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Frank Kelley's 'bully pulpit'

Dad and the Kennedys among longest-serving AG's biggest influences

At 90, Frank Kelley walks with a cane, but his mind is sharp and his spirit remarkably high considering that just this month his wife, Nancy, died at 67.

“I am keeping busy because otherwise I’m crying,” he told me as we walked to the studio to tape this week’s edition of “City Pulse Newsmakers.” Kelley had committed to doing the show before his wife passed away and he was determined to keep it, as he has with other commitments surrounding the publication of his autobiography, “The People's Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank J. Kelley, the Nation's Longest-Serving Attorney General,” written with Jack Lessenberry.

You can see my interview with Kelley at 7:30 p.m. Friday on Comcast Channel 16 in Lansing; at 10 a.m. Saturday on My18 everywhere; and at www.lansingcitypulse.com on Friday.

You can also meet Kelley and Lessenberry at an unticketed event at the Country Club of Lansing 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday called "An Evening with Frank J. Kelley, The People’s Lawyer.” Books will be available for signing.

This is the first chapter of "The People's Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank J. Kelley, the Nation's Longest Serving Attorney General," written with Jack Lessenberry.

The phone rang. Washington, D.C., my secretary said. Important. I immediately recognized the voice on the line: Bobby Kennedy. Make that, U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy. Calling to congratulate me on my appointment as attorney general of the state of Michigan. I’d been on the job exactly ten days. It was January 12, 1962. “I’ve only been in this job a few months myself,” RFK said. “We’re both a couple of new Irishmen on the block, and I think we should get to know each other very well.”

I thanked him and we chatted briefly. I promised to call his secretary and get to Washington as soon as I could. When I hung up, my head began to spin.

“I’m beginning to move in a circle of public servants that would really make my father proud,” I thought.

There was still a slight air of unreality about it all.

Less than three weeks earlier, I had been a small-town lawyer in Alpena, Michigan, celebrating Christmas Day with my wife, Jo, and my three children: Karen, not yet sixteen, Frank, thirteen, and Jane, who was ten.

I was in private practice and also handled the city’s business. That was my life, and as far as I knew, that’s what it would be for the foreseeable future. I was looking forward to my thirty-seventh birthday on New Year’s Eve and another year in our mostly peaceful setting.

Eight days later, I was sitting alone in a cavernous office with sixteen-foot ceilings in the state capitol. Governor John Swainson had asked me to stop by his house in Lansing two days after Christmas.

Michigan attorney general Paul Adams was resigning to take a seat on the state supreme court, and he had to appoint a successor.

I knew I was being considered for the job but didn’t think I’d get it, mainly because I was too young. I figured the governor would ask me to have a drink in honor of my birthday, I’d go back home, and that would be that. But when I got there, a maid appeared with three glasses of champagne. “Happy Birthday, Frank,” the governor said. “Here’s to the next attorney general.”

Six days later, I was Michigan’s newly appointed chief lawyer.

But my ego wasn’t running away with itself.

True, I knew this was a wonderful opportunity. But I honestly wasn’t thinking of how I could use it to further my own career. My thoughts were more along the lines of “What am I going to do in this office to further the cause of justice and help my fellow man?”

That’s because I had someone’s expectations to live up to: those of my father, Frank E. Kelley, whom I always have heroworshipped. He never had the chance to go to law school or even college. My dad had been orphaned as a young man, in the tough industrial town of Detroit in the days before any safety net existed.

Yet he had pulled himself up, literally by the bootstraps he didn’t have. He founded successful businesses, raised a family during the Great Depression, and gave us a good life with a cottage up north at a time when other kids my age lacked shoes.

My dad had gone on to become such a respected member of Michigan’s Democratic Party he got to cast Michigan’s votes for Harry Truman at the 1948 Democratic convention, the first convention ever televised. But I couldn’t ask for his advice now.

My dad had died of a sudden, massive heart attack almost eight years earlier.

The very last words he ever said to me were: “You’ll be successful, Frank, I know it. But remember, it took me a long time to learn this: Worry is a waste of time, because the things you worry about the most in life never happen.

“Enjoy your life, Frank.” Enjoy your life, yes. But I knew he also meant: do something with it worth doing. “I want you to be a lawyer in the service of the public and use it to help your fellow man,” Dad told me once.

That’s what I felt the Kennedys were doing.

Thinking it over, I realized that Robert Kennedy had called me because, like him, I was an Irish Catholic, in a key state to boot. John F. Kennedy had squeaked into office in one of the closest races in history, and he carried Michigan by an almost equally close margin.

Naturally he wanted me for an ally early on. Regardless of the reasons, I’m glad he called. I would have been on his team anyway.

Within a week I flew to Washington with my very able chief deputy attorney general, Leon Cohan, for a meeting with RFK.

That meeting would help set the course of my professional life...

Incidentally, it was about as imposing a room as you can imagine, with a high and cavernous ceiling.

Visitors passed into his office through a wall of solid walnut. His office was enormous— about forty-five feet long and thirty feet deep, with a ceiling that was a good sixteen feet high.

Robert Kennedy sat behind an elevated desk, which made his slight, five-foot, ten-inch frame appear more imposing.

He was eleven months younger than I was, and I was regarded by many Michigan politicians as a kid. But it was an era of young men in power. His brother, President John F. Kennedy, was forty-four.

The governor who appointed me attorney general to fill a vacancy, John Swainson, was seven months younger than I was.

I felt we all had something in common; we felt we could make this world a better place. I was about to find out how true that was.

Our conversation began with Kennedy asking a few superficial questions about my background. Then he launched into a brief lecture.

“Frank,” he said, “I intend to use my office as a bully pulpit to initiate legal action against those who violate our citizens’ rights. Historically, most attorneys general, federal and state, have waited for something to happen, and then they react. I can’t do that. I’m going to be an initiator. I’m going after the injustice I see, and I’m going after the bad people, and I’m prosecuting them.

“I say this to you because, like me, you’re new in the job as the chief lawyer of a great state. I want you to be aggressive. I want you to use your bully pulpit.

Reach out against injustice wherever you see it and protect the public. If you do that and I do that, the people of our great country will have a new appreciation for the freedoms they enjoy and a greater sense of trust in their government and elected officials. They will see that their government cares about them.”

I listened attentively, as if every word he’d spoken was the Sermon on the Mount. He was so energetic, his presentation sounded like a pep talk—the kind of pep talk that my father would have given me, were he still alive to do so.

I told Bobby that I respected him and agreed with everything he said. I wondered aloud whether he, like I, had been conditioned as a youth by his father to believe in the importance of public service. He said he had— something his brother, President John F. Kennedy, would tell me himself later that year.

By the time we met, Attorney General Kennedy had already initiated an investigation against James Riddle Hoffa, the longtime, controversial head of the Teamsters Union, which happened to have its headquarters in my native Detroit.

RFK did not bring that subject up, nor did I ask about it. Thirty minutes after it started, the meeting came to an end. Kennedy engaged in some small talk with Cohan, and walked me to the door. He put a hand on my shoulder and informed me that he would keep in touch.

Before we left, he instructed his secretary to give me all his phone numbers in case I should ever need to reach him.

I went back to Michigan deeply inspired by my meeting with Robert Kennedy and determined to make the Michigan Office of the Attorney General a bully pulpit. I vowed to be a strong advocate for the public, and I certainly tried to keep that commitment from that day forward.

What I never imagined, however, is that I would be doing that for the next thirty-seven years, longer than any attorney general in the history of the United States of America.

During my years in office, we established what I believe was the first Office of Consumer Protection in the country—even though I was called a Communist for wanting to do it.

Among other things, we took actions that helped lead to the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic one-man, one-vote decision.

We moved to greatly expand the attorney general’s office and make it far more of an active crusader on behalf of the people.

Years later, a national class action suit I helped initiate led to the biggest financial settlement in Michigan history: the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, concluded in November 1998, just before I left office. This agreement mandated that nearly $6 billion would be paid to the state of Michigan over the following quarter century, money meant to compensate Michigan for the incredible medical and social costs smoking has inflicted on its citizens.

During my time as Michigan’s attorney general, we took on and largely tamed Michigan’s public utilities, which often acted as though they were something of a law unto themselves.

Early on, we helped legally end the restrictive system—almost unimaginable today—that in the early 1960s was still preventing worthy African American and even Jewish Americans from buying homes, renting apartments, and living where they wanted to.

We did all this through times of enormous national upheaval that no one could then have imagined. I would be in office the day the man who came closer to royalty than anyone I’ve ever met, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. I was working to elect Bobby, my mentor as attorney general, president when he was murdered, too.

I was attorney general when Detroit had the nation’s worst race riot, an event I saw firsthand in a way that was far more dangerous than I realized. I was there when Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, in what remains one of the nation’s most infamous unsolved crimes.

I watched a state and society transform in ways hard to imagine. With a lot of help from superb people, I tried hard to make Michigan a more just society, too.

Along the way I met and worked with more famous and powerful people than I could ever have dreamed, from presidents to show-business types, from Martin Luther King to Danny Thomas.

I worked closely with five governors, helped create law, and helped Michigan orient itself to a brand-new constitution, something that was the equivalent of several seat-of-the pants PhDs.

I made my share of mistakes—personal, to be sure, and a few professional ones as well. I won ten November elections and lost just one, an episode that had a profound impact on my life and career. There were things I wish I had accomplished, and times when I didn’t succeed. But looking back, I have to say I have had an interesting life and a career that anyone interested in political science, Michigan, and history might find useful to study.

Maybe, just maybe, young people may look at my life and see something of themselves mirrored here. Perhaps my story will inspire others to chase their dreams.

And sometimes, I allow myself to look back and think, not at all bad for the son of the owner of a speakeasy.

No doubt about it, I’ve had an interesting life that has taken me through some fascinating times in our state’s and our nation’s history.

But it all started one New Year’s Eve in a booming roaring 1920s industrial town you might have heard of.

They called it Detroit.


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