William G. Milliken, the longest-serving governor in Michigan history, turned 95 yesterday. The weekend before last, a couple other friends and I got together with Milliken and his son for a private little pre-birthday dinner at his home.
The governor – I find it hard to call him anything but that – is recovering from breaking a small bone in his foot, but hasn’t lost his interest in state affairs or his sense of humor.
I told him that as he had served his fourteen years before term limits, he is legally qualified to be governor eight more years, and added that I expected him to be the Republican nominee next year. He responded, “And I thought you liked me!”
If Milliken were forty years younger, there would be a whole lot of us who would be tempted to quit our day jobs to work to put him back in Lansing. He was a thorough bipartisan, passionately committed to the environment, a man who worked hard to try to save Detroit from financial disaster.
Forty years after Milliken did what he could for Detroit, it was Governor Rick Snyder’s turn to guide the Motor City through bankruptcy and the worst financial crisis in the city’s history. There is a connection.
Many Republicans today sneer at Governor Milliken as an out-of-touch liberal who is only a Republican in name only.
Not Governor Snyder. He is by no means a Milliken clone. But his first brush with politics was working as a volunteer in Milliken’s last campaign, in 1978.
It has been a long time since Governor Milliken endorsed a Republican for President, but in his late 80s, he backed and even campaigned for Snyder, and the younger man sought his advice.
Dave Dempsey, the author of an excellent biography, “William G. Milliken, Michigan’s Passionate Moderate,” told me a few years ago that he thought Milliken has had “more impact post-governorship than any other previous governor in Michigan history.”
That hasn’t changed. Most other governors – Blanchard, Engler, Granholm – left the state when they were done.
Bill Milliken still lives in Traverse City. Most voters today are too young to remember the Milliken style, and many weren’t even born when he left office in 1983.
So what you need to know is this. As governor, he tried to fix problems, not the blame. He worked hard and effectively to get things done; he is a big part of the reason we have bottle and can recycling in this state. He was no wimp; he was repeatedly wounded and barely survived World War II. But he treated everyone with courtesy and civility, even reporters.
And in his time, people appreciated it. No other Republican could have been elected governor in 1974, after Watergate. Congressman Sandy Levin, the man he beat, told me a few years ago that the painful sting of defeat was lessened because “I lost to such a decent man.”
Dempsey, his biographer, also told me that while Milliken wasn’t perfect, “he’s sort of the North Star for grading public servants and the public – the standard by which a lot of us measure Michigan politics.”
Those of us fortunate enough to remember the governor and his work ought to try to make sure others know, and we don’t forget.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's senior news analyst. You can read his essays online at Michigan Radio-dot-org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.