Wednesday morning, Republican John Engler was the longest-serving governor in the United States. By the evening, with his successor sworn in, his three-term governorship was over and he was a private citizen for the first time since 1970 — the year the Beatles broke up, and the year he became the youngest person ever elected to Michigan’s legislature.
Engler’s future remains unscripted, but as of now he will be remembered as one of the GOP’s best chief executives during the 1990s. He was an early welfare reformer, a tireless advocate of educational choice (in the form of charter schools), and an eager tax cutter. “He will clearly go down in history as one of the best governors in the twentieth century,” says Lawrence Reed of the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank based in Midland, Mich. (The Detroit News summary of Engler’s legacy may be read here.)
Conservatives recently have grumbled about the 54-year-old Engler. He didn’t keep spending in check during the final years of his governorship, he came out against a school-choice ballot initiative in 2000 (which lost badly, just as he had predicted and feared), and he has been one of the country’s loudest advocates of an Internet sales tax. These last days also were marked by embarrassing political defeats, starting with three disastrous setbacks in 2000 (John McCain’s GOP primary win in February, Al Gore’s general-election victory in November, and the defeat of longtime ally Sen. Spencer Abraham) and continuing through last fall’s election of Democrat Jennifer Granholm as his replacement.
Yet his accomplishments as governor were significant. He signed 32 tax cuts; combined with a few tax increases accepted alongside them, they’ve saved Michigan taxpayers an estimated $20 billion. He eliminated the state inheritance and capital-gains taxes, reduced property taxes, cut income taxes, and began to phase out business taxes. He also restored Michigan’s AAA credit rating on Wall Street, cut the state workforce by 20 percent (excluding state troopers and prison guards), initiated reforms that have led to the opening of more than 180 charter schools, and reduced welfare rolls by 70 percent.
None of these things would have happened if Engler had lost his long-shot election bid for governor in 1990. The story of that victory ought to inspire political underdogs everywhere. Few people expected Engler to beat incumbent Democrat Jim Blanchard, even though he had knocked off incumbents three times in earlier state legislative races. A poll taken 48 hours before the election showed Blanchard leading Engler by 14 points. On Election Day, a newspaper in the state capitol put out an early edition announcing Blanchard’s victory. Yet Engler eked out a stunning win by seven-tenths of one percent — less than 18,000 votes.
Within a few years, he was winning rave reviews. The Economist even tried to coin a new term to describe his potent mix of tax cuts and welfare reform: “Mr. Clinton has ‘triangulation’; the Republicans have Englerization.” In 1996 and 2000, he was often mentioned as a possible GOP vice presidential candidate.
His climb is now well documented in an outstanding new book, John Engler: The Man, the Leader, and the Legacy, by Gleaves Whitney, Engler’s longtime speechwriter. It is essentially the story of Engler’s life told through scores of interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, and other key documents. The book is not a traditional narrative, yet a remarkable tale of political aspiration and success unfolds on its pages. Readers glimpse everything from a photo of Engler, sans front teeth, celebrating his First Communion to the text of his final state-of-the-state address, delivered in the first part of 2002. Whitney often introduces these pieces to give them context.
As a top member of Engler’s team, Whitney is a strong supporter of the governor. Yet he strives for and often achieves an admirable impartiality: “The aim has not been to generate a hagiography but to create an accurate rendering of a complex man.” Indeed, he includes an interview with Democratic state senator Lana Pollack in which this old foe comments, “I think John Engler lacks soul.” (Whitney then allows her to expound on this thesis for more than two pages.) He also quotes the AFL-CIO’s Frank Garrison: “When you look up ‘mean-spirited’ in the dictionary, there should be a picture of John Engler next to the definition.”
(Full disclosure: Whitney is a personal friend, and his book excerpts two of my own National Review articles on Engler and Michigan politics.)
No matter what Lana Pollack may think, Whitney’s book on Engler is full of soul. It describes what must have been one of the most difficult professional days in Engler’s life — a speech in Ypsilanti, right after General Motors announced it was closing a big plant. The speech would have been tough under ordinary circumstances, but the morning he gave it, Engler learned of his father’s passing. Engler’s critics often accuse him of lacking warmth (or “soul”); on these pages, he springs to life as an intricate person, and a good man.
There was another notable speech in 1999 — this time a partisan zinger. Engler was scheduled to honor fellow Michigander Gerald Ford at an event, and the recently impeached Bill Clinton also was planning to attend. Whitney describes Engler’s rhetorical agenda: “His remarks would subtly contrast Ford’s honorable conduct while in the Oval Office with Clinton’s dishonorable conduct while in the Oval Office.” There was little to be gained from this approach, except a sense of having done the right thing. Here’s what Engler said: “I have a simple test for assessing an American president. Would our founders have smiled on his leadership? Would they be proud to admit him into the circle of their own? Would they say: Now there is a chief executive who selflessly served the American people — who was a steward of our great experiment in ordered freedom — who discharged his duties with courage, integrity, and respect for the Constitution. To my mind, President Ford passes the test of our founders…”
A witness to the speech noted that during these remarks, “Clinton appeared visibly annoyed. He stiffened and clenched his teeth.” Engler, a bit later, said: “If he was uncomfortable with the message, that was his problem.”
My favorite part of the book is an interview with the late Russell Kirk, the great conservative thinker who happened to be an Engler constituent going back to the governor’s days as a state senator. The two men forged a friendship, with Kirk as mentor and Engler as student. In 1991, Kirk discussed his admiration of Engler and delivered a minor lesson in conservative governance: “He’s certainly not an ideologue because the word ‘ideology’ means political fanaticism, a belief that one can achieve earthy paradise through politics. And there’s nothing of that in John Engler. ‘Pragmatist’ is not quite the right word either, although it is closer. A pragmatist believes in what seems to work, what seems practical or successful at the moment. To describe the philosophy of John Engler, you might call him an ‘empiricist,’ one who looks to history and long-term experience, what is functional of the past, what has worked well over long periods of time, lessons of history, lessons of philosophers, sages of the past. That’s the kind of man he is.”
If only there were more men like him.