Editorial: William Milliken served his state honorably

The Detroit News
William G. Milliken, shown here in 2009, died in his native Traverse City at age 97.

Former Michigan Gov. William Milliken sought political office for the right reasons — he loved his state and hoped to make it better.

Over 14 years in the governor's office — the longest tenure in state history — Milliken earned a reputation as an honorable leader who treated both friend and foe with respect, put a priority on protecting the environment and committed himself to closing the racial divide.

Milliken died Friday at age 97 in his Traverse City home.

The Republican was lieutenant governor in 1969 when Gov. George Romney resigned to join the cabinet of then-President Richard Nixon. He finished out Romney's term, then won three more of his own, leaving the Capitol at the end of 1982.

Milliken orchestrated a major shift in how state government viewed environmentalism. Instead of targeting resources largely to foster hunting and fishing, as had been the custom, Milliken focused on cleaning up polluted land and waterways, particularly in urban areas.

He banned the pesticide DDT and expanded wetlands.  

Coming to office at a time when Michigan was still reeling from the 1967 Detroit riots, Milliken championed fair housing and civil rights laws and eventually forged a strong friendship with longtime Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young.   

Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken, speaks on July 14, 1980, during the second session of the Republican National Convention in Detroit.

Described by his biographer as a "passionate moderate," Milliken committed to bipartisan governing in Lansing. And though he spent his entire political career as a Republican, he was never a knee-jerk supporter of the party.

He spoke out often against political extremism. After leaving office, he backed Republican candidates who upheld what he saw as the party's traditional values, such as John McCain and Rick Snyder, and opposed those who didn't, such as President Donald Trump.

He followed a path typical for his generation of politicians.

During World War II, he was a gunner on B-24 bombers, flying more than 50 combat missions. After the war he returned to Traverse City to run his family's department store business. 

And then he went into politics. Before becoming governor, Milliken served a term in the state Senate, an office his father and grandfather also held.

William Milliken should be remembered as a politician who placed principle ahead of party. His breed is rare today on both sides of the political aisle. 

But if an example is ever needed of what an honorable leader looks like, Milliken would be an excellent choice.