Book Review: William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate by David Dempsey

millikenWhen I was a kid, I read a lot of biographies – explorers, sports heroes, presidents. Somehow, reading about those outstanding individuals of the past gave me pride and hope for the future. Dave Dempsey’s new biography of William G. Milliken evoked that same kind of feeling.



Milliken became Governor of Michigan in 1969, when then Governor George Romney left for Washington to take a post in President Nixon’s Cabinet. Milliken was subsequently elected to three consecutive four-year terms when he retired in 1982, he had served longer than any previous individual as the state’s chief executive. These were not easy years. Riots had scarred Detroit, the automobile industry was battered by foreign competition disrupting the state’s economy, and the battle to protect the environment was just beginning.



Through it all, Milliken acted with confidence, optimism and a spirit of conciliation. He stood, and still stands, as an example of the decency and civility that raises politics from the level of mud-slinging to the high plain of public service. Like all good writers, Dempsey uses many specific examples to paint a clear picture of Milliken’s general character. He describes the time when the Governor and his wife were taken on a hiking tour to film the television program “Michigan Outdoors” and 60-year-old Gene Little was lugging a huge TV camera on his shoulder. Dempsey lets one of the hikers, David Smethurst, tell the story:


“. . . we walked on and on. Pretty soon Gene is huffing and puffing. We stop more often for him. I walk ahead with Ned and Mrs. Milliken and look behind. Gene is still slogging along, but the Governor is now carrying his TV camera . . .I made up my mind about the Millikens that day. Good people make good leaders.”




The book is filled with these firsthand observations from friends of the Governor and his political adversaries, from newspaper editorials, journalists and reporters. Dempsey has done an excellent job of weaving this material into his text which provides a broader historical perspective. It’s like being there and then stepping back to reflect on the impact of major events form the time period. Often he lets Milliken speak for himself as in these words from his first speech as the acting Governor:



“[I hope my administration] is known for its compassion, its idealism, its candor and its toughness in pursuit of public ends.”



This high standard is the Milliken legacy something we citizens can hold up with hope and pride for our future political leaders.