Remembering Michigan Governor William Milliken

On August 26, 1966, the day after my 19th birthday, I attended in Lansing the Fall State Convention of the Republican Party of Michigan. I can barely remember the details, but I saved a copy of the agenda. The keynote speaker was Senator Robert P. Griffin. Governor George Romney (Mitt’s father) also addressed the delegates. I attended as a guest of my aunt and uncle, Betty and Hank Brodacki. She was the Ray Township delegate.

I also saved a copy of the “Action Team Campaign Song—1966,” which was sung by the “GOP Girls and Griffin Girls,” and we were invited to “all join in.” The delightfully lame lyrics were sung to the tune of “Jimmy Crack-corn”: “An ACTION TEAM for an action state/To keep our Michigan going great/It’s hard to beat our action men, ROMNEY, GRIFFEN, and MILLIKEN! Jimmy Crack-corn and we’ll be there/Jimmy Crack-corn and we’ll be there/Jimmy Crack-corn and we’ll all be there/On our big election day.”

Someone with a vaguely Polish-sounding name (“Miss Ludomira Zak”) sang the national anthem, accompanied by William Buswell, “Official J. L. Hudson Co. Organist,” preceded by the “Pledge of Allegiance.”

The slave origins of “Jimmy Crack-corn” were lost on us, and I do not recall there being any Black delegates, even though we were in the throes of the civil rights movement. Two years later, however, at the 1968 Republican national convention in Miami Beach, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote, was elected temporary chair of the convention. There were also 26 African-American delegates in attendance. The Republican platform emphasized a negotiated peace in Vietnam and vigorous efforts to resolve the crisis in American cities and to reduce taxes. Outside the convention hall, the “Poor People’s Campaign,” led by Ralph Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, demonstrated for a solution to American poverty.

I glued a photograph of William Milliken into my scrapbook, understanding that the real agenda of the party was to push him into the governorship. They succeeded, and in 1969 he became the 44th governor of Michigan, serving more than three full terms to 1983, making him the longest-serving governor in Michigan history.

Shortly after the Michigan convention in 1966, I entered Oakland University. The Vietnam War was raging and soon became the only political cause I cared about. Aunt Betty remained a pillar of the community in Ray Township and a devoted and active Republican. Uncle Hank, breaking with our family of FDR Democrats, became equally devoted to the party. I started marching against the war and soon became a single-issue voter, supporting political candidates who opposed the war. George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy were my guys. “All politics is local” was a concept lost on me.

Throughout my hippie antiwar years, I visited my Aunt Betty and Uncle Hank regularly but we rarely talked politics—or about my shoulder-length hair. They are both gone now, but in later years I joked with them, “You never did make a good Republican out of me, but you did make me a good citizen.” If there was anything I learned from being hauled to the 1966 Republican convention, it was the importance of voting and being politically engaged. “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

After the convention, William Milliken became one of the most respected governors Michigan has ever known, and in keeping with his philosophy of moderation remained politically active until his death just last year at the age of 97. Born in Traverse City, Milliken attended Yale University until 1942 when World War II interrupted his career and he enlisted in the Army. During the war he flew 50 combat missions as a waist-gunner on B-24 bombers and survived two crash landings. His military honors included the Purple Heart.

After retiring from public office, Milliken moved back to Traverse City. He joined the board of directors of Chrysler Corporation and chaired the Center for the Great Lakes, a research center dedicated to the protection of the world’s largest fresh water system. In 2004 Milliken broke ranks with the party to endorse John Kerry in his bid to unseat George W. Bush as president. He said, “George W. Bush does not speak for me or for many other moderate Republicans on a very broad cross section of issues.”

Milliken was a voice for moderation, civility, and idealism. He spoke at the funeral of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young in 1997. He endorsed John McCain for president in 2008 but backed away when the McCain campaign began attacking Barack Obama. He said of the Republican Party, “Increasingly, the party is moving toward rigidity.” In 2015, he signed an amicus brief in support of same-sex marriage and announced that he would support Hillary Clinton for president, saying that Donald Trump does not embody Republican ideals. Milliken was honored with a memorial service on August 6, 2020 at Interlochen Center for the Arts.

I paid little attention to Milliken’s career, but in the year 2020 hindsight is 20/20. At that 1966 convention in Lansing, I saw my own family appreciating civil discourse, good-naturedly engaged in the inefficient often silly process of campaigning and voting. They believed that whichever candidate won they need never demonize the opposition or be cynical or “go high” because the opposition was “going low.”

More than half a century later, so few social issues have changed. Poverty, racism, and the American way are still the calling cards of both the Democrats and Republicans. There is one exception, one change that has made political campaigns and holding public office much more difficult and that is the incivility and character assassination that prevail, with both parties issuing dire threats that the election of the other party will mark the end of American democracy or the end of the American way of life. Both parties now think nothing of dragging out details of a candidate’s sex life and turning privacy into a media circus. Both parties are eager to lock up the opposition or prove a duly elected president is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. The incivility has reached heights of mudslinging not seen since the 19th century, making it necessary for candidates to prove not how qualified or eager they are to serve but how unqualified and dangerous the opposition is. A half a century ago, Milliken belonged to a Republican Party that decried the excessive influence of labor unions within the Democratic Party as well as the similarly excessive influence of big business within the Republican Party. Perhaps that kind of civility and integrity is the greatness to which America should return.


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