Dem Were the Days

Former Political Insider Looks Back With Joy

Posted September 15, 2008 at 4:26pm

It was 1957, and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Texas) had sent Joseph Miller to Wisconsin to help three-time failed gubernatorial candidate William Proxmire win a special election for Senate. Miller had already helped win five Senate campaigns in the West, but this was his first assignment as campaign director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and he couldn’t afford to lose. Several big names offered to campaign on Proxmire’s behalf.

“I said no to all of them,” Miller wrote in his recently released memoirs. “There was only one outsider that could do Prox any good — the ‘poster boy’ of the 1956 Democratic convention, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.”

Kennedy’s appearances in Wisconsin that year laid the groundwork for his win in the state’s 1960 presidential primary and cemented Miller’s admiration for the young Senator. Miller became friends with Kennedy and later joined his presidential campaign as an adviser on key primary states. Miller writes about that experience and others as a political reporter and lobbyist in his memoir, “The Wicked Wine of Democracy,” published this month by the University of Washington Press.

Miller, who at 87 still lives in a town house adjacent to Capitol Hill and meets a group of friends for a weekly lunch at Kelly’s Irish Times, is a loyal Democrat. In fact, he follows the political world with as much enthusiasm and interest as he did when he was a younger man. He was impressed with Sen. Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2004 and became an early supporter of his presidential campaign. He says he understands why people have compared the Illinois Senator to Kennedy.

“Well, I think the similarity, I would say, is that Kennedy recognized that the presidential candidate was a frontman who was, to a great degree, created by media and that he had to be a television performer first and last and always,” he said. “What Kennedy knew — and I had some interesting conversations with him — he knew that he was only as good as those backing him, the team he had, and that’s why he leaned so heavily on Harvard, the Ivy League schools, and he assembled a helluva team in the government. … I think Obama is in that mold.”

His love of politics started early. Before he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1957, Miller had been a reporter in the Pacific Northwest, eventually covering politics and chairing the Newspaper Guild’s local. Organizing for the union got Miller interested in working for a campaign directly, and after helping the local Congressman with a campaign to create the Columbia Valley Authority, he signed on with the re-election campaign of Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.).

Early in his political career, Miller learned that images — not lengthy explanations — would best convey the candidate’s message, portraying the candidate as he wanted to be seen (not necessarily as he was) and pairing him with a simple slogan that would establish the campaign’s theme. He started with billboards and progressed as technology did, offering candidates for television segments and using campaign video in advertisements. Shortly after the 1956 campaign, he wrote a paper on what he had learned.

“The paper centered on an obvious truism — that because of television and Life magazine-style journalism, people were looking at politicians as well as hearing and reading about them,” he wrote. “What they saw could determine how a significant portion of them voted. Thus, it was an imperative that the candidate be packaged as prettily as possible to appeal to that segment of the electorate.”

Miller’s wide-ranging political career has made him a better-than-most armchair pundit during this election cycle. He said though Bill Clinton turned out to be “a pretty good president,” he didn’t appreciate the Arkansas governor or his wife after he first met them in Little Rock. The author called him the worst of the “pretty boy Southern politicians” and noted Hillary’s “appalling judgment” in trying to reform health care in the 1990s. He met vice presidential nominee Joseph Biden (D-Del.) at a breakfast in D.C. when Biden was first running for Senate and Miller was at the DSCC.

“I have never been exposed to such a Niagara of words in my life,” Miller remembered fondly. “Joe started talking, and if I got a word in edgewise, I do not remember it.”

In his memoirs, Miller focuses on encounters like the one with Biden. He rarely mentions either of his two wives and never his two daughters or four grandchildren. That decision came at the advice of his editor. Miller wrote about his life in a series of vignettes that became chapters. Seeing that the book had gotten unwieldy, she suggested he separate them into one volume about his career and another on his personal life.

Now in existence only as a stack of pages on his desk, the second promises as much mischief as the first. Miller shares that there were only 10 days between his divorce from his first wife, Rosalie, and his marriage to his second wife, Erna. The two women had become close friends in college, and Rosalie approved of her ex-husband’s union with her old friend. They continued to socialize regularly.

“When we were all together, I must say, I always felt like it was me against them, which I didn’t mind,” he said, laughing.

“I had it about as good as a guy can get.”