For 61 years, the annual dinner of the Society of Senates Past in Annapolis was a raucous, nostalgic affair. Oldtimers and current senators would get together to eat, drink, swap familiar stories and lie about themselves a little.
With 45 years in the state Senate, including the past 33 years leading the chamber, Senate President Thomas V Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has surely been to about two-thirds of these events.
But this year’s society dinner, held Thursday night in the office building that bears Miller’s name, was destined to be something different – and bigger. With the news earlier this year that he is undergoing treatment for stage 4 prostate cancer, his former colleagues instinctively knew they had to be there.
One hundred and seventy-nine senators, including 46 in the current class, have served under Miller.
And there they were, a gallery of rogues and statesmen: Tommy Bromwell! Tommie Broadwater! Bea Tignor! Phil Jimeno! Albert Wynn! Mike Collins! Tim Ferguson! Sandy Schrader! And on and on.
So bigger this was. And then it became bigger and bigger still.
These dinners usually attract about a 150 people. This year’s crowd was closer to 250, including 62 former senators.
“For a second, I thought it was because I was president (of the society) that you all turned out,” said Patrick J. Hogan, a Republican-turned Democrat who served from 1995 to 2007. “But that’s not the case.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), who served in the Maryland Senate from 1995 to 2003, had already been announced as the keynote speaker. Gov. Lawrence J Hogan Jr. (R) was planning to stop by to surprise his old friend Miller. And Steny H. Hoyer (D), the U.S. House majority leader, who has been a Miller political ally for more than 60 years, was going to bring along ex-senators now serving in Congress – including Republicans – in his SUV.
But then, the biggest surprise and biggest name of them all: “Ladies and gentlemen,” P.J. Hogan announced, “the 42nd governor of Arkansas and the 42nd president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton.” The stunned crowd leaped to its feet – none more stunned than Miller himself.
One after the next, the celebrity speakers roasted and toasted Miller, the longest-serving state Senate president in U.S. history.
Van Hollen recounted being summoned to a breakfast with Miller two weeks before the 1994 Democratic primary, in which he was challenging an incumbent state senator, Patricia Sher, whom Miller was supporting and funding. Miller asked Van Hollen to support him for Senate president, which Van Hollen thought strange.
“Man, this guy’s got a lot of nerve,” Van Hollen recalled thinking. “He’s trying to beat me and he asked me for my support.”
Only later did Van Hollen, who was running a shoe-string campaign, realize that Miller at that point had paid for polling and could forecast the outcome of the primary.
“I didn’t know I was going to win that race,” he said. “Mike Miller did.”
Gov. Hogan, a cancer survivor himself, paid tribute to Miller’s toughness.
“He’s facing a really tough battle right now – a battle I know all too well,” he said. “But if there’s one thing that I know – there’s no quit in that guy.”
The governor then surveyed the crowd of former senators and identified almost a dozen in the audience who work for him or have been appointed to state boards, commissions or courts by him.
“Our administration has become the employer of last resort for both Democratic and Republican senators alike,” Hogan joked. “So for those of you who are looking for your next job or for those of you who are looking to work for the first time, you know where to go.”
P.J. Hogan talked about how Miller and President Clinton tried to persuade him to switch parties in 2000 – first with an invitation to the White House St. Patrick’s Day party (that entreaty failed, even though the three men drank green beer together in the Lincoln Bedroom), then with an invitation to a White House Christmas party. Mission accomplished!
Hogan said he invited Clinton to speak at this dinner in July, but it wasn’t until he read that Clinton and Hoyer were going to eulogize the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) at Dingell’s recent funeral that he enlisted Hoyer to persuade the former president to make it to Annapolis.
“I need President Clinton to understand and know the health situation for Mike,” Hogan recalled telling Hoyer, who is himself a former state Senate president.
When it was Hoyer’s turn to speak – and introduce Clinton – he recalled campaigning with Miller through the years and being struck by how they could visit a fire station and Miller would not only the know the names of all the firefighters but the names of their spouses at home.
“Mike Miller and Bill Clinton are the same type of person,” he said.
Clinton began his speech by acknowledging state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) – another ex-state senator – and confessing that being Arkansas AG for two years in the 1970’s, as “a long-haired ex-college professor,” was his favorite job in politics.
“If you do something really unpopular, you can blame it on the Constitution,” he laughed.
Clinton recalled meeting Miller at a National Conference of State Legislatures conference in Little Rock in 1987: “I talked to him for a few minutes, I wanted to reach into my back pocket to see if my billfold was still there,” he said.
Miller and Clinton became even closer as Clinton was running for president in 1992 and became enchanted with Miller’s mother, after learning she had 10 adult children, all registered Democrats.
“There are not many places where you could run for office and win just by turning out your own family,” he said of Miller’s political success.
Clinton also talked about the nobility of politics and government service and said special practitioners like Miller ought to be admired.
“Anybody who has been so loyal to me and my family as he has, I would have walked here from New York if that’s what it would have taken to get here,” Clinton said, adding, “It sort of sobers you up when someone you love like Mike is facing such a challenge.”
Clinton, Hoyer, Van Hollen and Larry Hogan then presented Miller with an American flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol.
Only Mike Miller, amped up on medications and the enormity and emotion of the moment, could have outshined one of the greatest orators and raconteurs of modern American politics.
“I’ve gotta take a piss,” he said at the top of his speech.
Miller also seemed embarrassed by all the accolades – Thursday night and since disclosing his illness.
“I’m so tired of hearing about that goddamned Mike Miller,” he said. “I wouldn’t vote for him if he were the last politician on Earth.”
Miller went on to tell his oft-repeated story about how he arranged a rally in his hometown of Clinton, Md., for the 42nd president shortly after he took office. It became difficult to find an appropriate venue, he said. The American Legion Hall was no good, because Clinton had avoided military service in Vietnam. The Catholic church was no good, because Clinton supported abortion rights. The local firehouse wouldn’t work, because it had slot machines. And the one museum in town was the Surratt house, where a former collaborator of John Wilkes Booth lived.
So to Miller’s delight, the rally wound up being held in front of BK Miller’s, his family’s liquor and grocery store.
“Everything Democrats are supposed to be against, we are for in Clinton, Md.,” Miller joked.
He said that he and the former president bonded because “we are the only rednecks who know all the words to Gladys Knight and the Pips.” And with that, he gave a short rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
With that, Miller turned serious for just a moment.
“You have no idea [what this means],” he said. Then he quoted Lou Gehrig: “I’m the luckiest guy alive.”