I heard the news today that Bob McMillan died, and I was sad.
Sure, we’re all gonna go sometime, and Bob lived a long, well-loved life until he was 91 years old and passed peacefully in his sleep, the way all fine folks would be fortunate to say good night.
And, despite the fact that Bob McMillan worked for Richard Nixon and “Poppy” Bush, ran against NY’s Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1988, and was a lifelong Republican, he and I liked and respected each other, although, politically, we were poles apart.
I first met McMillan in 1989, the year after his resounding loss to Moynihan for U.S. Senate, while I was working for then-NYS Governor Mario M. Cuomo. We were introduced to each other by Al Ittelson, the news guru who developed the “Eyewitness News” format for ABC-TV in NYC, and made Cablevision’s News 12 a communications and political force to be reckoned with on Long Island.
Ittleson, a brilliant, ebullient man, recruited McMillan and me to do a pro-bono political commentary segment called “Taking Sides,” which we taped once a week in News 12’s Woodbury, NY, studios, and saw it run endlessly on a loop throughout the day and night on Long Island’s only all-news, 24-hour station.
McMillan and I battled for 60 seconds at a clip over all issues, big and small, from foreign policy, to abortion, to the diminishing wealth of working families in the suburbs of New York. Seventeen years my senior, Bob was the same age as my boss Mario Cuomo, for whom he had much respect, despite being from different political parties. At times, I made my colleagues in the Cuomo Administration cringe more than McMillan did, when I attacked runaway corporate profits, and defended the right to strike for public employees.
Bob and I both chuckled over the instant notoriety that “Taking Sides,” gave us, from the constantly streaming show, to News 12’s marketing campaign which featured a photo of us, standing back to back, arms folded, as if we were about to start sparring. More than once, I’d be stopped in a Long Island grocery or department story and asked, “Aren’t you that crazy liberal guy that Bob McMillan beats up all the time?’
I’d smile, take a beat and say, “No, I’m the progressive pragmatist who always leaves McMillan speechless,” and I would confidently strut away.
Although we both relished engaging each other on issues, Bob McMillan and I became fast friends off camera, getting together for dinner with our partners, and both supporting the Long Island Housing Partnership, which he founded with Jim Morgo, a former Suffolk County Official.
On one trip to Panama, where McMillan served as the first President Bush’s special representative on the Panama Canal Commission, Bob brought back a gift for me: a beautifully hand-stitched work of art of two tropical birds, sitting back to back.
“That’s us,” he said, handing it to me with his mischievous smile and twinkle in his eyes. “I’m the one on the right.”
“You mean the one who’s always wrong,” I responded, grinning back at him.
That’s kind of the way it was with us.
It’s sad that those days of good conversation, honest competition of ideas, and camaraderie are gone, as is Bob McMillan, and the kindness that was always his very best side.