Midge Miller died Friday morning. She was 86. Galvanized by her opposition to the Vietnam War and the 1968 presidential campaign of Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Miller became an indefatigable champion of social justice and of peace. She helped to establish the National Women's Political Caucus, served in the state legislature for 14 years in the 1970s and '80s, served on the Democratic National Committee for nine years and as a progressive tribal elder continued to speak truth to the lies of war. In life, Miller was among that vanguard of Wisconsin women who could claim the moral lineage of Belle Case La Follette. In death, she is enshrined in that sisterhood's pantheon.
The following cover story by Dustin Beilke was published in the February 28, 1997, edition of
"If I ever write a book I'm going to call it 'Yes, Mother, I'm sorry,'" says Midge Miller, after trying unsuccessfully to recall the name of an associate from some long-past project. "My mother always used to say, 'Marjorie, you're going to be sorry if you don't write these things down.'"
For the sake of history, Midge Miller probably ought to have followed her mother's advice. In fact, she really ought to write that book: Her life story would make a fascinating read. But the truth is, she's too busy.
Already, Miller has crammed what seem like several lifetimes into her 74 years. She's been a student at the Yale Divinity School, a post-war missionary in Japan, a widowed mother of four, a remarried mother of nine, an assistant dean of anthropology at UW-Madison, an anti-Vietnam War activist, a seven-term state legislator, a trailblazing feminist, the founder and chair of Madison's only independent think tank, and something close to an institution among Madison progressives and liberals.
On the particular day in early January that I am lucky enough to reach her, Miller is in the midst of packing for an impromptu winter escape out West. She's also tending to numerous tasks involving the Madison Institute, the think tank she founded in 1984 and still chairs. The day before her flight departs, she will attend three hours of lectures for that month's installment in the group's "Corporate Power" lecture series. After the lectures, she will lead the institute's board meeting.
Then it's off to several weeks in California -- although she must be back for a March 1 press conference for the Citizens Panel on a Clean Elections Option, a campaign finance reform panel led by former state Supreme Court Justice Nathan Heffernan and co-sponsored by the Madison Institute. And then comes March 2 -- the day Miller will formally step down as the institute's chair.
Miller, apologetic, says she will have to call me back after she finishes her long-distance conversation on another line. "I really am hopeless, aren't I?" she sighs. "But this is still the best night to reach me. If something happens and I lose my mind between now and then, you'll call me back, huh?"
It was just as I remembered Miller from when I interviewed her five years ago for an article about another institute-sponsored event. At the time, Miller was also running the Wisconsin campaign of Sen. Tom Harken, a Democratic presidential aspirant. We had a six-minute phone conversation in which Miller put me on hold twice, started and finished separate conversations with her husband, Ed, and another person who was in the room, and battled through a particularly wicked coughing spell. Then she took another call apprising her of some emergency and had to reschedule our interview.
"I'm sorry, but this is how my life is," was the last thing she said before hanging up.
The cutting edge
Midge Miller didn't even vote until she was in her 30s. But the war in Vietnam and the presidential candidacy of Eugene McCarthy transformed Miller, leaving her with an almost consuming passion for politics. She loves to talk -- name an issue and she has an opinion on it -- and it seems that wherever she goes, people listen.
Many of the positions Miller takes stray beyond the left end of the rather narrow spectrum established by the nation's two dominant political parties.
Miller on corporate power: "Corporations are more powerful than governments now, and we're used to a world where corporations do not have this much power. Is this world going to continue to be set up so that the strong can just grab everything for themselves?"
On campaign finance reform: "I believe in complete public financing. I think the best investment is for the people to buy their own government. Somebody's going to buy it, and whoever does is going to own it."
On health care: "We studied this issue intensely, from every side, and I think the only answer is single-payer, Canadian-style universal coverage."
On the media: "Freedom of the press shouldn't just mean freedom for the guy who has the money to buy the ink."
On the environment: "Mother Nature always bats last."
Attacking the basic tenets of corporate capitalism and calling for public funding of campaigns, health care or anything else is anathema in today's political climate, where most successful Democrats sound a lot more like Richard Nixon than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet Miller, who served on the Democratic National Committee for nine years, remains loyal to the party and refuses to denounce President Bill Clinton.
In this, Miller is just another example of how legitimate liberals and progressives -- Russ Feingold, Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders -- can turn their heads, hold their noses and back Democrats who at times seem more conservative than their Republican counterparts. But at the same time, Miller does what she can to push the party -- and the debate -- to the left.
Right now, Miller is especially concerned about the global economy, the ills brought on by multinational corporations, and other issues William Greider addresses in his new book, One World, Ready or Not. Miller bought the book the week it came out.
"It took us a long time to build nation states, but now nation states are sort of disintegrating, and we've gone back to tribalism and an unfettered multinationalism," says Miller. "All I know is that we are moving into a new stage, and much of the change is as basic as it was with the industrial revolution against the more feudal society."
Miller's highest priority -- for herself and the institute -- is to remain on the cutting edge of politics, economics and social change. "You have to do what's timely," she says. "You don't have to do the same thing all the time."
While other septuagenarians balk at the Brave New World being created by emerging information technologies, Miller makes prodigious use of e-mail and surfs the net as a subscriber to America Online. She's also followed the debate over the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and such issues as government regulation of Internet service providers. "We don't have any rules for the Internet," she says, suggesting we ought to.
No matter who you talk to about Midge Miller, the conversation always seems to come around to the subject of her tremendous energy. Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, the seminal work in left-of-center media criticism, was the keynote speaker at the Madison Institute's 1992 media conference, about which I was interviewing Miller. Bagdikian began his presentation -- which was broadcast by C-SPAN -- by calling Miller an "electromagnetic field of force."
Legendary feminist Gloria Steinem, the editor of Ms. magazine, calls Miller an "energy cell."
When I called Ms. to set up an interview, Steinem's assistant apprised me that Steinem was booked solid for the next two weeks with deadlines, trips, interviews and other engagements. "I'll give her your message," the assistant said, "but the answer will probably be no."
But less than 24 hours later, there was a message on my answering machine from Steinem herself. She left her home telephone number and said she would be more than happy to talk about Miller. Somehow, Midge Miller gets people to do things they don't have time for.
"I really miss seeing her," says Steinem, noting that she and Miller have been "friends and colleagues" since working together on the Equal Rights Amendment and other measures. Steinem was an early member of the National Women's Political Caucus, which Miller founded. Together, Miller and Steinem established the Interchange Resource Center in the early 1980s to study the influence of the far right on mainstream policy.
Miller, says Steinem, was ahead of her time in acknowledging the existence of groups like the militias, neo-Nazis and white separatists, and in noticing the influence that conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute have over policy decisions: "Midge was one of the first people to understand the challenge coming from the ultra-right wing. She was very foresighted in ringing the alarm about that."
And Miller, as a married mother of nine and an active legislator, was an inspiration to many feminists looking to the government for redress of their grievances.
"There were very few women in elected office, and those who were there were there as widows, continuing their husbands' careers," says Steinem. "She was very inspiring to many women just beginning to look at the electoral system as something that could improve life for women and that women could be a part of. In addition to being an example she was also an advisor and a source of experience and wisdom."
Oh, and then there's Miller's energy. "She was just always full of energy and devoted to a vision of what could be done," says Steinem. "Incredible amounts of constructive activity, like an energy cell."
Miller left the Legislature in 1984, after 14 years as a Democrat representing Madison's west side, in order to found the Madison Institute. She felt as though she had done all she could in the political arena, and wanted to study issues and problems more intensely than people in government are able to. She also wanted to get away from asking people for campaign contributions and constantly seeing monied interests get their way in policy deliberations.
As Miller put it, "I wanted to live in the world of ideas, not the real world."
Miller calls the institute "Madison's answer to the Heritage Foundation," and says the city is a logical setting for a think tank because of all the great thinkers concentrated at the university and in state government.
So she devoted herself full-time to the institute, an organization with an annual budget between $10,000 and $30,000, not enough even to employ a staff member. In the 12 years since her "retirement," Miller has done that work for no pay as the group's chair. "This is the most costly hobby I've ever had," she says. Indeed, the group has been run largely out of Miller's home on DuRose Terrace in Madison.
On March 2, when Miller formally retires as chair, the reins will be turned over to Dr. Gene Farley, a longtime Madison Institute board member who briefly ran against Scott Klug in the most recent House race before Paul Soglin entered. Miller will remain active in the institute and will carry the title of vice chair.
UW-Madison sociology professor Joseph Elder, one of the board's original members, says Miller's leadership has served as a kind of capital for the institute: "Her personal connections have saved us thousands of dollars. It's incredible the sort of personal network she's in."
Besides Bagdikian, the institute's conferences have featured such speakers as John Kenneth Galbraith, Gaylord Nelson, Julian Bond and Bella Abzug -- all of whom ordinarily command high speaking fees. But Miller is able to convince these people to speak anyway, often for only the cost of airfare.
In other respects, Miller has an almost magical ability to get people to do things without coming across as heavy-handed or dictatorial. "She is very effective in delegating work," says Elder. "You go into her home thinking, 'I really am too busy to do much of anything,' and you leave committed to 60 hours of work a week on some project.
"There are not a lot of people who can do that and remain loved in the process."
Elder, who like Farley is a Quaker, says that while there have never been great political divisions in the group, some members have from time to time expressed discomfort with Miller's use of "church connections" for fund-raising and other purposes. Miller was born and raised in West Virginia and remains a devout Methodist.
Some members would like the institute to be more aggressive about fund-raising, but Miller has been reluctant to increase these efforts if it means doing less studying and discussion. Elder thinks this is one thing that may change with Farley as chair.
Miller freely admits that she sometimes chafes when it comes to asking for handouts. "It was the same way when I was in the Legislature," she says. "I don't like raising money."
Or, to put it another way, it's something for which she just doesn't have time.
So now what?
If there was a way of describing Midge Miller as a mathematical formula, it might be M = ET, where M stands for Miller, E for energy and T for time. The synergy is between the E and the T: While she has plenty of one and not enough of the other, the end result (M) seems exponentially greater than the product of these parts.
Miller sometimes complains that she doesn't have time for anything but politics ("I've been retired for 12 years now and I still don't have time to cook"), but admits that she no longer knows any other way to live.
So now that she's stepping down as chair of the Madison Institute, what will Miller do with her time?
Ed Miller, her second husband, died of cancer in 1994, and the couple's nine children are spread all over the globe. Through politics, Miller has acquired more friends, fans, followers and admirers than she can count.
"Politics is interesting though, isn't it?" muses Miller. "It's a little bit like a religious crusade, it's a little bit like a football game, it's a little bit like a play, and then it's like a social club."
The most likely answer, then, is that Miller will continue to nourish her political curiosity by being a very active vice chair for the Madison Institute. She will continue to focus on what's timely, and to ply her talents at getting people to do things.
For Miller, life and politics are inextricable. "When I was working hard against the Vietnam War, people used to come up to me and say, 'How can you do all of this, don't you have children to take care of?'" Miller recalls. "I would say, 'I have seven sons, most of them are draft age. What would you do for yours, go home and bake cookies?'"