Oct 1, 2007

Political history society preserves institutional memory in term limits era

With the budget standoff and the failure of the Senate and House that are controlled by opposite political parties to reach a balanced budget in a timely manner, the refrain often heard in Michigan is there is no institutional memory left in Lansing and no relationships across the aisle in the era of term limits. One group that is safeguarding Michigan’s rich political history and institutional memory is the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Political History Society.

“In this era of term limits you don’t get to know people,” said David Murley, the President of the Michigan Political History Society. “Everyone is working towards the same goal, working for a better Michigan. We just differ on how to get there.”

The current budget crisis, government shutdown and threat of recalls has only heightened the partisan divide between the two political parties, and the newspapers and blogs are filled with stories harkening back to the last time the state faced a government shutdown and the last time lawmakers were recalled. The society exists both to foster better understanding and bipartisan cooperation between political opponents and to preserve and present accurate information from those actually involved in historic political events in Michigan.

“We are all part of a rich political history,” Murley said. “This did not start with us, and it certainly will not end with us.
We have been in this situation before backs in 1959 and in 1967 when we got the income tax,” he said.

The society began some 13 years ago with goals of expanding greater knowledge of Michigan’s political history; educating the public about the role politics has played in the state; studying and documenting events, highlighting groups and notable people in Michigan’s political history, serve as a clearing house for political history information for academics, writers, historians and citizens; promote a greater interest in civic affairs and participation in civic duties; foster bipartisan relations and plan and coordinate functions.

The society is governed by a 25-member board that covers the entire political spectrum, and membership is open to anyone with an interest in history and politics for an annual membership of fee of just $30. The society serves an important function because there is really no other place to get the kind of information the society collects.

“Michigan political history is not taught in schools,” Murley said. “The Capitol coverage from our daily newspapers is also disappearing from what it once was.”

The society exits for the most part in cyberspace, and one of the most ambitious projects the society has been involved in the past 10 years is recording oral histories of major political figures to pass on to future generations. The interviews are recorded on DVDs for distribution to Michigan Government Television (MGTV), Michigan PBS TV stations, university libraries and the Michigan Historical Museum and Library.

The society also tries to put on about three events a year. In the past it has held book signings by political figures and their biographers, dinners and events marking special anniversary or milestones. Past events have included celebrating the 1963 Constitutional Convention, the Romney Gubernatorial Years, Teddy Roosevelt comes to Lansing and The Recalls of 1983.

“The vast majority of our events are not to raise money,” Murley said. “They are designed to bring Michigan political history to the people.”

Although it does not have a building or facility of its own, in the past the society has partnered with other groups to display some of the political material it has. Although it has not really been discussed with the board a permanent display or museum for Michigan politics is not completely out of the question in the distant future.

One project the society wants to undertake is collecting campaign material from the political campaigns. Although badges, bumper stickers and other campaign swag make great collector items, the society is looking more for campaign literature, mailers and campaign ads. Murley said it’s both interesting and informative to see what the issues were over the years and how they have evolved. Murley said the school vouchers issue is a perfect example of that evolution when you see how support for them switched political affiliation over the years.

“When you look at the TV commercial and campaign literature it’s interesting to see what the issues were 30 years ago to get you elected,” he said. “In the ‘70s it was the Republicans who opposed vouchers and the Democrats who supported it, for the most part.”

(Photo Courtesy of the Michigan Political History Society)

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