You celebrated your 90th birthday Monday. I’m sure you and Helen did it in your usual low-key manner, enjoying the serene beauty of the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City.
All of your friends know how proud you are of the tradition of public service that has run through your family for generations. Your father, James T. Milliken, was mayor of Traverse City and a state senator from 1941-50. And your grandfather, James W. Milliken, served in the state Senate from 1898-1900.
You were elected to represent the same Senate district – the 27th – in 1960. To the best of my knowledge, that set a Michigan record for family members holding the same senatorial seat.
You were only in the Senate a single term, but made your mark early, leading a revolt against the Republican “mossbacks” who controlled the upper house in those days. You led a bunch of “Young Turks,” both Republican moderates and Democrats, who essentially seized control of the Senate from a bunch of reactionaries.
Four years later, the Republican Party nominated you to run for lieutenant governor with George Romney -- the first time our two top officials were elected as a team. You were re-elected two years later, and when Romney left Michigan to serve in President Nixon’s Cabinet, you became our governor in 1969.
Following that, you were elected to three four-year terms: 1970, 1974 and 1978. Given the eight-year term limits voters enacted later, your time in office probably will remain a record forever.
Nobody ever wondered about your sincerity. Your political style meshed perfectly with your personality: civil, decent, modest, yet stubborn in what you thought right. You enjoyed praise, but were perfectly willing to withstand criticism for unpopular decisions.
Your constant refrain was, and is, “Good policies make good politics.” Even a brief look at the politicians who followed you makes a convincing case that you helped create a sane and moderate Michigan political culture that has only recently come undone.
You made it clear that Michigan’s future was tied to that of Detroit. And you made no secret that you respected your old senatorial colleague, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young -- and that you believed in helping his city, even though that was resented and opposed by made in your own party.
Your interest in preserving and protecting our unparalleled natural resources was a hallmark of your administration, an interest you followed by helping create, in 1982, the Council of Great Lakes Governors, the first attempt to pull together the states surrounding the largest body of drinkable fresh water on the Earth.
Most long-serving politicians leave office only to see their popularity spiral downwards. Did that affect you? A statewide poll conducted by Market Opinion Research (the best polling firm of its day) in 1980 after you had served 11 years in office produced these “favorables”: Republicans -- 87 percent; Democrats -- 70 percent; union members -- 70 percent; blacks -- 75 percent; Catholics -- 74 percent; ticket splitters -- 73 percent.
Politicians these days would drool all over the floor to have such numbers. Still, like many other moderate Republicans, you have fretted for decades over the rightward tilt of your party. In 2004, you declined to support President George W. Bush for president, endorsing Sen. John Kerry, saying: “The truth is that President George W. Bush does not speak for me, or for many other moderate Republicans, on a very broad cross-section of issues.”
Two years ago, you endorsed Republican Rick Snyder for governor, and some say you may have helped make a difference in that year’s crowded GOP primary.
Bill Rustem, your special assistant for natural resources and environment and now Gov. Snyder's chief of strategy, told me: “The easy road for any politician is to appeal to people’s hates, their fears, and their greed; to be an echo chamber for the worst thoughts, deeds and words of human nature.
“Governor Milliken always rejected that road. Rather, he believes that public servants had a higher calling -- a calling to find the best in each of us; to challenge convention in order to build a better tomorrow; and to find the ties that bring people together rather than wedge them apart.”
So, Bill Milliken, it is an honor and a pleasure, to join so many, many of your friends and admirers in wishing you the very happiest returns of the day. Your life’s work has been to make Michigan a far better place than you found it.
And you did.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.