William E. Miller is probably best remembered for his role in an American Express commercial, looking into the camera and saying, “Do you know me?” The series of commercials featured formerly well-known people who supposedly needed their American Express card to get good credit and treatment by retailers. But Miller was also the head of the national Republican Party and the Republican nominee for Vice President in 1964, running with Barry Goldwater.
Bill Miller is a true American success story. His father was a janitor and his mother worked in a millinery shop owned jointly with her sisters. The shop did fairly well, but the mediocre profits divided among the sisters did not leave much for his mother.
Bill did well in school and excelled at debating. His success at debate seemed to come from his memory and persistence more than his intelligence. His success in school led him to attend Notre Dame University. To pay his tuition, he worked full time during the summers and part-time during the school year. In college, he was one of the top members of the debate team. He also ran for, and won, the top position in the student government. After graduation, he attended Albany Law School at Union University.
In 1938, Miller opened his own law practice, which ran until he enlisted in the army during World War II. It was during that first year that he met his future wife, who was a witness in a case he handled. During this time, he was selected by two federal judges to be the U.S. Commissioner for the western district of New York. Miller later described the position as little more than a “glorified justice of the peace” handling minor cases that came before the federal judges who selected him. In 1940, he got involved in national politics for the first time as a speaker for the Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie.
In July 1942, Miller enlisted in the army. He worked in the Military Intelligence Branch, and was selected for Officer Candidate School. He graduated, and was commissioned a 1st lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General Branch. His next assignment was at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. He served as an assistant to chief prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. In this position, he personally interrogated Nazi leaders such as Hermann Goering and Field Marshall Keitel.
After the war, Miller was a popular speaker at Republican events. He was also appointed an assistant district attorney for Niagara County. In January 1948, Governor Thomas Dewey appointed Miller district attorney for Niagara County to fill a vacancy. In the November elections that year, Miller won the position in his own right by a large majority. As district attorney, Miller gained attention by investigating local officials for corruption. He gained indictments against the mayor, two members of the city council and two members of the zoning board. Only the two zoning board members were convicted and sent to prison. The others were found not guilty.
In 1949, there was an eighteen-week strike at the Bell Aircraft plant. When violence broke out, Miller had more than one hundred union leaders arrested for conspiracy, assault and inciting to riot. He had the sheriff use tear gas on the labor protestors and actually flew into the besieged plant in a Bell helicopter, still then a little-known novelty in aircraft. He made a very anti-union speech and warned strikers they would be jailed for as long as legally possible. Needless to say, he never got the labor vote in later election campaigns.
As a result of the significant publicity from these and other actions as district attorney, Miller ran for the U.S. House of Representatives when the current Republican holder of the seat announced he was retiring. He won the race by over 23,000 votes. He was re-elected in 1952 with a majority of over 30,000 votes. In the next four elections, his margin of victory was never less than 40,000 votes.
In Congress, Miller remained largely unknown to the general public. He seemed more interested in politics than in legislation or issues. In his fourteen-year tenure, he listed only two pieces of legislation as achievements. One approved a new canal in his home district and the other allowed private power companies to develop facilities at Niagara Falls.
In the early 1950’s, Congress was debating whether private or public sources should be allowed to develop new power facilities at Niagara Falls. Miller led the forces advocating private development. The debate lasted until 1957. Miller’s strong support for the private development forces caused some to accuse him of being on the payroll of the private utilities companies. Miller denied the charges, and no wrongdoing on his part was ever proven.
In contrast to his strongly conservative voting record (the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action gave him a 92% rating), Miller consistently voted for civil rights bills opposed by conservatives. In interesting contrast, Barry Goldwater, Miller’s 1964 running mate, consistently voted against the same civil rights measures. There was one civil rights bill that Miller had sponsored and signed and then withdrawn his support. The conservative leaders of the House Rules committee later voted for the private power bill Miller worked so hard for, and some accused him of making a deal trading his vote on that one civil rights bill for their support for his private power bill. Miller declined to deny the charges of a deal, but did continue to support civil rights bills after that time.
While Miller was not exactly a legislative leader, he became involved in party politics and showed his true ability. In 1959, he became an early supporter of Richard Nixon over Governor Rockefeller for the 1960 Republican Presidential nomination. In 1960, Miller was a strong backer of Representative Charles Halleck in his effort to take over the position of House Republican leader from the former Speaker, Representative Joe Martin. When Halleck succeeded in winning the leadership position, he returned the favor by helping Miller gain the position of chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Though the Republicans did not do well in the 1960 elections, in the House of Representatives the Republicans gained an amazing 21 seats and Miller got much of the credit. As a result of his success, he was named chairman of the Republican National Committee.
As chairman of the RNC, Miller reduced staff while increasing research and publicity, and streamlining operations. He also began an effort to recruit better candidates. His duties also including keeping up a constant attack on Democrats, which well suited his talents and style. He called President Kennedy the “foundering father of the New Frontier” and said Ambassador Averell Harriman had “loused up Laos.” In spite of Miller’s effort, the Republicans lost ground on every level in the 1962 elections.
As party chairman, Miller was supposed to be neutral in the fight for the nomination between Senator Barry Goldwater and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller aides, however, claimed that Miller was favoring Goldwater. When Goldwater won the nomination, he offered the second spot on the ticket to Miller. Goldwater explained his choice to party leaders later saying that he chose Miller because “he drives (President) Johnson nuts.” Miller’s role in the campaign was that of the political hatchet man, leaving the Presidential candidate to take the “high road” during the campaign. Although witty and quick on his feet, his humor sometimes took a very negative turn and sometimes backfired. Still, he was an effective campaigner and contributed much to the campaign.
After the campaign was over, Miller told people that from the beginning he had known that he had no chance of winning, but he was surprised by the size of the defeat. Miller was an avid, and excellent, bridge player, and often played with the reporters covering his campaign tour. Shortly before the campaign ended, one of the reporters who had lost money to Miller during these bridge games asked for a chance to get even by betting on the outcome of the election. Miller replied that no matter how stupid he might seem, he was not crazy enough to bet on the outcome of the 1964 election. Shortly after the election, he announced that he was retiring from politics.
Miller returned to private law practice and also took a post as vice president and general counsel of the Lockport Felt Company. In 1968, he strongly supported Governor Nelson Rockefeller for the republican Presidential nomination, and accepted an important post in Rockefeller’s national campaign organization. In 1970, Governor Rockefeller appointed Miller to the position of chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which paid $30,000 a year.
His only return to public life was in the famous American Express commercial. He was shown saying, “Do you know me? I once ran for Vice President.” The implication was that nobody remembered him. The implication was, for the most part, true. Miller died in 1983 after a short illness.
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