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Commentary

An ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing

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Congresswoman Candice Miller surprised a lot of people a few days ago by saying that this would be her last term in Congress.

Her seat is pretty safely Republican, and I knew that within days there would be a slew of contenders trying to line up money and endorsements for a race.

But I was taken back to a key moment in history by the name of one of those potential candidates: Former State Senator Alan Sanborn. 

I’ve only really talked to him once, when we shared a brunch at a special ceremony at the University of Michigan more than six years ago.

He was there on behalf of his father, Ken Sanborn, a retired judge who is 88 now and sensibly spends winters in Florida. Not many people remember Ken Sanborn, but he took a risk that helped change history 62 years ago, and we are all better off for it.

That was the era of the Cold War and the Red Scare, when even a hint that you might have been a Communist could be enough to end your career and drive away your friends. Sanborn was a young first lieutenant in the Air Force, and a young attorney with the judge advocate general’s office at Selfridge Air Force base.

There was another young veteran who he had gone to cadet school with when they were teenagers, an easygoing, likeable guy named Milo Radulovich.

Now Milo was in trouble.

His father, an immigrant from Serbia, subscribed to a newspaper from his homeland, which was now a Communist country. Milo’s sister Margaret, whom he seldom saw, was a political radical who demonstrated for civil rights.

As a result, they were going to drum Milo out of the Air Force, where he was a reserve officer going to college on the GI Bill.

Milo Radulovich was interested in the weather, not politics.

He had a wife and two kids and was studying to be a meteorologist at the U of M. Nobody wanted to defend an accused security risk then, but Ken Sanborn knew instinctively what the government was doing to Milo wasn’t right.

Sanborn had everything to lose and nothing to gain, but he volunteered to defend Radulovich free of charge.

The court hearing was a farce.

The Air Force would not even reveal what, if any, evidence they had against Milo, but someone else found out about it: Edward R. Murrow, the nation’s most influential journalist.

He devoted an entire episode of his weekly See it Now program to the case of Milo Radulovich. After it aired, an embarrassed Air Force ordered Milo reinstated.

The reaction gave Murrow the clout to go after the worst of all demagogues, Senator Joe McCarthy, and, in the most controversial show in the history of early television, bring him down. 

Ken Sanborn never sought recognition or fame.

He went on to become a probate and a circuit judge in Macomb County. Mike Ranville, the author of the best book on the case, To Strike at a King, told me that Sanborn was living proof that a hero is an ordinary man who does an extraordinary thing.

If his son does run, I’d like to hope that he inherited his father’s decency and courage.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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