Frank Kelley: The ‘Eternal General’

An interview with Michigan’s long-serving attorney general
Photograph by Erik Howard

Frank Kelley remembers one late fall afternoon in 1962 as if it were yesterday. He was Michigan’s young accidental attorney general, appointed to fill a vacancy — and less than a year removed from the life of a little-known lawyer in small-town Alpena.

The governor who appointed him was equally young — 36 — but had been campaigning strenuously all day on two artificial legs; his own had been blown off by a land mine during World War II.

John Swainson badly needed to rest that afternoon, and so he left Kelley alone for 30 minutes in Detroit’s Book-Cadillac Hotel that October day with President John F. Kennedy, who had come here (against his political handlers’ advice) to campaign for their re-election.

Kelley, who went on to become the longest serving office holder in state history, never forgot a moment of that meeting.

Now, 48 years later, he sits at his desk at the Lansing lobbying-law firm of Kelley Cawthorne, that he co-founded 11 years ago and recalls that day.

“I’ve met a lot of people, including popes, but [Kennedy’s] the most impressive single person I’ve ever met in my life,” Kelley says. “Here was a guy who knew that he was about the closest thing that imagination can get to an Irish prince. He knew he was an Irish prince.

“He knew enough to have shoes made in Spain. He knew enough to have Savile Row suits, handmade shirts … and yet he was very down-to-earth, dedicated to public service, which his father made him, just as my father made me, concerned with.

“He had the bearing of a prince, he had that Boston accent trained with a Harvard inflection, you know — I call it the Grosse Pointe voice — people born with money. Yet he was authentic.”

At one point, Kelley told Kennedy that someone — possibly Geore Romney, the man running against Swainson — was an egoist.

JFK looked at with him amusement, and replied: “We’re all egoists, Frank. Some just hide it better than others … and the whole trick is to hide it.”

Kelley cocks his head, topped by a white mane, and shows a picture from the occasion.

“See,” he says in his gravelly voice. “That was when I was still a brunet.” Kelley’s conference-room wall is covered with photographs depicting his party’s pantheon: JFK, RFK, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King Jr.

The earliest image is one of Kelley with Kennedy and Swainson in the Book-Cadillac suite (now the Westin Book Cadillac). That Kennedy made it to Michigan at all was a matter of luck, loyalty, and timing. Within days, the Cuban Missile Crisis interrupted any future campaigning.

Later, Kelley found out that JFK’s political advisers hadn’t wanted him to go to Detroit at all. Swainson was bound to lose to Romney, they said, and it wouldn’t look good for the president to use up political capital on a loser. That ticked Kennedy off.

According to Kelley, Swainson talked to Kennedy, who said: “Listen. This kid lost both legs in the war. You think I’m going to turn my back on him when he’s in need? We’re going to Michigan, and I’m spending the day.”

Swainson did lose — in an even closer race than predicted. But Kelley squeaked by his Republican opponent. He won again and again — 10 times, until he voluntarily decided to step down on Dec. 31, 1998 — his 74th birthday.

Long before he left office, his friends and staff members began calling him the “Eternal General,” a sobriquet he loved.

No other attorney general in the country has served 37 years. After that first election victory, he never had another close race; once he won by more than a million votes.

But besides being a phenomenal success as attorney general, he also became the political godfather of the Democratic Party. Says veteran fundraiser Ron Thayer: “Frank Kelley was the Democratic Party.”

Thayer began his career as Kelley’s driver, back in the mid-1960s. He’s far from the only member of the Kelley alumni club. Kelley gave future U.S. Sen. Carl Levin his first job out of law school. Ditto former Gov. James Blanchard.

When Hour Detroit met with Kelley in Lansing this summer, he had just emerged from a meeting with another protégé of his, the woman who succeeded him as attorney general: Jennifer Granholm.

Still vibrant and energetic, Kelley keeps close tabs on the politics and economics of his beloved state.

Have you ever seen things as bad as they are now?

No. We’ve had crises before. For example, way back when lumber gave out, they said Michigan was through. But we had some good leadership, and we had people who were able to respond to the crisis … and then we had Henry Ford and a couple of people, and it was natural to start making automobiles. And that brought us back.

But people today have to realize it’s a combination of factors, government and the private sector, and neither can do it by themselves. Business says, hey, get government off my back, and government says, hey, if we can only regulate more … but the fact is, you need both.

State government has become almost dysfunctional. How did it get that way?

With term limits, you have too much fear and timidity. People are scared stiff. They don’t get a chance to have experience. They’re looking for employment. They’re all on the make, and they’re so filled with fear and anguish [that] it’s hard to get them to move.

The governor can only do so much. We had a strong governor in John Engler and he was able to get them to move. He was a product of the system. He had a long period of seniority in the House and Senate and knew how to trade and how to pressure people for his agenda. Well, then when Gov. Granholm took over, she runs into a recalcitrant guy like [Senate Majority Leader Mike] Bishop, who’s bound and determined to minimize her influence, and Democrats are too timid — as a result you get stalemate.

There’s a perception that she has failed as a leader.

Oh, yeah. But there’s only so much blame you can put on her. She gave the legislature a blueprint for what to do, and they don’t act. And then you had this crisis in the economy.

Who in their right mind would have predicted five years ago that General Motors would go bankrupt, laying off (depending on how you count) 400,000 to 500,000 jobs, many of them forever? That was the worst crisis we’ve ever had, so the private sector had tremendous problems, and they couldn’t solve it. And what did they do? They had to turn to the federal government for bailouts. Now, I believe in a regulated free-market system. And most of the economists agree that the bailout was OK.

When capitalism stumbles, you help it and then let the free market take over after the stumbling’s over. I think now they’re correcting the economy, but there still is the factor of tremendous unemployment. The private sector alone can’t do it … and the government can’t do it alone, but they might in a partnership.

Maybe they should think about a modern form of the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] or whatever the hell they have to do to keep people going.

Do you think President Obama should do something like that?

I find it very hard to second-guess Obama. And I find it very hard to be critical about him, because he’s so intelligent and so understanding of the problems. His belief is by being extremely patient and putting constant pressure on, he can accomplish his goals … and I must say, he has, to some extent. Now, he hasn’t solved the job problem. But he did solve the health problem, at least opened the door to solving our national health problem. He has opened the door to financial reform on Wall Street. But the unemployment rate is so great, government alone can’t do it, and it’s going to take time.

Are you worried about your Democrats this year?

Well, they are in disarray. The fact is, we’ve had 30 years of negative advertising. Thirty years of all those negative images of politicians who are always distrustful and misleading and so on.

And then term limits is another thing. And so we have trouble getting quality people in politics these days. No question about it.

In November, Michigan voters are going to be asked whether they want a new state constitutional convention. How do you feel about that?

Well, I did three years of research with Peter Fletcher [former Republican National committeeman] and a bunch of Republicans and Democrats. We reviewed it for two winters, and we came to the conclusion that we don’t need a new constitution. We kicked it back and forth. There are a few things that need to be fixed, but those can be done by a couple of amendments. Having a constitutional convention would open a whole big bag of worms, with the kind of climate we are in today — Tea Party people, all the rest of it. It would be just chaos. I don’t think it would be wise or prudent to touch this constitution right now. Our problems right now aren’t constitutional. The problem is getting our free-market economy going again to the point where it can sustain our citizens.

Do you see any way the Democrats can win the governor’s race?

Depends on what type of campaign. Put it this way: What do the Republicans have to offer? That’s why you see so many people saying, ‘We’re mad at everybody.’ They’re mad at Democrats, sure, but Republicans haven’t shown them anything, either.

So in that climate, it will be personality. Whoever is the most persuasive personality will win. It’s not necessarily going to go to a Republican. I don’t believe that at all.

What if whoever wins comes to you after the election and asks, “Now what do I do?”

The main thing is, you’ve got to get the business community. A lot of these people in the business community today have good educations. They took economics. They took social science. They’ve got a social conscience. You’ve got to say to them, ‘Hey, you can’t get out of this alone. We can’t get out of this alone. We’ve got to work together.’ And I think if you work together, you can stabilize the tax situation. I do think the state needs more revenue, if they can show that it will be wisely spent.

Are you optimistic about the future of Michigan?

Yeah, by nature I’m an optimist. I’d say we will survive, but not without a struggle. We may even have to pound a lot of heads together, and there may even be some defeats before we see victory, but I think we will muddle on and survive.

Why? Let’s talk geopolitics. Michigan is in pretty good shape. We’ve got more fresh water than any state. We’ve got all these lakes. We’ve got beautiful recreation areas. We’ve got a good climate. We don’t have all these earthquakes, we don’t have a lot of floods, we don’t have hurricanes — and, we have a great amount of highly skilled workers. We’ve still got lumber. We’re in a good position for the electrical grid. Good shape, natural gas-wise.

Agriculturally, we’re one of the best states in the country, so we’ve got a lot of things going for us.

You met with the governor this morning. What did you talk about?

Her legacy … how to make a graceful exit.

You certainly made one.

Oh, I don’t know. Legally, under term limits, I could have one more term, you know. I think I’ll run when I’m 90.

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