I became very interested in government and politics very early in life. I was involved in class governance in grade school, high school and college. I did my college internship at the Michigan Republican State Committee led then by Spencer Abraham who went on to become a U.S. Senator and Secretary of Energy. Upon graduating from college, I even ran for state representative at the ripe old age of 22.
Back then, we were taught that government service and political awareness was a civic duty, not only a right of citizenship but an obligation. While there was a very robust two-party system then, the vitriol and extreme partisanship we see today was non-existent. Yes, there has always been dirty politics. But most of those in political leadership viewed their jobs as problem solvers with a goal of improving the lives of their constituents. “Compromise” was not a four-letter word but rather a heralded skill set.
Last week, we lost a stalwart of the idea that good policy is good politics. Former Governor Bill Milliken, who repeated that phrase often, died at the age of 97. He served in the state senate and as Lieutenant Governor before ascending to the Governor’s office when George Romney was tapped for a position in the Nixon Administration.
Milliken was among the “last lions” of moderate Republicanism, not only in Michigan but nationally as well. Mayor Coleman Young considered him a great ally of Detroit. He ushered in a new era of environmental protection that in hindsight was prescient and visionary. He represented decency and collegiality in all the most important ways—working with Democrats and Republicans alike to accomplish important legislation, focusing on urban areas and the plight of the poor and being open to other points of view.
In retirement, the former governor became exasperated with the direction of the Republican Party, often endorsing Democratic candidates for state office and even for President. There’s no doubt that the current state of affairs in Washington D.C. was a major disappointment to him.
At a time of unprecedented political turmoil in modern American history, Governor Milliken’s passing is an occasion for us to remember what decency and statesmanship used to look like. Magnanimity and openness were emblematic of confidence and strength rather than weakness. Decorum and mutual respect were the rule, not the exception. The current generation of political leadership has utterly failed in this regard. But, as it does, another generation will arise. They would do well to study the life and times of one of Michigan’s great governors.