Between national party conventions, I took an advance look at Joseph Miller's upcoming memoirs, The Wicked Wine of Democracy, to be published next month by University of Washington Press. The book provides an almost too-candid portrayal of politics and lobbying in the Northwest and nationally over 50 years and is an intriguing chronicle of some of the main figures in Northwest political life.
Joe Miller, now 86, is retired in Washington, D.C. He was an Idaho, Oregon, and Seattle newspaperman and sometime Time magazine regional correspondent. He crossed the line into politics in 1948 when, as chair of the newspaper guild's local, he pitched in to help the campaign of Rep. Hugh Mitchell, later to be an appointed U.S. senator. In following years, Joe by his own description became "a political junkie" quite literally addicted to the adrenaline rushes of political-campaign combat and the existential, often absurd, uproarious, and sometimes demoralizing flow of campaign days. He became a campaign communication specialist and expanded into general campaign strategy and organizing nuts-and-bolts. In those pre-television days, he became a believer at the outset in billboard campaign advertising.
Miller was one of the people who make political campaigns happen but who, themselves, never become known beyond the ring of insiders. Insiders did, indeed, know him as a hard working, dedicated campaigner drawn in particular to populist, progressive candidates and causes and not afraid to do the dirty work sometimes required.
His early hero, whose death he still mourns, was Oregon Republican Sen. Dick Neuberger. Miller also expresses great affection for Neuberger's widow, Maurine, who succeeded him in the Senate. He scorns, by contrast, Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse, regarded as a maverick hero by many in the Northwest, but seen by Miller as a mean-spirited phony.
Miller takes it from there with comments, ranging from admiring to acerbic about other figures of the time, including Washington Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry (Scoop) Jackson, Govs. Art Langlie and Al Rosellini, Julia Butler Hanson, Lyndon Johnson, John and Robert Kennedy, William Proxmire, Everett Dirksen, Frank Church, and their principal political advisers and staff members. Wisconsin Sen. Proxmire, like Morse, is on Miller's no-good list. Miller offers a long string of anecdotes and stories, some involving himself, some passed on by others, which portray some of the admired and famous as less than Olympian.
His account of his lobbying career is instructive but less entertaining and rewarding. By his own admission, he sometimes found himself representing interests he later came to question. Booze, broads, cash in envelopes, bars, and smoke-filled hotel rooms were too greatly a part of it. He lost a marriage and for a time wandered in his personal life before finding a strong lifetime partner, Erna Wahl Miller, Scoop Jackson's former personal secretary.
Some of the things that were a regular part of Joe Miller's life would, if exposed at the time, have brought him and those he supported embarrassment or even legal trouble. But that was the way business was largely done in an earlier period. If Joe Miller had been nailed, so would thousands of others, including some considered nationally as highly ethical and beyond reproach. As Miller points out, money to this day remains both the lubricant and corrupter of our political process and probably will remain so.
I am 12 years younger than Miller and came to politics from another entry point. But when I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1961, I quickly became aware of Joe Miller. The portrayals in his book ring completely true and, for the most part, comport with my own impressions of the public figures marching through its pages. Most authors, in writing political memoirs, spare those they knew, and with whom they worked, from accounts of their worst moments. I did that in my own memoir, published several months ago. Joe Miller has spared no one, including himself. He played the game long and devotedly, did it with good intentions, and has earned his reputation as a good man.