By Thomas H. Kean
You couldn't invent Millicent Fenwick. Lacey Davenport doesn't come close.
She was unique. The best writers of fiction might have struggled to make her believable, but they would have failed.
She was an aristocrat of the kind Katharine Hepburn used to play in movies like The Philadelphia Story. Yet she had a particular affinity for the downtrodden, the poor, and the underprivileged. A liberal in her approach to most issues, she maintained a lifelong devotion to the Republican Party. Largely self-educated yet erudite, her trademark became her pipe. Running for national office for the first time in her mid-sixties, it took only two years for her to become one of the best-known and loved members of the United States Congress.
She was a national phenomenon and yet until now very little has been written about her, and nobody has pierced the veil that Millicent drew around her personal life. Because she was Millicent and because the press was in awe, she easily avoided questions she didn't want to answer. In an age of disclosure, I once heard a reporter ask, “Mrs. Fenwick, where does your money come from?” “The land, the land,” she replied. There was no follow-up. She never answered questions about her failed marriage or even her family.
She was smart politically and not above a trick or two to achieve her ends. Once, when we were debating, she finished her comments and sat down. I rose to reply. About three minutes in, I had the sense nobody in the audience was paying attention. I looked over at Millicent. She had taken out her pipe and was slowly filling it with tobacco. The entire audience was watching, waiting to see if she was actually going to light it. They weren't paying attention to anything I was saying. Millicent won that debate.
She was the only really ambitious seventy-year-old I've ever met. She loved serving in office, and whether in the state assembly or the United States Congress, she never ceased marveling that she had actually been chosen to represent the people. In legislative bodies she remained a maverick, but at home in Somerset County, she never went against the wishes of the county chairmen. And as much as she became a citizen of the world, she was never so much at peace as among her neighbors in Bernardsville. Beloved by many, she had few close friends.
Above all things, she hated hypocrisy and those who abused the public trust. Stubborn to a fault, she never betrayed her ideals or paid much attention to the polls. In the end, that was probably why she lost her last election, but the example she set and the way she conducted her life continue to stand as a model for all those who might want to pursue public life.
Thomas H. Kean
President of Drew University
Governor of New Jersey (1982-1990)