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Opinion | Remembering Gov. Milliken — an eagle tips its wings

William Milliken

Editor’s Note: This column reprints in full the eulogy delivered Aug. 6 at a memorial service in Interlochen for William Milliken, Michigan’s governor from 1969-1982, who died ln October. The eulogy’s author, Bill Rustem, served as a close adviser to both Gov. Milliken and Gov. Rick Snyder as part of a 50-year career in Michigan public policy.

This is hard.

We who knew William Milliken—The Governor—admired and respected him, and—most importantly--loved him dearly.

I want to say at the outset that I’ll try my best to channel George Weeks and Joyce Braithwaite, two of the governor’s closest advisers and friends and two of the most important mentors in my life. They are, of course, no longer physically with us, but I know they are somehow with us today, celebrating a life lived exceedingly well.  I hope my remarks echo some of what they might have said on this occasion. 

It was 50 years ago this year that I started with the governor’s office as an intern.  Fifty years!  That first call asking if I was interested  came from Charlie Greenleaf, and it defined the rest of my life.  It defined my career, I met my wife, Brenda there, and it gave a young, wet-behind-the ears guy from Frankenmuth the chance to learn from a great and decent man. 

There is so much that can be said about Bill Milliken. He was, and will always be, Michigan’s longest serving governor. He believed fervently in the ideals of public service.  He was kind and tolerant. He was witty and disarming, and he was always genteel.  He had a strong sense of what was right, and what was wrong, and no one questioned his character. Make no mistake:  He had steel too.  You don’t fly 50 missions in World War II as a waist-gunner on a B-52 and win a Purple Heart for being a softie. 

But above all, he was deeply and genuinely committed to leaving Michigan and its citizenry better than what he found when he came into office.

And the people of Michigan bonded with his goals, his vision and his demeanor.   Listen to these approval ratings from 1980, after serving some 12 years in the governor’s office… Republicans, 87 percent... Democrats, 70 percent... African Americans, 75 percent... union members, 70 percent... and ticket-splitters, 73 percent.  Michigan’s people measured the man — measured his record — and found him an almost-perfect leader.  They knew they could trust him.

Can you imagine having Bill Milliken as your first boss? And for 12 years?  Not a day goes by when I don’t pinch myself to have fallen into such great fortune. I and so many others here were lucky to work for a man who understood that there was nobility in public service, that civil discourse leads to positive outcomes, and that it is always more important to listen than to shout.  And lucky to work for a man who constantly reminded us that good public policy makes good politics.  Finally, we were lucky to work for a man who believed in the important role of a free press as an important arbiter of the truth in a democracy. 

He cared about us as much as he cared about his ambitions for our state.  He saw something in many of us that we didn’t see in ourselves.   Like many of you, I am in awe for all that he taught me through both his words and his deeds.   

Many of us on his staff were very young at the time. I think he liked having young people around because it reminded him of what the job was really all about — building a Michigan for the future. . . a state where the next generation and those after would have a chance to live, to work, to play, and to prosper.

You know, the easy road in politics has always been to appeal to people’s hates, their fears and their greed.  Bill Milliken rejected that road.  He believed that public servants had a higher calling — to find the best in each of us, to challenge convention, and to emphasize the ties that bring people together, rather than drive them apart.  Like Lincoln, he called on our better angels to prevail.

Bill Milliken was, of course, a Republican.  He was a Republican who understood and who believed deeply in the age-old ideals of his party.  He studied history and learned from it.    He fought for the principles of prudent budgeting, equal opportunity, responsible and equitable economic development, stewardship of our natural resources, and investment in infrastructure, all historically Republican issues.  He understood, in the deepest sense, what it meant to be Republican.

For his was the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation through its darkest hours to bring an end to slavery—a horrible cancer on our nation’s history and its founding principles. 

As a state senator, Bill Milliken fought diligently against those who wanted to eliminate Rule 9, a rule that prohibited discrimination in real estate sales in the state.  When he became governor, he and Helen refused to move into the state-provided governor’s mansion until a “Whites only” codicil had been determined to be illegal.  As governor, he pushed for and achieved adoption of the landmark Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, was unbending in his support for a woman’s right to choose, and he and Helen achieved ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in Michigan, despite its not being ratified nationally.  And when anyone would make a bigoted or misogynistic statement in his presence, he would gracefully — but firmly — put them in their place.

His was the Republican Party of Theodore Roosevelt, who understood that humans are part of the natural environment and must be diligent in protecting the natural systems that sustain all life on our planet.

As governor, Bill Milliken helped pull the nation and the world into a new era of environmental stewardship.

He achieved passage of the historic Michigan Environmental Protection Act, went to the people to achieve adoption of our state’s “Bottle Bill”, and worked with the Legislature to create the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to assure that revenues from the use of publicly owned resources would be reinvested in public lands. He pushed and signed laws to protect lakes, streams, sand dunes, farmland, wetlands, Great Lakes shoreline, and wilderness areas.  He pulled together the first meeting of the Great Lakes governors and the Premier of Ontario to take a stand against the diversion of Great Lakes waters.

And, like Teddy Roosevelt, he was unafraid of taking on the rich and the powerful on behalf of a better future for our state.

He did so when he took on the pharmaceutical industry to make Michigan the second state to adopt a generic drug law, cutting the costs of prescription drugs for our citizens.

He did so when he took on the soap and detergent industry to ban phosphorous in laundry detergents, markedly reducing algal blooms in the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie.

He did so when he took on the bottled beverage industry and its unions to lead a petition campaign and vote to ban throwaways.

And he did so when he took on the chemical industry to lead Michigan to become the first state to ban the use of PCB, which was contaminating salmon and trout in the Great Lakes, and to become the first state to ban the use of DDT.

As Brenda and I were driving up here this morning, I saw an eagle. DDT, of course, was making raptors’ eggs thin. The bald eagle population was going down when Michigan banned DDT. Every time I see an eagle, I think, what if Bill Milliken hadn’t had the courage to do what he did, to ban DDT? Because of course, what happened was, as soon as Michigan did it then other states did it and then the EPA finally banned DDT. Well, that eagle I saw this morning, I swear, it tips its wings, as if to say, “Thank him for us, too.”

His was the Republican Party of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned about the growing threat of a military/industrial alliance that could one day coerce a nation into wars it could not win in places it should not be.  Eisenhower also understood, as had Lincoln and Roosevelt before him, the critical importance of investing in the nation’s infrastructure. Eisenhower pushed through Congress the construction of the vast federal highway system that we all enjoy today. Except for rush hours.

As lieutenant governor, Bill Milliken led the campaign and public vote to bond for critical improvements in our wastewater infrastructure and our state parks, markedly cleaning up the state’s inland waters and waters of the Great Lakes, and building the foundation of what is now the best state park system in the nation.

As governor, Bill Milliken worked with the Legislature to maintain our streets, our roads, our bridges and our harbors of refuge.  He fought to increase the gas tax. . . twice.  He understood that in a state that grows things and makes things, you have to move things.

But he also saw the future.  He pushed through a constitutional amendment, and got it adopted by the people, to permit up to 10 percent of transportation funds to be used for public transit and for paths for bicycles and walkers.

His was the Republican Party of Everett Dirksen and Howard Baker, who understood the critical importance of the separation of powers written into the U.S. Constitution, and who regularly set aside partisanship to work with their counterparts in the Democratic Party to achieve what was right for the country.  

As governor, Bill Milliken worked diligently and effectively with members of both parties to move the state forward.  For all 14 years of his governorship, the state House was controlled by Democrats, and for eight of those 14 years, so was the State Senate. 

It didn’t matter to him. 

He just went to work.

He didn’t call people juvenile names; he didn’t threaten; he wasn’t petty; he didn’t bully. He didn’t play the victim, or the blame game and he rejected the empty allure of hyper-partisanship.

Rather, he partnered with the majority Democrats in the Legislature.  He fought for tax cuts when possible, and tax increases when necessary. He understood that policy objectives should always override partisanship and worked hard to reach common ground on sensible solutions to the state’s challenges. He always had a detailed policy agenda, from policy proposals on agriculture, through consumer protection to public health to veterans' affairs.       

He firmly believed that decent people working with decent people could define elegant solutions. 

And, finally, Bill Milliken’s Republican Party was the Republican Party of Michigan’s own Gerald Ford, who became president at a time when the nation was torn, confused, and disappointed by the clear evidence of extremely low conduct in very high places.  President Ford made the difficult decision to sacrifice his own political future to allow a nation to heal.

As governor, Bill Milliken steered the ship of state through the troubled waters of student unrest over Vietnam on Michigan’s campuses, of back-to-back recessions, and of the chemical contamination crisis of PBB.  He did so by listening to experts in law enforcement, economics and public health.  He sought facts, data and the best of science.  He listened, he considered and he acted.

He sought facts to inform his opinion, not opinions to shape alternative facts.  

And he withstood the blows of those who criticized his friendship and cooperation with Detroit’s Mayor Coleman Young, and his personal and fervent interest in helping Detroit. Bill Milliken understood the simple fact that Michigan could not be successful unless its largest city was successful, and that everyone—and he meant everyone—had the chance to succeed.  He often remarked that if some of us in Michigan are hurting, all of us in Michigan are hurting.  

He sought to build bridges, not walls. 

He wanted Michigan to heal.

In short, Bill Milliken stood on the shoulders of the giants that preceded him and yet, somehow, he reached higher.  He understood the history that had been bequeathed to him and wrote his own.  He brought grace, dignity, and vision to the office of governor, and left a legacy of progress that continues to make Michigan a better state today.  

If the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose, William Milliken more than met that test.

When he was first sworn in to the office of governor on Jan. 9, 1969, Bill Milliken said, “It is my greatest hope that this administration will be known for its compassion, its idealism, its candor and its toughness in the pursuit of public ends.” 

He accomplished that and much, much more.

He is the very definition of the leader that democracy deserves.

Milliken … Michigan

Michigan … Milliken

The names will ring together in harmony … forever.

If you visit many of our national parks, you will often see a plaque that is a tribute to Stephen Mather, a founding father of our national park system.  It reads, “The end will never come to the good you have done.”

Thank you, governor, for all you did for me, for those of us in this room today, and what you did for our children and for theirs and theirs and theirs. 

The end will never come to the good you have done.

We love you. God bless.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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