Monday, April 2, 2012

A better way to govern: Milliken's way

Note The following column is from today's edition of The Morning Sun (it's the same column that I previewed last week):

Looking at him you wouldn’t know it, but William G. Milliken, Michigan’s longest-serving governor, turned 90 last week.

And for the wondering minds out there, his middle name, Grawn, is the same name that adorns Grawn Hall on the campus of Central Michigan University, where his maternal grandfather, Charles Grawn, was president for 18 years.

Milliken, who became acting governor in 1969 when George Romney left the governor’s mansion to assume a position in the cabinet of President Richard Nixon, was thrice elected — 1970, 1974, 1978 — in his own right. And because Michigan’s governors are now constitutionally limited to two four-year terms, Milliken will presumably keep his record for the ages.

Since leaving office, Milliken’s name has been invoked countless times by politicians looking to associate themselves with middle-of-the-road ticket-splitters.

“He’s where most Americans are on the issues,” said Inside Michigan Politics editor Bill Ballenger, a political grandee who served in the Legislature, unsuccessfully ran for the federal Senate and was a Milliken appointee.

But Ballenger found irony in many Democrats styling themselves as the heirs to Milliken, saying: “They sit around saying how terrible these modern Republicans are because they are so conservative, but they tried to screw Milliken and the Republicans every chance they could get.”

Yet Milliken’s legacy is best defined by the way he handled these opponents. No matter what happened, he was a calm, soft-spoken and well-mannered gentleman.

“Governor Milliken was the quintessential class act who didn’t vilify his political enemies even though he knew they were trying to knife him in his back,” said Ballenger. “I think just the fact that he was a moderate Republican — one of the last, perhaps the last — that we have had in high places made him more acceptable to Democrats and independent ticket-splitters, but Democrats [in Lansing] were never warm to him when he was in office.”

While many nostalgically look back to the Milliken era as the Golden Age of Michigan politics, it’s tough to compare today’s body politic with that of his governorship.

Namely because politics, and more importantly the political culture, is fundamentally different.

Republicans — let alone conservatives — were very much a minority, as Democrats controlled the Legislature for most of the time Milliken was governor. This forced the governor to work with Democrats to pass even the most basic of legislation.

It wasn’t until the political realignment that came about in 1976 and finished with Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 that conservatives became entrenched in both government and Republican politics.

Transposing Milliken’s policy stances into contemporary times does a great disservice to the man, as Milliken is truly a product of his times, whose ideology and political lineage can be traced back to Teddy Roosevelt’s Republican Party.

Rather Michiganders should remember that today’s highly charged and hyper-partisan political environment isn’t the way it has to be.

There is a better way to govern. There is the way of William G. Milliken.

— Dennis Lennox 

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