“Is It Too Late for a Man of Honesty, High Purpose, and Intelligence to Be Elected President of the US in 1968?”
After putting up my post linking to my Atlantic piece on J. Irwin Miller and Columbus, Indiana, I discovered that the Esquire cover story I mentioned is actually online. It’s great reading, and I highly recommend it. Keep in mind, Esquire was an important magazine back then. Here are some excerpts:
“Wouldn’t Irwin Miller be great?” exclaimed the Mayor [John Lindsay], a smile breaking across his face like a wave. “He’s one of the great people of this world. He’s got insight, humor, wisdom, saltiness. How could we get him to run?”
Up to that point Irwin Miller was just another name on the list, and a fairly obscure one at that. But Lindsay’s enthusiasm was spontaneous and unequivocal, attributes that are out of character for any politician of national stature. I looked Miller up in Who’s Who, checked back through newspaper clippings and watched with astonishment as the profile of my candidate began to emerge:
Joseph Irwin Miller, born in Columbus, Indiana, May 26, 1909 (making him fifty-eight, a year younger than Rockefeller and two years younger than Romney). Family came to Bartholomew County in 1820, where it made a sizable fortune in real estate, banking, electric railroads and corn-starch refining. Both grandfathers were Campbellite ministers. Parents were Hugh Thomas Miller, a college professor and politician, and Nettie Irwin Sweeney, heiress to a burgeoning industrial fortune. Educated at Yale (B.A., 1931) and Oxford (M.A., 1933). Half-a-dozen honorary degrees, including Princeton and Yale. In 1934 joined Cummins Engine, a struggling company his family had financed, as general manager. Became president in 1945 and board chairman in 1951. Company grew under his leadership to control half of the domestic market in diesel engines for trucks. Cummins noted for its ability to attract some of the brightest young engineers. Miller has very enlightened labor policies and has written often about the threat to individualism in large corporations. Director of several other family businesses, including the bank, which has a minister on the board of directors and stays open Saturday. Also a director of American Telephone and Telegraph, Equitable Life Assurance and Chemical Bank New York Trust Company. Trustee of Yale University, Butler University, Ford Foundation, and the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
His record apart from business was even more impressive: First layman ever to be elected president of the National Council of Churches. A major force behind its support of civil rights, and an organizer of the March on Washington. Member of the executive committee of World Council of Churches. Served two years in combat during World War II aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Contributes much of his great wealth to educational and religious causes. An ardent Republican, he gives generously to party candidates, but has voted for Democrats-like Lyndon Johnson. A patron of modern art and architecture, he owns two homes de signed by Eero Saarinen. He reads the New Testament in Greek (he also reads Latin) and for years was a substitute Sunday-school teacher. For relaxation plays Bach on his Stradivarius, drives a speedboat, and plays golf on a new public course he recently donated to the city.
Along with his civics lessons, Miller imbibed the tenets of Republicanism, although he has often had only disgust for a state party dominated by the likes of former Senators William Jenner and Homer Capehart. And he has not hesitated to turn against the party when it nominated a man like Barry Goldwater. But he believes party affiliation is important:
“I don’t really believe in being independent. I think that the place of influence is in the primary and in the selection of candidates. If you leave initial selection up to others you have no choice. No political party is going to please you one hundred percent or even very much of the time, so you pick the party that outrages you the least and that’s the one you join. In a two-party system, each party is going to have a very wide spectrum of opinion.”
He pulled his Bible off the table behind him, leafed through it quickly, and read from the fifty-first chapter of Isaiah :
“‘Look to the rock from which you are hewn and to the quarry from which you are digged.’ This is what liberal arts does for the young man. Never forget where you came from, and how you got there. This doesn’t make you a conservative, this doesn’t make you always want to go back to something, but this gives you your base. And you understand that many things that seem to you to come naturally and very easily were in fact won the hard way. And it’s very hard to value them because you didn’t participate in the fight for them. So you may let loose of the form but you don’t let loose of the substance. This leads to another quotation.
“To the new generation the word ‘patriotism’ is a bad word, isn’t it, a really bad word. I looked it up the other day in the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a bad word all the way through. Samuel Johnson called it the last refuge of a scoundrel. So I’ve been interested in what might be a valid definition of patriotism. Tacitus was a very conservative person but there is to be found in his Annals an electric phrase which says, ‘this praiseworthy competition with one’s ancestors.’ Well, this is a very exciting and valid definition of patriotism. It means making an objective, realistic appraisal of the accomplishments of ancestors, understanding how difficult of achievement these were, under the circumstances in which they were worked, and a determination to see if you can’t do something comparable under your own circumstances.
This is a valid definition of patriotism. Not merely to change nothing. Not merely to repeat worn-out phrases, or to wrap the flag around you for the purpose of ending discussion. But to say, I’m going to accomplish in my own time something comparable to the accomplishments of my ancestors in their time. It may mean you would appear to wreck the joint in certain respects. But such could be a patriotic response by a political party, and it could be a patriotic response for an individual. It might mean you went to jail sometime, but so did many of our most revered ancestors.”
Miller is essentially a pragmatist. You do what works, not what is supposed to work according to some preconceived notion. Ways of solving problems must change as conditions change, if you are going to pursue effectively the same basic ends.
“I think we have seen that a lot of things don’t happen automatically,” he said wryly. “We’ve got our problems with race and they don’t solve themselves automatically; neither have our problems with the big city. Most of our major problems I think we can say have not naturally solved themselves.
“In Indiana we have the attitude that we are not going to let the big Federal government come in here and impose the welfare state and pump a lot of money in,” he continued. “This would have a lot of merit if we then said the second thing: we are going to solve our problems ourselves. We are going to tax ourselves and appropriate the money necessary to solve them. A weakness in this State is we didn’t state part two. We stated only part one.” The reluctance of most Republicans, especially Republicans with business backgrounds, to accept political change and more public efforts to cope with change strikes Miller as ironic. First of all, any businessman who did not accept change in his own business would soon go broke. “The engine which would have swept the market ten years ago is unsalable today,” he said. “The American businessman has always talked one way and acted another. And if you look at him closely, the way he acts is better than the way he talks. All right, he doesn’t act in politics, he only talks.
“Furthermore,” Miller added, “I don’t know of anybody in business who really wants business unregulated. Usually it’s for the other fellow to be regulated. The core of all this is a recognition that there have got to be some rules in this complex, fast-moving, interactive society we are in. Nobody wants the whole society free to run loose.”
“I think we’re suffering some of the pangs of bigness, and growth, and impersonality, but you can’t avoid being big. So many of the undertakings you want to accomplish in this society can’t be accomplished except by very large groups. Even the New Left wants the things made by the assembly line or the education at a large university. You’ve got to solve the problem of how you take on a big activity, but make bigness your servant, not your master.”
If Miller usually talks in terms of approaches rather than specific programs, he does get riled up over one issue—racial discrimination—-which he once called “a sort of national insanity.” He ascended to the presidency of the National Council of Churches just as the first sit-ins were rumbling across the South. He soon helped form the Council’s Commission on Religion and Race, whose energetic support of civil rights earned it an unremitting attack from rightwing extremists as “soft on communism.” His paper credentials are impeccable : he helped to organize the March on Washington, helped the President on civil-rights bills, and was one of three church leaders to organize the National Conference on Race and Religion in 1963. But his personal feelings go deeper than boards and agendas and programs. He is disturbed, yet curiously sympathetic, with the turn toward black anger and black power. More prosperity or better education means little unless it is backed by a commitment to justice—a commitment that has not yet been made. “Maybe for the first time here are some people who just plain gave up on this country. I would assume that there are always people who are inclined toward violence or extremes in many ways. But if your society is normally healthy, and there isn’t real justification for their violence, they don’t get anywhere. What bothers me is the extent to which their hopelessness is justified, and the extent to which they saw constructive legislation passed and nothing changed in the specific areas in which they found themselves. I doubt whether their leaders would have been listened to at all had there not been a feeling of hopelessness from which this violent talk got a response.”
Miller prefers nonviolence not only as an ideal but as a tactic. “Nonviolence tormented the American majority so hard it couldn’t stand it,” he said with a slight grin. “‘But when people see violence they are relieved. It lets them off the hook in respect to their own guilt.”
In addition to his own extensive philanthropies, which concentrate on religion and education, Miller petitioned the courts several years ago to permit him to give away thirty percent of the income—the maximum allowable deduction—from sizable fortunes inherited by his two oldest children. He explains why:
“There was considerable uneasiness in my family at having possessions, and most of the uneasiness probably came from our religion. There was a feeling that maybe you didn’t have any right to wealth unless you personally took charge and worked it, and unless you handled it as a trust, rather than as a possession. If you didn’t work it yourself, if you didn’t work it in the general interest, then maybe you shouldn’t have it.”