. I think it may have been put best by Howard Tanner, who ran the state Department of Natural Resources during Milliken’s last two terms. “If he said he was going to do something, he did it. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters. He had integrity.”
Milliken also has an open mind, and continued to grow throughout his career. When he was first elected to the state senate from Traverse City, there wasn’t a single African-American in his district. Yet Milliken came to symbolize cooperation between the races.
It is difficult to imagine two men more different than the brawling, earthy Coleman Young, Detroit’s longtime mayor, and the faintly aristocratic Bill Milliken. Yet Young called Milliken the finest example of a public servant he had ever met.
That is largely because 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 and 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 that George Romney or 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 Congressman Sandy Levin, who is not only a Democrat, but the man Milliken twice defeated for governor in two hard-fought elections!
Imagine another politician getting 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, when he felt the country was being ruined, and that he could no longer be silent.
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.”
I can’t imagine any better legacy.