2009/04/17:Capital Times: Midge Miller, state legislator and political dynamo, dies at 86

Midge Miller, state legislator and political dynamo, dies at 86
The Capital Times
John Nichols  —  4/17/2009 2:04 pm

Midge Miller changed America and the world.

She made presidents quake in their boots.

She made political parties reflect the will of their members rather than the bosses.

She made a place for women in the electoral process -- and in the governing of the land.

Then she got busy.

When Miller died Friday morning at age 86 after a long battle with cancer, she left a legacy of political activism, intellectual engagement and human connection unrivaled in the annals of the country this remarkable woman loved enough to repair, redeem and renew. She was, to the end, the woman whom former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson so aptly hailed as the rare "person of energy and understanding who translates her concern into constructive action."

The late Sen. Eugene McCarthy credited Miller as the essential player in the anti-war presidential bid that forced President Lyndon Johnson to stand down. "When I think about who was the most effective person for me in that 1968 campaign in Wisconsin, I always come back to the name Midge Miller," McCarthy told me several years before his death. "She recognized the possibility."

Miller always recognized the possibility. As a missionary, a mother, a mentor and a mobilizer, she encountered challenges daunting enough to discourage even the boldest among us, and she embraced them.

When McCarthy did not make it to the White House, many of his backers became disenchanted.

Not Miller. Disenchantment was understandable, she said, but not permissible.

Miller became a state legislator, winning an Assembly seat representing the west side of Madison with a dissident campaign that promised to shake up state politics. She did just that, working during a tenure that lasted from 1971 to 1985 with some of the most liberal legislatures in the state's history to streamline state government, create and strengthen the modern University of Wisconsin System, dramatically expand consumer and environmental protections, preserve open politics and clean government, and make Wisconsin a leader in defending civil liberties and expanding civil rights protections.

That, surely, would have been enough. But Miller also used the political openings of the late 1960s and early 1970s to help found the National Women's Political Caucus, which played a pivotal role in drawing women into the electoral process and promoting their advancement in states across the country, and the New Democratic Coalition, which led the fight to open up the Democratic Party -- forcing reforms that would eventually clear the way for the nomination of "outsider" presidential candidates like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

As a member for nine years of the Democratic National Committee, Miller was in the thick of the struggle to change the party that -- for all her frustrations with its compromises -- she still saw as the best vehicle for advancing the causes of peace and economic and social justice that she cherished almost as deeply as she did her nine children.

A widow with four children when she arrived in Madison after her first husband, missionary Dean Leeper, was killed in a shipwreck caused by a Asian typhoon, Miller could have been excused if she had merely focused on raising the kids and working as an assistant dean at the UW's College of Letters and Science.

But the daughter of a West Virginia state official and pioneering school superintendent couldn't keep away from politics and public service. It was as a volunteer for Gaylord Nelson's 1962 U.S. Senate campaign that she met UW professor Ed Miller, a widower with five children. They married the following year and were together until her husband's death in 1995.

Ed had no illusions. He knew he would have to share Midge with the world. And so he did when she saw the promise in a campaign that even Gene McCarthy was uncertain would go anywhere.

Midge Miller loved McCarthy's politics and his poetic sensibility. She adored his campaign slogan: "To begin anew."

And so she did, leaving her job to open McCarthy's Wisconsin campaign headquarters. "Midge had been active before my campaign. She knew politics," the senator told me. "That made her invaluable because most people who 'knew' politics were certain that our campaign was doomed to fail. She was that rare combination: someone with experience who still believed that great things were possible."

With a candidate as unconventional and yet as faithful as she, Miller achieved that which older and "wiser" liberals deemed impossible. They built a campaign for McCarthy so strong that a stunned Johnson responded with an eve-of-the-Wisconsin-primary announcement that he was ending his re-election effort.

"We proved something in that 1968 campaign," recalled McCarthy. "We showed that you could challenge the two political parties and all the powerful institutions in that country, and we did so with some success. Midge was very much a part of that. She believed, when few others did, that we could take on all the institutions of politics -- the parties, the media, the pollsters, the military-industrial complex. You had to have something of the poet in you to believe that -- and, of course, Midge did."

Miller kept taking on the institutions of politics, not just in Madison and Washington but internationally.

The woman who lived in Japan after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made a commitment to do everything in her power to ensure that never again would nuclear weapons be used against human beings, and she saw that commitment through as the author of the nuclear freeze referendum that Wisconsinites endorsed in September 1982. That referendum vote energized a national movement to avert the war that no country could win. Miller became such an instrumental player in that arms control debate that California Sen. Alan Cranston, who was bidding for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, said he would consider her as a vice presidential prospect.

Through the years that followed, Miller picked her presidential candidates with an eye toward advancing the cause of peace. That did not always align her with winners. Her favorites were Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who hailed her as a "national treasure," and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who Miller proudly introduced at Fighting Bob Fest in Baraboo.

But Miller didn't wait for presidents to lead; she did her own negotiating.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Miller was in a Senate office building on Capitol Hill. She had used a tax rebate provided by the new administration of George Bush and Dick Cheney to travel to Washington to lobby against Bush's proposed Star Wars national missile defense program, and she was not about to allow the crisis of the moment to prevent her from delivering her message.

"They told us all that they were evacuating the building. We were shuffled out," Miller recalled. "The guys out in front said the Pentagon was smoking. It sounded horrible. But I couldn't do anything about that, so I thought I'd better keep on lobbying."

And so she did, walking right up to senators and aides gathered on the Capitol grounds and buttonholing them. At a time when everyone was talking generally about the threat of war, she was talking specifically about the danger of nuclear weapons and misguided priorities. "I was saying, 'Look, we've just been given all the evidence we need that President Bush's national missile defense plan is not the answer. If you develop these Star Wars weapons in the heavens, the people who want to attack the United States will find another way to do it.'"

"I have always said that, sooner or later, we would have proof that the threat wasn't in outer space. I thought it would come later. I was wrong, it came sooner," she explained the next day, when we caught up with one another in Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin's office. "But I sure wasn't going to lose the opportunity to make this point. It's too important."

When the senators finally fled the Hill for safer ground on that Sept. 11, Miller reluctantly headed back to the apartment where she was staying. "People were still talking about the possibility of more attacks hitting Washington, so I went and got two Klondike bars," she told me. "I figured if I was going to die, I'd have ice cream."

Miller lived the better part of nine more years, seeing Bush out and Barack Obama in. When we sat the other day, talking about politics and poetry and Klondike bars, Midge stopped the conversation mid-sentence. "Did you hear Obama's speech in Europe about nuclear arms? He said 'the world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.' I'm glad I lived to hear a president say that -- and to be able to believe that he really does mean it."

In the same speech, Obama argued that we "must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change."

Midge Miller has disagreed with her share of presidents.

But Barack Obama was speaking her language when he said that.

And Midge was smiling.

(Miller's family, which includes state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, is planning a memorial service and will announce the date in short order.)