July 13, 2024

Bill Milliken Was A Great Leader And A Good Friend

Bill Milliken and yours truly at the annual Groundwork Center harvest dinner in 2014. (Photo/Gabrielle Gray)

William G. Milliken, the longest serving governor in Michigan’s storied history, died in October at the age of 97. One of the rare gifts of my life was knowing Bill and his wife Helen as friends and mentors. Both were terrifically helpful in getting our new northern Michigan land use policy group going in the 1990s. Helen was a board member. Bill was an active supporter. In 2000, when I stepped down as director of the group, the Michigan Land Use Institute, Bill wrote me a note of congratulation for a bringing important issues of growth, development, and environmental protection to public knowledge and action.

A gentleman and a statesman, Bill carried himself and produced for the public good in ways nearly completely lost in the United States. He saw the erosion in how we conducted our public affairs long before almost everybody else. And he worried about what it meant for the country’s ideals and values and ways of doing business. Every so often we would cross paths in Traverse City, where he was born, raised, and lived. Every time ours was a conversation of substance and a moment committed to memory.

I had the privilege of writing Bill’s obituary for the New York Times, one of the many assignments I’ve undertaken in a Times career that began in February 1982. Much of that article continues here:

In January 1969, days before he became governor — succeeding George Romney, who had joined President Richard M. Nixon’s cabinet — Mr. Millken delivered a speech to a joint legislative session that defined the personal values that would shape his long term in office. “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 said.

Mr. Milliken’s record of political achievements reflected that vision. It included investing in urban housing and education, defending auto industry jobs and profits in the wake of the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo, strengthening higher education, and installing innovative environmental protections.

Trim, athletic and soft-spoken, Mr. Milliken always looked years younger than his age. Much of what he achieved in public policy was made possible by what his allies and opponents agreed was his uncommon graciousness and decency. His ability to inspire people to trust him enabled Mr. Milliken to build remarkable political bridges. He succeeded in convincing cities and suburbs, labor and management, business executives and environmentalists, and Republicans and Democrats that their interests coincided.

This was no small feat considering that Mr. Milliken’s term spanned 14 years, from 1969 until 1983, the longest in state history, and coincided with the deepest economic crisis and highest unemployment in Michigan since the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, Vietnam protests, and the consequences of old factories and industrial practices on the economy and the state’s natural resources.

His administration was also distinguished by his concern about the condition of Michigan’s deteriorating cities, especially Detroit, and by the commitment he made to healing racial wounds. He took office less than two years after a race riot in Detroit that claimed more than 40 lives. Mr. Milliken campaigned for affirmative action, named young African-Americans as top aides — among them Roy Levy Williams, who went to become the chairman of the N.A.A.C.P. — and recruited black leaders and residents as allies.

He counted Detroit’s fiery mayor, Coleman A. Young, as a supporter. In 1978, in the last of his three successful campaigns for governor, Mr. Milliken swept heavily black Wayne County, the first Republican to do so in 32 years. “Bill Milliken proved that you can appeal to people’s best instincts and be a very successful politician,” Mr. Young said that year.

With each campaign, Mr. Milliken’s popularity and stature grew, both in Michigan and outside. In 1977, the year he was elected chairman of the National Governors Association, his 49 colleagues named Mr. Milliken “the nation’s most effective governor.” In 1982, in bestowing an association honor on him, Richard Snelling, a former governor of Vermont, remarked, “He will surely be recorded in history as one of the nation’s greatest governors.”

Mr. Milliken’s tempered view about government’s usefulness was consistent with those of other prominent Republican moderates who came of age during and immediately after World War II, most of them his personal friends. They included Gerald R. Ford, who was a congressman from Grand Rapids before becoming vice president and then president; former governors Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York and Mr. Romney; and former President George H.W. Bush, for whom Mr. Milliken campaigned in 1980 and 1988.

But as his last term came to an end in the early years of the Ronald Reagan administration, Mr. Milliken’s sense of fairness and his conviction that government programs advanced the public interest began to put him at odds with the party leadership. Conservatives grew restive with the bipartisan, alliance-building style that led Mr. Milliken to court labor, occasionally appoint Democrats to state jobs and support abortion rights.

In the last years of his career, when he was regarded as Michigan’s senior statesman, the rift between Mr. Milliken and his party’s leadership widened. In 2004, he endorsed Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, for president, and expressed his disdain for President George W. Bush, the son of his former ally, who he said had “pursued policies pandering to the extreme right wing across a wide variety of issues” and “exacerbated the polarization and the strident, uncivil tone of much of what passes for political discourse in this country today.”

The policy arena that truly galvanized Mr. Milliken was the environment. He was an early proponent of the view that durable prosperity depended on conserving rather than exploiting Michigan’s tremendous storehouse of natural wealth. “We should not measure human progress solely on the basis of what we’ve built but also on what we have preserved and protected,” he said.

Arguably no governor in American history pursued environmental goals with the resolve Mr. Milliken displayed. From 1970 to 1982 he fought for and gained passage of 13 major statutes that secured the quality of the state’s Great Lakes shoreline, protected wetlands and natural rivers, controlled erosion, cleaned up toxic wastes, ensured the preservation of wild habitat, and improved the management of Michigan’s vast public domain, the largest of any state east of the Mississippi River. In 1976 he campaigned for passage of a bottle recycling bill that is still regarded as the best in the nation. An important ally was his wife, Helen Milliken, a popular and politically active conservationist in her own right.

Mr. Milliken’s stewardship made it possible for the tourism and recreation sector to become the state’s third-largest generator of wealth, behind manufacturing and agriculture.

William Grawn Milliken was born in Traverse City. Mich., on March 26, 1922, to a family of business and political leaders. His grandfather, James W. Milliken, founded J.W. Milliken Inc., a department store that grew into a small chain, and served a two-year term in the last years of the 19th century as a Republican state senator. Mr. Milliken’s father, James Thacker Milliken, was a liberal Republican and conservationist who expanded the family business and served five terms as state senator. His mother, the former Hildegarde Grawn, was the daughter of the president of Central Michigan University.

Mr. Milliken displayed his political acumen early. He was elected president of his freshman class at Traverse City High School, and as a senior became the school’s elected governor. He followed his father to Yale, though his undergraduate career was interrupted by World War II, when Mr. Milliken served on 50 dangerous missions as an Army Air Forces waist-gunner on B-24 bombers.

Two of the bombers he served on crashed, one on takeoff and the other while landing. He bailed out of a third that had been hit by enemy fire. And he was wounded in the stomach by flak. Mr. Millken rose to the rank of staff sergeant and received several medals, including the Purple Heart.

In 1945, after his return from service, he married Helen Wallbank, whom he had met when she was student at Smith College in Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in 1946. Besides their son, the couple had a daughter, Elaine Wallbank Milliken, who became a public defender in Detroit and died of cancer in 1993 at 45.

Mr. Milliken won his first political campaign in 1960, winning the same State Senate seat that his father and grandfather had held. He was re-elected in 1962 and served as Senate majority floor leader. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1965.

Mr. Milliken’s disenchantment with the rightward drift of the Republican Party continued into his later years. Though he endorsed Senator John McCain, a Republican, in the 2008 presidential race, he also supported a number of Democrats in Michigan, including Jennifer Granholm in her 2006 campaign for governor.

In 2016 he again broke with his party, endorsing Hillary Clinton over Donald J. Trump.

“This nation has long prided itself on its abiding commitments to tolerance, civility and equality,” Mr. Milliken said in a statement at the time. “We face a critically important choice in this year’s presidential election that will define whether we maintain our commitment to those ideals or embark on a path that has doomed other governments and nations throughout history.

“I am saddened and dismayed,” he continued, “that the Republican Party this year has nominated a candidate who has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not embrace those ideals.”

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