A birthday letter to Bill Milliken

Dear Governor:
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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Steve Dobson
Tue, 03/27/2012 - 8:57am
A wonderful tribute to a great man and a great leader. As a Republican who shares Governor Milliken's disaffection for the current controlling bloc and sacred cows of the Party, I'm thankful that we once again have a common-sense, farsighted, ethical Republican governor in office. I believe that Governor Snyder will one day leave behind a modern-day legacy that equals that of Governor Milliken.
Mike R
Tue, 03/27/2012 - 2:46pm
I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and remember Gov. Milliken fondly and with reverence. I got to shake his hand when he was campaiging in Southfield in 1970, and remember a soft-spoken, kindly man who treated me with respect (no small thing at that time for a teenager with fairly long hair!). Often I have wished we had more governors like him, instead of polarizing figures like John Engler. While I wish Governor Snyder well, his legacy as a moderate and consensus builder is sorely in doubt, at least for now. He has kow-towed to the extremists in his party in a way Governor Milliken never would have countenanced. Would Mr. Milliken have taken advantage of a Republican-dominated legislature to sanction the Machiavellian anti-education and anti-union power grabs signed into law by Mr. Snyder? Undoubtedly not. My recollection is that he opposed anything that smacked of one party dominating the other, or one class triumphing at the expense of another. And while business thrived during his tenure (as the scion of the Milliken Department Store family, he had every reason to favor business), he recognized that business was not the be-all and end-all of life in Michigan. Without a sucessful middle class (at that time solidly founded on successful unions), there would be no retail, housing, or service industries. Admittedly, Mr. Snyder has his work cut out for him: he's fighting a two war front against both a state whose financial house is in disarray and a Republican party out for total domination of public, private, religious, and every other aspect of life in this state. He has instituted some unpleasant but necessary reforms in order to reign in spending. But based on his record so far, he will be remembered equally for his inability to stand up to the extremists (and there are many of them) in his own party as he will for his good intentions. I hope he is able to reverse this unfortunate course.
Tue, 03/27/2012 - 4:06pm
Best 90th birthday wishes to fellow TC'er, Governor Bill Milliken. Too bad his environmental legacy continues to be undone. In 1994, Governor Engler eliminated most citizen oversight of the DNR that Governor Milliken had put in place. Then in 1995, Engler removed the last remaining citizen oversight of the DEQ (the Natural Resouces Commission) by splitting the department from the DNR and putting the DEQ Director under his direct control. That same year, Engler gutted the "Polluter Pay Law" and loosened cleanup standards state-wide. Engler-like practices resume under current Governor Snyder: -- He re-split the DEQ from the DNR (after Governor Granholm had recombined them.) -- The DEQ allows a polluting company to cut off access to a groundwater sampling databasethat previously was shared with the public and key to keeping tabs on the massive Pall/Gelman 1,4-dioxane contamination in Washtenaw County (Snyder's home county). -- The DEQ's semi-secret Collaborative Stakeholders Initiative (CSI) has rushed through recommendations to loosen environmental standards even more and further gut the DEQ's powers to protect the Waters of the State. The CSI committee "stakeholders" included mostly DEQ staff and corporate polluters, their lawyers and consultants... no members from environmental groups or the general public.We're 2/3 water... Act Accordingly.