Jack Lessenberry

Book Review: The Life and Times Of Michigan's 'Eternal General,' Frank Kelley

By Susan J. Demas, Inside Michigan Politics, 10/28/15

If there’s one thing people know about Frank J. Kelley, it’s that the man can spin a yarn. It’s what he was raised to do, as the scion of an Irish Catholic speakeasy proprietor ensconced in Detroit Democratic politics.

So Kelley’s autobiography, The People’s Lawyer (Wayne State University, 203 pp.), keeps a lively pace, hitting the highlights of his 90 years --- which, save for a brief stint in Arizona and recent winters relaxing in Florida, have all been spent in Michigan.

The longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history paints a lovely picture of his unusual Depression Era childhood (which included an honest-to-God Shetland pony) and of his idol, Frank E. Kelley. There are the requisite tales of meeting dignitaries like Golda Meir, Martin Luther King Jr. and, of course, John F. Kennedy, whom Kelley calls “my prince.” The book also provides valuable insights into how state government works behind the scenes.

All politicians want to be remembered --- and on their own terms --- so an autobiography is the perfect vehicle for that. But Kelley has a nobler motive for writing this book, as well: “Simply, to convey this message: a life of public service, a life lived in the service of your fellow man, is worth living.”

I suspect that’s why Jack Lessenberry, 63, was inspired to collaborate with him on this tome. Lessenberry’s résumé is impressive in its own right, as the head of Wayne State’s journalism faculty, a national Emmy winner for his Jack Kevorkian reporting, and a gravelly-voiced commentator on Michigan Radio. He’s probably best known as the Detroit Metro Times’ hard-boiled liberal columnist, acerbically unleashing his anguish that our political system is broken. But he’s never given up on advocating solutions.

Just as Kelley has mentored and inspired scores of lawyers, Lessenberry has done that for journalists, myself included. Obviously, the pair share a similar worldview and innate ability to take over a room --- they’re particularly popular with progressive women of a certain age. And their mutual admiration for the Kennedy clan isn’t a secret. Kelley was a contemporary of JFK --- in his book, the president is subject to the kind of glowing praise Kelley usually lavishes on his father --- while Lessenberry’s political awakening owes quite a bit to Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated when he was just 16.

Their similarities don’t end there. Although a generation separates Kelley and Lessenberry, they’re both high-striving, firstborn sons from big, Detroit-area families who saw education as their ticket to making a difference. Both skipped a grade in school, grappled with the social awkwardness that ensued, and eventually earned advanced degrees. And both even found love later in life with librarians, befitting of such well-read men.

Lessenberry, no doubt, would like the focus kept firmly on Kelley --- it is his book, after all. True writers, as a rule, never want to be the subject of another’s ruminations. But as a columnist, Lessenberry has put himself out there for years, in bits and pieces. And as a gifted scribe and fascinating intellectual, his contribution to the book is deeply felt, whether it’s a familiar turn of phrase (“Taxes, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, are the price we pay for a civilized society”) or his skill in keeping a story on track.

It’s impossible to read this book, the culmination of Kelley’s long life, without thinking of the tragedy that befell him shortly after its publication: His wife, Nancy, 23 years his junior, passed away rather suddenly. The last words Kelley’s father ever spoke to him were: “Worry is a waste of time because the things you worry about the most in life never happen. Enjoy your life, Frank.”

They hang over the autobiography with some irony.

Kelley doesn’t begin his story with his most arresting anecdote, which he saves for the lead of Chapter 18: “On the morning of the Tet Offensive, when the Viet Cong invaded the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon and all hell was breaking loose, I met with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office.” It’s a wise choice, since, as it turns out, Kelley was at the White House for a rather mundane reason, as part of the National Association of Attorneys General annual conference.

Instead, he fittingly starts with his appointment as attorney general, the office he redefined in Michigan. Kelley recounts a fateful meeting with RFK at outset of his AG career, in which he’s told: “I want you to use your bully pulpit. Reach out against injustice whenever you see it and protect the public.” This mantra, along with his admission that he’s tried to “always be a man my father would have been proud of,” defines Kelley’s life.

At first blush, Kelley was an unlikely fit for the the job. After reading Bellamy Partridge’s Country Lawyer, he took its words to heart. He decided to move his young family from Detroit to Alpena, a pastoral Lake Huron hamlet (Kelley earned his skeptical father’s blessing only as he suffered a fatal heart attack.) Frank Jr. became just the tenth attorney in town --- and soon got a firsthand lesson in bipartisanship when Republicans recruited him to be the city’s attorney.

It wasn’t the most auspicious launching pad for a political career (Kelley confesses he yearned to “fulfill his [father’s] frustrated ambitions”), but he had unknowingly laid the groundwork in 1951. After passing the bar, he had a chance meeting with another attorney named John Swainson, who had both his legs blown off in World War II. Just ten years later, Swainson would change Kelley’s life --- the new governor tapped him as attorney general just as he turned 37. (Fittingly, after Swainson’s career had collapsed years later under a cloud of scandal, Kelley returned the favor by convincing Henry Ford II to hire him.)

Of course, Kelley didn’t end up Michigan’s top lawyer by pure accident. As the son of the ultimate Democratic insider, he proved a skilled lobbyist, wooing key labor figures and deploying his wife’s charm in a key interview.

Over the next 37 years, he served with five governors (Kelley stresses that he “never served under a single one”), whom he colorfully describes as “brawlers and gentlemen; a war hero, one who tried to become president; and one who was an authentically tragic figure.”

Swainson was a trusted friend responsible for introducing Kelley to JFK, who was “simply, the most charismatic person I’d ever met.” But the young governor soon lost his 1962 re-election to American Motors CEO George Romney. There’s a healthy amount of bipartisan nostalgia for the reformist Romney years, but Kelley offers some real talk about the Republican: “A completely different creature, a corporate executive who was used to behaving as a captain of industry” who had an “uncanny gift for sales promotion and self-promotion --- and not necessarily in that order.”

It’s hard not to see certain parallels with current Gov. Rick Snyder, a former Gateway CEO, especially when Kelley observes: “The newspapers loved Romney. Nearly all the owners and publishers were Republicans, and they were angry and frustrated that Democrats had held the governor’s office for so long.”

And Kelley does bring us into present day with an astute observation about Mitt Romney: “I have always wondered whether George Romney’s impetuous ego and tongue were the main reasons his son seemed so carefully packaged and scripted during his two runs for the White House.”

George Romney, a titan of industry, and Kelley, who saw his job as “fighting for the little guy,” clashed early on (“I am not going to take any crap from you or your lawyers,” Kelley recalls the governor thundering.) But they managed to achieve détente with the “Treaty of Lansing,” a framework for how their offices could work together.

Kelley served longest with Bill Milliken, “one of the most progressive and far-seeing Republicans I’ve ever known,” whom he affectionately calls a “patrician aristocrat.” They shared power during environmental disasters and civil rights unrest, never letting politics distract from the job at hand. Kelley recalls being “deeply moved” when Milliken told him recently that he was “one of the five or ten most important people in his life.”

Milliken, of course, was succeeded by Jim Blanchard, a Kelley protégé. A partisan to his core, Kelley revelled in a Democrat finally taking back the governor’s mansion for the first time in twenty years. Kelley served as a father-figure to Blanchard, steering him through the rough patch after his income tax hike, which eventually cost the Dems control of the state Senate in 1983 (a condition that persists to this day.)

Kelley’s introduction of the man who would become the final governor he served with, John Engler, is rather cutting, referring to him as “a farm boy who had been elected to the legislature while still a student at Michigan State University.” But he concedes Engler was a “master of the governmental process” and “knew how to get and use power better than any governor in my time.” The two men grew to have a healthy professional respect for one another.

The Democrat didn’t always envision himself becoming the “Eternal General” (Kelley is wise enough to know that any politician making such grandiose plans will typically be upended by voters.) He did run for higher office once in 1972 --- taking on Republican U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin.

Kelley blames President Richard Nixon himself for the “only election I ever lost,” whipping up media furor against him over cross-district busing. Not surprisingly, Kelley’s description of him isn’t kind (“He looked like some woeful stand-in, sent out to check the microphones until the real president arrived.”) The longtime AG convinces himself that everything worked out in the end, revealing that Adlai Stevenson confided that even he “found the Senate a bore.”

As for why he never ran for governor (as most AGs eagerly do nowadays), Kelley doesn’t say, but he does provide this telling observation: “Here’s a dirty little secret about politics and government that you won’t learn in political science textbooks: governors are important figures … [but] much of the time they don’t have all that much to do.”

In 1999, Kelley made the surprise decision not to seek the final AG term he was allotted under Michigan’s new term limits law. “My late father told me that a good public man or woman leaves before they have to go,” he announced at an emotional press conference.

He doesn’t devote much time to his post-government career, although he bluntly reveals he “wanted to make some honest money.” As most folks know, he founded the Kelley Cawthorne firm in Lansing with Republican former lawmaker Dennis Cawthorne (Kelley sounds a bit precious in writing, “To my mild discomfort, we had to register as lobbyists.”)

The former AG was elated when Engler appointed him to the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, joining his partner, who recently penned Rock Fever on the isle’s storied history (see Vol. XV, No. 9.) And Kelley was delighted by the success of another mentee, Jennifer Granholm, first succeeding him as AG and later winning two terms as governor (Kelley can’t help but include her exclaiming, “I owe it to you, Frank.”)

Kelley’s self-awareness is a welcome addition to the book (“Nobody ever said Frank J. Kelley didn’t have an ego --- just ask either of my wives or any of my three kids,” he writes near the end.) That explains his inclusion of an appendix cataloguing his 10 AG elections, noting the 16,212,786 votes he garnered in his lifetime, averaging 61.2%. And Kelley doesn’t leave out the one of his favorite aphorisms: “Vote like you’re a Democrat, live like you’re a Republican.”

While Kelley relishes reliving his professional accomplishments in great detail --- establishing the Consumer Protection Division, helping win the multi-billion-dollar tobacco settlement, and arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court --- he glosses over personal troubles like his divorce, declaring “the details are not important.” Kelley obliquely writes that his ‘72 U.S. Senate loss “produced self-doubt and a personal crisis that affected my marriage and eventually led to the end of it.” Interestingly, he does later mention the alleged affairs of two governors, Engler and Blanchard.

But it’s no coincidence that an aside about Ford II (one of Lessenberry’s favorites) finds its way into the book, even though it’s a bit of a non sequitur (“Ford himself had a hard time with media scrutiny of his private life and two divorces, something he eventually countered with the brilliant slogan, ‘Never complain; never explain.’”) The reader is supposed to accept this premise, tacitly agreeing that delving into public figures’ personal lives is tacky and destructive.

Now self-protection is a completely human impulse --- as is the desire to shield one’s family from pain. Unfortunately, such omissions in an otherwise richly complicated autobiography rob the reader of important insights. All of us are imperfect and could relate to Kelley’s personal trials and tribulations.

Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution is vibrantly illustrating how Michigan government has functioned and changed in recent history. Since Kelley stepped down before the full effect of term limits kicked in, that part of Michigan politics is missing --- but it’s been written about, at length, by Lessenberry and others.

Unlike other statesmen, Kelley isn’t overly sentimental about bipartisanship, but he does see it as a lost art today: “You have to make up your mind to work with people from different parties and very different philosophies. When you fail to do that, you get the kind of paralysis we’ve seen in Congress during President [Barack] Obama’s administration.”

It’s also refreshing that the book isn’t aimed solely at political junkies; Kelley peppers the text with helpful reminders like, “This was back when state officers served only two-year terms.”

In the end, Kelley hopes his story will inspire others to once again see government service as a worthy calling, quoting JFK: “One person can make a difference and everyone should try.” There’s no irony, not a drop of cynicism when Kelley declares: “I know that I tried.”

He then turns the focus from himself and back to the reader, gently entreating: “It’s your turn.”