His name was John Swainson, and he was barely thirty-five years old, though he was already lieutenant governor. Getting there wasn’t easy. When he was a nineteen-year-old soldier in France, a German land mine blew off both his legs and shattered his jaw.
But he overcame the odds and survived. He taught himself to walk on artificial limbs, went to college and law school. He won an upset victory in the Democratic primary in 1960, and a few months later, was elected governor in an extremely close race.
Had it not been for the election the same day of the young, equally handsome and charismatic John F. Kennedy, Swainson would have been an instant national phenomenon.
But today, he is almost completely forgotten. Michigan governors served only two year terms then, and he was quickly defeated for re-election by the charismatic George Romney.
Swainson battled back and won a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court. But he was subsequently convicted of perjury in a highly controversial case, lost his career, and was disgraced.
But there have long been reasons to believe Swainson was actually innocent. A few years ago, a respected circuit judge named Lawrence Glazer became intrigued with the young governor’s story, and has written the first-ever biography of John Swainson:
Wounded Warrior, just published by the Michigan State University press. I started reading it this week, and found the book and its subject fascinating. Judge Glazer doesn’t try to whitewash Swainson. “He made a lot of mistakes as governor,“ he told me.
“He was inexperienced. There’s a learning curve for anyone, and he only had two years.”
Swainson also tended to talk like a policy wonk, and waffled back and forth on major issues. Nevertheless, he very nearly got much-needed tax reform through a Michigan legislature in which both houses were controlled by the Republican Party.
He had little chance for re-election. Romney was a national figure when he ran against Swainson in 1962, famous for the success of his compact cars and for his leadership of that year’s constitutional convention.
Yet Swainson made the race close. He kept his sense of humor. After he lost, he’d say “you know you’re not governor anymore when you get in the back of a car and it doesn’t start moving.”
He rebuilt his life a second time. But then, while a supreme court justice, he was indicted. He beat the bribery charge, but was convicted of lying to a federal grand jury.
Disgraced, he sank into alcoholism. He said he felt he was destined to go down in history as an asterisk: “convicted and died.“
But he got sober and built a new career as head of the Michigan Historical Commission, a job he held till his premature death from a massive heart attack in 1994. After studying the transcript of the trial, Judge Glazer thinks Swainson was more than likely innocent. His problem was that he had extremely bad judgment about who he associated with.
But beyond the historian’s interest, the author feels that Swainson’s life holds an important lesson for today.
“No matter how unfair life is to you, you can persist and overcome it. Over and over again, John Swainson always bounced back.” That might be a good lesson for Michigan itself today.