Former Michigan U.S. Sen. Griffin dies at 91

David Shepardson, and Gary Heinlein

Former Michigan U.S. Sen. Robert Paul Griffin, a key Republican congressional leader during the Watergate crisis of the 1970s who helped prod President Richard Nixon to resign, died at his home in Traverse City.

He was 91, and died Thursday, it was announced Friday.

Griffin, a staunch Republican, was elected to the U.S House in 1956 at age 33 and was appointed in May 1966 to fill the Senate seat of Patrick McNamara. Griffin twice was elected to the Senate on his own right, and was GOP whip from 1969-77. After announcing he wouldn't seek re-election — and then changing his mind — he was defeated by Democrat Carl Levin in 1978; Levin went on to become Michigan's longest-serving senator.

Griffin returned to the political scene in 1987, becoming a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court through 1994.

Along with Gov. William G. Milliken, also from Traverse City, Griffin was a key figure in the Michigan Republican Party, which enjoyed great electoral success under their moderate leadership through the 1970s.

Funeral arrangements were pending, the Reynolds Jonkoff funeral home in Traverse City said Friday.

Gov. Rick Snyder, a fellow Republican, lauded Griffin's service in Congress as well as on the Michigan Supreme Court.

"Robert Griffin's life was devoted to public service," Snyder said in a statement. "... But not quite as high profile was his mentoring of many young attorneys who looked to him for advice, grooming the next generations of leaders in Michigan and beyond."

A one-time ally of Nixon, Griffin had a role in the president's 1974 decision to resign, said George Weeks, a former United Press International reporter, Detroit News political columnist and close aide to Milliken.

Following release of the tape in which Nixon approved using the CIA to stop the FBI probe of the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel — the famous "smoking gun" — Griffin joined other prominent members of Congress in calling for the president's resignation.

"He was kind of low-key, but highly effective," said Weeks, who lives in Glen Arbor.

In the House, Griffin played a key role in the ascendancy of Gerald Ford, the only president to hail from Michigan.

In 1965, he headed a group of young congressmen "who were not satisfied with existing Republican leadership, and who led a move to install Gerald R. Ford as minority leader in the United States House of Representatives," U.S. Appeals Judge Albert Engel said in a 1987 speech. "They could not know then, that that step was to have a remarkable impact upon the future course of history, not only in this state, but in the United States."

Ford went on to become vice president and then president after Nixon's resignation in 1974.

As whip during the Watergate crisis, Griffin worked with leaders on both sides of the aisles "to maintain an ongoing legislative program in the face of a disintegrating political establishment at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue," Engel said.

Longtime Lansing insider Craig Ruff, a former aide to Milliken, said his earliest recollection of Griffin as a congressman was as "a youthful (George) Romney Republican, ... part of a new wave of progressive Republicans who started ousting some of the more conservative Republicans in the state."

Seven months after Romney appointed him to the U.S. Senate, Griffin surprised pundits by winning election to a full term over enormously popular ex-Gov. G. Mennan Williams.

In 1972, Griffin survived a challenge from another popular liberal Democrat, former Attorney General Frank Kelley.

Born in Detroit, Griffin attended school in Garden City and Dearborn. He served in World War II in the U.S. Army, including 14 months in Europe. He graduated from then-Central Michigan College in Mount Pleasant and got a law degree from the University of Michigan.

While in the Senate he served on the Judiciary, Foreign Relations and Finance committees, and played a key role on many judicial matters, including thwarting President Lyndon Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas for Supreme Court chief justice.

"The Senate is very frustrating, obviously. It takes such a long time to get anything done," Griffin said in a 1984 C-SPAN interview.

In one of his last big decisions on the Michigan Supreme Court, he joined a 5-2 majority in December 1994 in ruling it was constitutional to make assisted suicide a crime — a setback for assisted suicide practitioner Jack Kevorkian.

One of his key achievements in Congress was helping win approval of the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, which helped establish democratic principles in union government and finances.

Griffin co-authored the act with Democratic U.S. Rep. Phil Landrum of Georgia. Signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower, it strengthened the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, praised her former boss.

"He taught me the importance of integrity in the political process, keeping your word, and working with members on both sides of the aisle," Dingell said. "He always fought for Michigan because he loved Michigan, and after years in office he spent his time trying to instill in young people the value and the importance of public service."