TIM SKUBICK: Milliken turns 90

The former state leader is still one-of-a-kind

Happy 90th birthday to former Gov. Bill Milliken, born March 26, 1922.

Every once in awhile, it does a body good to take a breather from the daily news grind that tends to divide us.

Perhaps, some common ground can be found as the state celebrates the governor some affectionately called King William the Ethical who was also one of the truly nice guys in this biz.

HANGIN’ OUT: Gov. William Milliken and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young hang out in the dugout at Tiger Stadium on April 9, 1974. (MCT photo)

To be sure, he had his detractors, mostly in his own beloved Republican party. He was always a little too moderate for that far-right crowd, and they didn’t much like him hanging around with Democrats with whom he fashioned an exemplarily record during his record 14 years in office.

He was asked once why he didn’t chuck the GOP and switch parties. After all he did endorse a string of Democrats for president because he could not hold his nose and vote for some of the Republicans who wanted into the White House.

In his own low-keyed way he suggested that if he wanted his party to change, he’d have a better shot at it from the inside looking out rather than the other way around.

He’s still waiting.

But one aspect of his tenure that was often glossed over was his great sense of humor. True, when you think of William G. Milliken, knee slapping humor is not the first thing that jumps into your mind. But to know him was to see that lighter side that was never demeaning but often funny because you never expected it.

During one news conference when the issue was gambling and everyone knew the governor opposed the state lottery, somebody tried to pin down the sometimes slippery governor on dog racing.

The state already had horse racing so a reporter asked “What’s the difference between dog racing and horse racing?”

With a sly grin the sitting governor offered, “Well, the difference between horses and dogs, I suppose.” Rim shot.

Creating a unicameral legislature has found its way into the news cycle over the years, and Mr. Milliken, who had his ups and downs with lawmakers, was asked, “Do you support a one-house legislature over the current two-house arrangement?

To which he shot back, “Today I would say a unicameral system is going only half as far as we ought to go. …”

Mr. Milliken didn’t make many friends in his own party when he drew very public distinctions between himself and the then sitting president Richard Nixon. Suffice it to say, they did not exchange Christmas cards.

During one news conference at the height of the Watergate debacle, a reporter dragged out his quote from the governor: “I am convinced beyond doubt that future historians will rank President Nixon among the best presidents in this nation’s history.”

The reporter then asked, “Has anything happened since then to change your mind?”

Good one, hey?

Without missing a beat, Mr. M. warned the questioner that there would come a time in his life when his words would return to haunt him but he quickly got off the subject saying, “In answer to your question, yes. Next question.”

So we pause here to say thank you for the years of unflinching service, for setting the standard of bipartisanship and respect in a system that currently abhors both, and for being an outstanding leader whom others have imitated but at the end of the day there will never be another Gov. William G. Milliken.

Tim Skubick is Michigan’s Senior Capitol correspondent and has anchored the weekly public TV series Off the Record since 1972. He also covers the Capitol and politics for WLNS-TV6 in Lansing.

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Posted by Tim Skubick

Tim Skubick is Michigan’s Senior Capitol correspondent and has anchored the weekly public TV series Off the Record since 1972. He also covers the Capitol and politics for WLNS-TV6 in Lansing.

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