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Remembering Joyce Braithwaite-Brickley

May 22, 2017

When we talk about our elected leaders, we usually act as if they did it all by themselves. We only tend to notice their assistants if they start slipping, or show signs of clumsiness.

Whatever your politics, the fact that Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway have been so savaged in the press is a clear indication that they, and their boss, are failing to do their jobs.

But just as in Hollywood, often some of the greatest talents are behind the cameras. William Milliken was governor of this state longer than anyone has ever been, and perhaps the best. But everyone who covered him knew that a great part of his strength came from his appointments secretary, Joyce Braithwaite.

Joyce was extremely smart, funny, and fiercely protective of her boss and his administration. She had nerves of steel. Her “secretary” title was misleading.

The governor made the final decisions, but nobody served in the Milliken administration without first having been cleared by Joyce, as everyone called her. To the best of my knowledge, no incompetents, sheer political hacks, or anyone with legal or ethical problems got through.

“We shared the same values,” Milliken once told me, adding that “she was one of the most intelligent people I ever met. “ That she was. She was born in Charlotte during the Great Depression, in an era in which few women went to college.

Frankly, I have no doubt she could have sailed through the University of Michigan. She started out in politics when she was not even 30, a divorced mother with two kids, helping her good friend Elly Peterson, a moderate, feminist Republican who ran a gallant but hopeless race for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and a winning one for state chair the next year.

I’ve more than once learned more about politics and political history from a lunch with Joyce than I would have from a graduate seminar. She did not suffer fools or phonies gracefully. When a corpulent Washington reporter wrote a self-aggrandizing autobiography, she asked me how a man who was seldom known to leave the bar could have known so much.

Once, when an odious, sexist state senator called her “just some secretary named Joycie-girl,” she wrote an open letter calling him “the most reprehensible, scurrilous, least respected person and the poorest excuse for a public servant ever to occupy an office in this state.”

He deserved it. I think she mellowed in later years. Soon after Governor Milliken left office, she fell in love with and married Michigan Supreme Court justice James Brickley, who had been lieutenant governor and was Milliken’s unsuccessful choice to succeed him.

It was one of the few true love matches I’ve seen in politics. They had seventeen years till his untimely death. After that, she lived in Traverse City with her dogs. This spring, she suddenly became ill, and Thursday night she died. She was 84.

Governor Milliken, who is 95, was shaken. “Her mind never ceased to amaze me. She was just everything I ever could have wanted,” in a top aide, he told me last night. The governor agreed that in today’s less sexist world, Braithwaite might herself have been a candidate for office.

But given much of what politicians have to do today, I think she might have been bored.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. 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.