The Man Who Wanted To Be Vice President
(Excerpt from Libby Miller Fitzgerald's forthcoming memoir/biography
of her father)
There is an imposing bronze plaque affixed to the wall in the
south entrance of the Notre Dame Law School. One corner features
a relief of the Golden Dome, the other a relief of the United
States Capitol dome. It stands alone, in solitary splendor, yet
most students no doubt pass by it unnoticing day after day. I
always pay it a special visit on my way to the stadium for fall
football games whenever I return to the campus where my daughter
spent four years of her life. If my father had lived to see this
moving memorial to him, conceived by his beloved Class of '35
and dedicated by Father Hesburgh at their 50th reunion
in 1985, it very possibly would have been the proudest moment
of his life.
William E. (Bill) Miller, Republican vice-presidential candidate
in 1964, the only Notre Dame alum ever to be chosen to run for
the second highest office in the land, could claim many proud
moments in his too-short life of 69 years. But his love for Notre
Dame and the pride he felt in being part of its hallowed traditions
was deep and permeating. It was all the more so because he had
once been such an unlikely prospect for the privilege of attending
Notre Dame at all.
Like so many young Catholic boys of his day, Dad had nurtured
the dream of attending the University -- glued to the radio for
their weekly gridiron encounters, he had felt an almost mystical
kinship with the school. But growing up as he did in a modest
home in the small industrial Erie Canal town of Lockport, New
York -- grandson of Irish and German immigrants, a child of the
Depression, his father a janitor - that dream seemed distant and
unattainable. Yet with the proceeds from his assorted boyhood
jobs and entrepreneurial ventures, the help of his hard-working
mother who opened a millinery shop, and the generosity of a widowed
aunt who, unbeknownst to anyone, had stashed away money for her
favorite nephew, the dream did indeed become possible.
The plaque goes on to commemorate the major achievements of
Dad's life after his years on campus - securing the coveted Moot
Court prize from Albany Law School; his rise from a private in
the U.S. Army during World War II to selection as an assistant
prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945;
outstanding lawyer and District Attorney of Niagara County, New
York; influential member of the United States Congress for 14
years; intrepid leader of the Republican party as its national
chairman during three tumultuous years; and his selection as the
vice-presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 1964. But
if that list doesn't tell the full story of his legacy, the final
words, etched in gold, do: "William E. Miller made a lasting impression
on all who met him. He epitomized the motto on Sacred Heart Church:
'God, Country and Notre Dame.' "
As we near the 40th anniversary of my father's run
for national office with the presidential election of 2004, replete
with the usual dissatisfaction over the contending candidates,
I am reminded of the pithy words Senator Barry Goldwater once
used to capture the humor, decency and commitment to public service
that his 1964 running mate exemplified: "Bill was a good trooper,
fought the good fight, and went home to Lockport, New York, with
a smile and good grace . . ." Dad's press secretary once wrote
of him: "Recognized by his friends, and even some of his enemies,
as one of the best political minds and most effective orators
of his day, he was also an unabashed flag-waver with deeply held
feelings for American freedom and institutions."
This jaunty, impeccably dressed little man with the tilted Homburg
hat and the tremendous, riveting voice had so often defied the
powers-that-be - men who had the power to make his political career
a short one - to stand for what he believed. That was because
he was never wedded to becoming a permanent fixture in Washington,
and he never took himself, or the influence he had accrued, too
seriously. Eyes flashing with suppressed wit, he once wryly observed
to a Republican audience: "I couldn't be any more forgotten than
I am as a former candidate for Vice President, unless I had won."
The doors to my father's heady world really opened to him with
his admission to Notre Dame in 1931 - before that he had never
left Lockport, and never imagined he would. Back then, the application
process was a far simpler proposition than it is today - "just
the facts ma'am": your name, address, birth date, high school
grades, two letters of recommendation, and a one-line answer to
the question, "What is your reason for choosing the University
of Notre Dame?" Dad wrote, in the typical straightforward fashion
that was to mark his entire life, "because of religious affiliation
and scholastic standing." There was no interminable list of enriching
extracurricular activities, no excruciatingly creative parent-written
essays required. Having secured the recommendation of his favorite
teacher, Maria Snyder, whose constant refrain in her rigorous
English classes at Lockport High was "where is your purpose sentence?"
and the kind words of his principal Edmond Evans, Dad thought
he was all set. But there was a hitch.
August arrived and he had not yet received his letter of acceptance.
It was the only place to which he had applied and, never short
on self-confidence, he assumed there would be no problem. So he
wrote the Registrar a letter, brief and to the point. I quote
it in full because it is so typical of my father's life-long habit
of knowing exactly what he wants, going after it with tenacity,
and going to the top to get it.
I sent in my application for admission to your University
last April. I received
acknowledgement of my money order for $25 and was informed
that you would
notify me later concerning my acceptance. To date I have
not received any
statement from you.
Two weeks later, through my instigation, another Lockport
boy, Wm Spalding,
sent in his application, and two weeks ago received notice
Being practically certain that I have the required units,
and fearing there may
be some oversight, or that a statement from you might not
have reached me, and
as I am very anxious to go to Notre Dame, I am taking the
liberty of writing you
Very Truly Yours,
Wm. E. Miller
Suffice it to say, three weeks later Dad was boarding a train
for South Bend.
It is hard to imagine what a 17-year-old boy, who had never
been farther than 20 miles from his small town, would have felt
as he rolled, alone, for the better part of a day and night through
the belching industrial cities along Lake Erie and the endless,
flat and empty farmland of the Midwest toward a new home some
550 miles away. As fearless and self-assured as the young Bill
Miller often seemed, I suspect he had a few butterflies.
When he arrived on campus on that typically sweltering South
Bend September day in his usual dapper but somewhat rumpled-from-traveling
cord suit and vest, suitcase and old beat-up portable record player
in hand, he went straight to Main Building. Checking on his dorm
assignment, he found he had gotten his second choice, Dillon Hall.
And he met a warm, friendly and talkative group of boys, who,
to his relief, seemed accepting of each other, no matter the diverse
backgrounds from which they had come.
Though he doubtless failed to appreciate it at the time, the
vast campus my father was seeing for the first time in 1931 was
nearing the end of a breathless two decades of expansion. I suppose
slightly terrified freshmen are not usually prone to be cognizant
of such things. But despite the cataclysmic events that had swept
the world during that period - the bloody Great War, the Depression,
the rise of Fascism - Notre Dame had prospered and grown. No less
than 29 buildings had been built or renovated since 1910, including
9 residence halls, the South Dining Hall replete with handsome
dark wooden chairs and tables, and the famous football stadium,
which at the time was rarely filled. Even Sacred Heart Basilica
with its awesome gothic spires was undergoing a tasteful renovation.
Making a significant contribution to this rapid growth was the
presence some few years earlier of one of the greatest football
dynasties of all time - Knute Rockne, George Gipp and the Four
Horsemen. They had stormed the Northeast and taken an increasingly
impressive football program to national fame by winning an unofficial
national championship in 1924, spawning a new enthusiasm for collegiate
football. The campus paper noted: "Rockne's success enabled poor
Catholic boys of all descents to have a shot at an education."
Understandably then, when Dad arrived at Notre Dame, the campus
and the football world were still reeling from Rockne's tragic
death in a plane crash earlier that year, in March.
By 1931, the Depression had somewhat shrunk the student body,
and with the array of new dorms, it was now possible for everyone
to live on campus. That was not quite mandatory but strongly encouraged,
since it enabled the Prefect of Discipline to more closely monitor
the boys' activities. With money tight for most of them anyway,
it was the cheapest place to live. So Dad's only fling with off-campus
living, now so common, was the two months he and the other Dillon
Hall assignees had to wait while their dorm, still under construction
when they arrived freshman year, was completed.
One of the required courses first year was mysteriously called
"Bionomy." Not surprisingly, the first question asked in the class
was inevitably: "Why is this class called Bionomy?" The response
of Professor Bocskei: "Because we are going to teach biology the
first half of the semester and botany the second half." The biology
portion turned out to be a modified sex education class and the
students apparently exhibited such intense interest that there
never was a botany lecture. Attendance was a perfect 100 percent,
Dad's Bionomy classmate Al Lawton recalled. It may be worth noting
that my father scored a mere 70 in this course - a "D," as it
were. I am not certain of the implications of that, except that
it may somehow account for the notable lack of scandal, sexual
or otherwise, in his future political and personal life.
The rules and regulations of the 1930s, designed, as they were,
to mold moral character, might strike one as harsh and restrictive
by today's slightly less stringent standards - though today's
students might question whether their rules are
any less stringent. The boys griped about lights out at 11 p.m.,
no girls or liquor in the dorms and the myriad of other seemingly
Draconian laws. Yet there was no shortage of clever ways found
to circumvent or ignore them, and it is doubtful the un-permissive
mandates stifled any fun at all. One classmate recalls the time
when Father Marr found Dad and a friend carrying a rather heavy
carton into the front door of Walsh dorm, in preparation for a
large gathering in their room. When the priest asked, "What's
that, boys?" Dad brashly and ingenuously replied, "Liquor and
beer, Father." Marr laughed heartily and continued walking on
down the steps, leaving the two young men to ponder whether he
didn't believe them or just gave them a pass. They suspected it
was the former.
Dad's first foray into political organization came near the
end of his freshman year, and it was ill fated. His buddy Louis
Hruby recalls that their group of "freshies" wised up quickly
about the seriousness of campus politics. A group of them had
put up a slate of candidates for Sophomore Class officers, with
Dad as campaign manager. Exerting minimal effort, they went down
to a crushing defeat.
So in the room above the arch of Lyons Hall at the beginning
of sophomore year, my father's group planted the seeds early to
elect the president of their junior class. Their candidate would
be his roommate and dear friend from the campus Buffalo Club,
Tom LaLonde, and Dad, now a seasoned campaign manager, was to
have a second chance at exercising his political skills. The result
this time, after a hard fought campaign, was resounding success,
to be repeated again the following year when Dad got Tom elected
president of the Student Activities Council. Once when the candidate
made a suggestion to his manager about campaign strategy, my father's
reply, after listening quietly, was: "Tom, you go ahead saying
'hello' to all the boys and remembering their names, which you're
really good at, but you leave the thinking to me."
Of course there was a payoff to Dad both times. Tom rewarded
him the first time with the Junior Prom chairmanship. The chairman's
date, Pat McArdle, a St. Mary's girl, rated an oversized picture
on the "Society" page of the South Bend paper as the prom queen,
and the campus paper ran a picture of the honored couple captioned:
"Chairman Bill Miller looks out of the corner of his eye (at Pat)."
Louis Hruby, who wrote the copy, recalls that he had to restrain
himself from saying what he really wanted to say about that "look,"
or risk being censored by the Faculty Board of Publications. The
class judged the prom, held at the elegant Palais Royale with
the popular Ted Weems band, a huge success.
"Blue Circle reorganized with William Miller as Chairman," announced
The Notre Dame Scholastic in September of 1934.
That was the second "carrot" from President Tom LaLonde to his
savvy campaign chairman for a job well done. Membership in the
Circle, a subsidiary of the Student Activities Council, was cut
from 35 to 18 that year and "great care was exercised in the selection
of members, inasmuch as the purpose of the organization is honorary
as well as utilitarian," reported the campus paper.
In the past, the Circle had been almost a group of glorified
cheerleaders whose main job was to rally enthusiasm among the
students for the football team, but now it was supposedly taking
on new and more dignified dimensions. Its members were to mediate
between students and the University Disciplinary Board in suspension
cases, usher at concerts, plan the programs for pep meetings,
hire prestigious speakers for the student body, and generally
act as the guardians of sacred Notre Dame traditions - which occasionally
meant dunking boys in one of the two on-campus lakes who defied
them. Bolstering the Notre Dame spirit would prove to be a particularly
challenging task this year, since the football team had compiled
an abysmal record the year before - "the giant is sleeping," The
Scholastic had somberly observed.
Dad's college buddies echoed his high school friends in attesting
to the fact that he made better marks in his studies with less
apparent effort than anyone they knew. Even a friend from home
recalls that when he once paid Dad an unexpected visit at Notre
Dame the day before an important exam, my father sat on his bed
for a few minutes perusing the text book from Mr. Plunkett's Latin
course, slammed it shut, went out for the rest of the night and
proceeded to ace the exam. He would rarely eschew a night at Paddy's
with beers, Limburger cheese sandwiches and good visits with "the
Boys" for a night of hard work in the library. Though not considered
an intellectual, his mind was called "sharp as a tack." In sophomore
year, the game of contract bridge hit campus, and my father, along
with his good friend, the young economics professor Lee Flatley,
spent considerable hours in a tower room of Sorin Hall teaching
the perils of over-bidding to assorted students and other professors.
"The Dap," short for dapper, was a nickname given to Dad early
in his college career, and it stuck with him. "Bill was always
meticulously attired. Indeed, if there had been any sort of award
for appearance, Bill would have been an easy winner. I'll always
remember him in his trim clothes and tab collared shirts," recalls
his friend Al Lawton. That impression was reinforced by a "Man
About Campus" article in the school paper which marveled at how
"Dapper" could maintain the crease in his pants over a whole weekend
and "show up at that nine o'clock Monday morning class with a
press that you could sharpen a pencil on. He has a penchant for
stiff collars and wears them as though he actually likes them."
How my father managed this legendary sartorial splendor has
always been a bit of a mystery to me - these were, after all,
hard times and he had limited funds. His dorm rooms were reportedly
sparsely furnished - in addition to the bed, a spindly table tied
with a two-inch rope in rickety fashion to the radiator, and a
dresser, affectionately called his "Louis XIV piece," with drawers
that didn't work but faces that pulled off so socks, shirts and
underwear could be stuffed in from the front. But with the money
he earned and what his relatives occasionally sent, I suspect
it was a priority for my proud father to dress well in order not
to be labeled a poor boy.
The truth is that Dad's salesmanship talent is what saved him.
He and Tom LaLonde secured from the Balfour Company the class
ring and pin concession, which proved to yield them a fairly lucrative
commission. The entrepreneurial pair also clinched the campus
Christmas card concession. And finally, Dad's past success back
home in the fireworks business as a scrappy young boy prompted
him to launch a similar venture on campus with another friend.
That alone, he reported to his cousin Dick Shultz, confidentially
and with great pride, netted him $4000 after four years, an impressive
sum even before adjusting for inflation.
This student-cum-salesman routine was doubtless time-consuming,
but it was the middle of the Depression and boys had to scramble
to find spending money for their perks - dance tickets, beers,
occasional tickets on the South Shore Line for trips to Chicago.
Tuition, room and board was just under $500 freshman year, which,
while akin to pocket change by today's tuition standards, was
hard to come by in the 1930s.
Dad considered debating one of the most formative of his college
activities. Eugene Blish, an erstwhile teammate, gave me an insightful
and prescient description of my father from those days:
Bill had a strong, manly attitude and expression, a memorable
voice and diction
and forceful command of the language, whether he was describing
football game or the New Deal policies of FDR. Bill was
and self-reliant, far more mature for his age than the rest
of us. No doubt about
it, Bill was blessed with strong convictions. In a very
persuasive way, he would
let you know exactly what he thought was best for the world,
for the United
States of America, for Upstate New York, for Notre Dame,
for Alumni Hall, and
for Bill Miller.
Coach Bill Coyne demanded that his boys train themselves to take
both the affirmative and negative of a debate topic. The universal
collegiate debate subject one year was the world-wide acquittance
of all World War I debts, and Dad explained one day at practice
how hard it would be for him to argue the side of that issue in
which he did not believe. "On the other hand," teammate Blish
added, "when Bill would speak for a cause he sincerely believed
was right, he was a fearless, overpowering, intimidating public
speaker. That's when we all wanted to be teamed up with Bill Miller."
Gene Blish, obviously reveling in the opportunity to recall
his old friend and debate partner of so long ago, continued to
offer me his memories of my father:
Bill walked around the campus like he was suspended at a
level about three inches above the rest of us -- just high enough
to be above the black cinder pathways, the temporary wooden boardwalks
in front of Dillon and Alumni Halls, or the gummy Indiana mud
that surrounded us in all directions on rainy days. But all that
aloofness was okay; we all understood that wild, unpredictable,
fun-loving Bill Miller. He was the outstanding leader among our
classmates - an accomplished, decent and most respected individual.
A 1934 campus newspaper feature article took liberties with
an Oliver Goldsmith poem to pithily sum Dad up:
In arguing, too, the Dapper owned
For, even tho' vanquished, he could argue
While words of learned length and thundering
Amaz'd the gazing rustics rang'd around;
And still they gaz'd, and still the wonder
That one small man could know all he knew.
So with his Bachelor of Arts diploma in hand, a pre-law
major in economics and minor in public speaking, an academic record
that was not brilliant but respectable, a batch of good buddies
from cities far-flung from Lockport, and some newfound political
savvy, a small town boy walked proudly across that improvised
stage in the old Field House in June of 1935. His parents were
there for the first time, finally able to see where their sacrifice
had enabled their son to spend the most memorable four years of
his life to date.
Dad was ready to move on, enthusiastic about a future he knew
was far more promising than any he could have magined for himself
21 years earlier. He was to remark in a speech many years later:
"It is not until one has been out of school for several years
that he fully understands in how many ways his University has
placed its stamp upon him. Notre Dame, dedicated to the development
of the whole man, makes its imprint on mind and will, soul and
body of its graduates. We alumni don't all leave here with the
poetic genius of a Father O'Donnell, the deep human sympathy of
a Cardinal O'Hara, the intellectual brilliance of a Yves Simon,
or the athletic achievements of a Knute Rockne, but something
of what these men - and many others - have imparted to Notre Dame
is likely to rub off on us."
As the familiar strains of "The Notre Dame Victory March" reverberated
thunderously and joyously from the rafters of the cavernous San
Francisco Cow Palace on the evening of July 16, 1964, and my father,
his proud family at his side, stood on the podium to receive the
unanimous nomination of the cheering, raucous Republican delegates,
he was reminded once again of his deep pride in his alma mater.
And of what its values and academic excellence had made possible
Forget what I said about all the other proud moments in my father's
life. The proudest of all was possibly a small event that happened
at a luncheon given by Father Hesburgh in 1967, three years after
the resounding defeat of the Goldwater/Miller ticket in 1964.
It was the weekend of the Michigan State game, and we -- my father
and mother, my new husband, Paul, and I -- were all sitting at
a table with several prominent guests.
Among them was a member of the Michigan State Athletic Department,
whose wife, sitting next to my husband, was continually eyeing
my father. When she could suppress her curiosity no longer, she
quietly asked Paul who Dad was, and he casually replied that his
father-in-law was "a pretty famous alum." Insistent on solving
her quandary, she asked his name, to which Paul teased her a bit
more by simply replying, "Miller." After a few moments of reflection,
the woman, all smiles of satisfaction, burst forth with what she
obviously thought was a brilliant discovery -- "I know who you
are. You're one of the Four Horsemen!"
The Michigan State official was no doubt mortified by his wife's
attempt to appear knowledgeable about sacred Notre Dame football
lore. One of the Four Horsemen's name was indeed Miller, but it
was Don Miller, and he was a good 12 years older and I imagine
a bit larger than my father. But dear Dad, 5-foot-7 inches and
135 pounds ("dripping wet," as he used to say), was proud and
tickled for the rest of his life to be able to tell the story
of being mistaken for a legendary Notre Dame football player.
* * *