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Michigan, then and now.

Governor William Milliken
Bentley Historical Library
In 1978, Governor William Milliken oversaw a prosperous Michigan.

Today would have been George Washington’s 286th birthday, and when I was a child we celebrated his birthday in school, as we did Abraham Lincoln’s ten days before.

Teachers used both as opportunities to teach us about the good semi-myths that helped bind us together; Washington chopping down the cherry tree and Honest Abe splitting rails.

Today, of course, both birthdays are lumped together as a generic Presidents’ Day, which basically means a day when the banks are closed and there isn’t any mail.

I’m not sure that this really qualifies as a teachable moment, unless we are trying to show that there are advantages to a career as a bank teller or a postal clerk.

What I’ve been thinking about, however, is how both this nation and Michigan have changed — not since Washington’s time, but over the last 40 years. Go back to Washington’s birthday in 1978, and we had a nation and a state with no great crisis of identity.

We’d been shaken by both Vietnam and Watergate, but both those national nightmares had ended. We weren’t ready to face what Vietnam had done to us, but we saw Watergate as sort of a morality play whose ending proved that our system works.

In Michigan, we were, if anything, even more confident about our future. Michigan politics revolved around a broad moderate-to-liberal consensus.

The governor, William Milliken, was a Republican from Traverse City, but was more liberal than many Democrats, and was a tremendous booster of the city of Detroit. That fall, he would be reelected to a third term in a landslide, after essentially being endorsed by Detroit’s flamboyant and controversial mayor, Coleman Young.

The big political news 40 years ago today was that the governor had signed a bill the day before making it illegal to hunt house cats. A group of elementary school students in St. Clair County had discovered that you could shoot cats and successfully begged their legislators to do something about it. The governor then had the kids crowd into his office to see him sign the bill.

That was in an era when Michigan had Republican governors for 20 consecutive years and Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature by almost a two-to-one margin.

Yet the governor got together regularly with the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate to forge a sort of government by consensus.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t fierce battles over issues. But there wasn’t the nastiness of today. That may have been partly because Michigan was such a rich state in 1978.

Per capita incomes were 105 percent of the national average, and had risen 11 percent over the year before. General Motors had more assembly line workers in Flint alone than it does today in the entire country.

Today, we live in a different world. Michigan’s unemployment rate is low, but our per capita income is less than 90 percent of the national average. We’ve become a relatively poor state. We’ve lost five seats in Congress, the equivalent of the clout of the entire state of Connecticut, and will soon lose another.

Yet I think most of all, despite our beauty and rich resources, we’ve lost a sense of belief in our future. I can’t help thinking if we could recover that, everything else would follow.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

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