Remembering Bill Miller

“You know me? I ran for Vice President of the United States in 1964, so I shouldn’t have trouble charging a meal, should I? Well, I do. That’s why I carry an American Express card…with this, they treat me as if I’d won.”

That comes from one of the most celebrated TV commercials of all time. As William E. Miller quipped before his death at age in 1983, this was something he should have done before he ran for Vice President with Barry Goldwater.

Miller was a Republican U.S. representative from New York from 1950-64. He chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee in 1960, when the GOP gained House seats while losing the presidency. Following Richard Nixon’s defeat, Miller was named chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In Bill Miller—Do You Know Me? A Daughter Remembers, Libby Miller Fitzgerald combines reminiscences about her father from many of his comrades with anecdotes about a much-loved parent, bringing to life someone who should be remembered for much more than a TV commercial or running for Vice President.

The only child of a janitor, Miller grew up in Lockport, N.Y. After graduating from Notre Dame and Albany Law School, he served in the U.S. Army as a special agent and worked on the U.S. legal team during the Nuremberg trials. In 1950, the 36-year-old Miller ran successfully for the U.S. House.

Miller’s Irish wit and engaging speaking style led Republicans in 1960 to elect him national chairman—desiring an articulate spokesman to respond to the magnetic Democratic President. Miller did not disappoint. He drew wild cheers by dubbing John Kennedy “the Foundering Father of the New Frontier” and calling the Bay of Pigs “a symbol of blundering unmatched in our history.”

Like most Republicans in Congress in the 1950s, Miller supported civil rights. Democrats had the weaker record on equal rights with senators from the South deploying the filibuster to kill all civil rights legislation from 1877-1957. Having had black friends and heard first-hand testimony about discrimination in the South, the conservative New Yorker became a fighter for civil rights, and in contrast to future running mate Goldwater, voted for the Civil Rights Act. As Fitzgerald writes: “He knew it was absolutely imperative that Congress finish the work they had begun and failed to complete in 1957 and 1960.”

Spurning pleas that he balance his ticket by choosing a moderate running mate such as Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, Goldwater chose Miller, with whom he was philosophically in tune and trusted. Fitzgerald shares vivid recollections of her father’s subsequently playing defense for Goldwater, who was pilloried by Democrats as a trigger-happy bigot.

In a scenario unthinkable today, Fitzgerald recalls her parents playing bridge with reporters on the campaign jet. One liberal reporter, who at first resented being assigned to cover “that miserable little man,” came to love Miller, and when the newsman died a few years later, his widow asked Miller to be a pallbearer at his funeral.

The life of Bill Miller is worth reading about because, as columnist Jimmy Breslin put it, “He showed almost none of the outsized ego that politicians seem to acquire the day they are elected.”