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 reelected 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 will probably 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%; Democrats: 70%; Union members: 70%;
Blacks: 75%; Catholics: 74%; ticket splitters: 73%.
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
As you turn 90, two of your former staff members who know you best
sent me their summing up:
Craig Ruff, your special Assistant for Human Services: “Governor
Milliken didn’t just spend the longest time as Michigan’s governor; he
also set the highest standards of conduct and yield of public duties.
He performed in a gentlemanly way. He produced good things likewise.
Mr. Milliken softened the natural gulfs between Democrats and
Republicans; liberals and conservatives; and people living in rural,
suburban and urban areas.”
He typified your style as governing that bridged divisions and
produced the greatest good for all. He led. We followed. Toward no
greater aims has a leader so successfully propelled.”
Bill Rustem, your special Assistant for Natural Resources and
Environment who is today Gov. Snyder’s Chief of Strategy: “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. He is also on the
board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The
opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the
official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at