- - Sunday, October 27, 2019

It didn’t get national news coverage, but the recent death of former Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken at the age of 97 marked the end of an era.

Mr. Milliken, forever enshrined in the annals of political history as the Wolverine State’s longest-serving governor, wasn’t just a war hero who, like so many of the Greatest Generation, transitioned from serving in uniform to serving in the halls of government.

The once-accidental governor ascended from the lieutenant-governorship when President Richard Nixon appointed Gov. George Romney to his Cabinet. He was one of the last remaining liberal Republicans; a sect of the GOP commonly called Rockefeller Republicans. 

On almost all major issues today, Mr. Milliken would be classified as a Democrat. However, the quintessential White Anglo-Saxon Protestant — decorated war hero, Yale alumnus, patrician — was the very embodiment of the Republican Party in its former days as the party of the East Coast-based establishment. His party affiliation was never ideological. It was tribal and fundamentally rooted in social class.

Heir apparent to a family-owned, Michigan-based department store chain, he also inherited a seat in the upper house of the state legislature that was formerly held by his father and grandfather. In the British tradition, he would have been ennobled as the third earl of Grand Traverse, a county in the northern Lower Peninsula that today is split between farmers; liberal gentry, including a significant number of retirees; mushy bourgeoise; and white, working-class voters.



Over the years, Mr. Milliken publicly endorsed Democrats, including freshman U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, who is up for re-election in 2020, and 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Yet, he steadfastly professed his loyalty to the GOP, claiming the party had left him. Eventually, his own county Republican Party expelled him from their rolls, despite his two-time endorsement of the then-Republican governor of the state, Rick Snyder.

As grandee and fellow WASP William S. Ballenger III, the dean of Michigan political punditry and a one-time appointee in the Milliken and Gerald Ford administrations, has repeatedly cautioned: Comparing the policy stances of an admittedly moderate Republican in the 1970s to today’s Republican Party is an intellectually dishonest analysis.

“[Michigan Democrats] sit around saying how terrible these modern Republicans are because they are so conservative,” Mr. Ballenger told me on the occasion of Mr. Milliken’s 90th birthday in 2012, “but they tried to screw Milliken and the Republicans every chance they could get.”

Even during his tenure, Mr. Milliken was characterized as a liberal Republican. Yet, the party in those days wasn’t yet firmly a small-‘c’ conservative party. Moreover, Mr. Milliken notably stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ronald Reagan in 1980 even as the party’s nominee and subsequent two-term president presided over the GOP’s ideological shift.

Unlike his contemporary and longtime political ally George H.W. Bush, Mr. Milliken never evolved. That’s because he left office in January 1983. Meanwhile, George Bush, as President Reagan’s vice president, had to move toward the party’s ascendant conservative wing to ensure his own political future. (Of course, Bush was hardly the only moderate or liberal Republican to move further to the right in the name of political expediency.)

Regardless, Mr. Milliken was the last unreformed or unrepentant Rockefeller Republican. His tribe, which includes so many great midcentury names, is no more. 

• Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant from Michigan. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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