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The Keynote Speaker

Zell Miller: A Democrat Who Insists His Party Left Him

By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; Page A25

NEW YORK, Aug. 31 -- Here in President Bush's convention city, Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) is the Democrat Republicans love to love. The folksy firebrand who electrified Democrats at their convention here 12 years ago as Bill Clinton's keynote speaker, only to turn on his party with a vengeance, is returning to center stage as keynoter for Bush on Wednesday night, and Republican delegates can't seem to thank him enough.

After a conservative author's forum Monday, where Miller was honored for "A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat," his best-selling 2003 attack on Democrats as captives of the "loony left," Republican admirers mobbed him, and one called out, "You're the big gun!"

Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), center, has turned on the Democratic Party the way he castigated the Republican Party in the late 1990s. To some in Georgia, he's known as "Zig-Zag Zell." (Dean Cox -- AP)

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The silver-haired, silver-tongued former Marine and history teacher smiled appreciatively, then called after the man: "There are some Democrats in Georgia who'd like to insert 'son-of-a' in front of that gun."

Indeed, there are. Miller, who retired in 1999 as the most popular governor in Georgia history with 85 percent approval ratings, was for 40 years in state politics "the most jaundiced of yellow-dog southern Democrats," according to former aide Ed Kilgore, policy director of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. For many of those years, Miller was also among the most liberal. His collected speeches, published in 1998, seethe with venom at Republicans. "We can't all be born rich, handsome and lucky. And that's why we have a Democratic Party," was the way he put it as Clinton's keynoter.

Now his own state party is running ads against its onetime icon. Georgia Democrats have also purchased time on Atlanta cable stations to air Miller's 1992 keynote address savaging an earlier President Bush while he is touting the current one on national television Wednesday night. The ads play clips from the earlier speech, including one in which Miller blamed Republicans for plants closing, jobs going overseas and middle-class families losing hope.

"George Bush just doesn't get it. He doesn't see it; he doesn't feel it; and he's done nothing about it," Miller raged, of George H.W. Bush. The ad closes with a man's voice saying: "Let's remember what Zell was and forgive him for what he has become."

Among Democrats who have known him for decades, Miller's transformation is the stuff of mystery and armchair psychiatry, and everyone has a theory -- from a governor's distaste with being one of 100 senators; to a populist's aversion to Washington; to an aging politician's desire for attention. There is also Miller's history of tacking from liberal to conservative and back, which earned him the epithet "Zig-Zag Zell." But none of these seems to fully explain the conversion.

Miller, for his part, insists he's acting out of conscience. "Have you ever seen a 72-year-old man flip-flop?" he demanded. It is the national party that has changed, he insists, by veering left and abandoning its once-loyal conservative southern constituency -- although Miller, who chaired the national party's 1996 platform committee, appears not to have decided this until he arrived in Washington in 2000.

Called out of retirement to finish the unexpired term of Sen. Paul Coverdell (R), who died that summer of a brain hemorrhage, Miller wrote in his book that he found a national Democratic Party run by cultural elites and organized labor. In 2002, he observed, when Republicans swept statewide Georgia races, defeating Gov. Roy Barnes (D) and Sen. Max Cleland (D), no national Democratic leader could campaign in Georgia without doing more harm than good. Miller cut ads defending both Democrats, to no avail.

"If this is a national party, sushi is our national dish," Miller wrote. While Franklin D. Roosevelt said of the South, "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," according to Miller, "Today, our national Democratic leaders look south and say, 'I see one-third of a nation and it can go to hell.' "

Miller said the final straw came after Sept. 11, 2001, when Senate Democratic leaders opposed Republican legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security. Most Democrats, including Cleland, backed an alternative bill with stiffer employee protections. Miller, like President George W. Bush, viewed this as putting loyalty to organized labor ahead of national security, and he blamed it for Cleland's defeat, as did a number of analysts in Georgia. (Democratic leaders blamed Republican ads portraying Cleland, a triple amputee from the Vietnam War, as unpatriotic for voting against the Bush-backed bill.) After the homeland security vote, Miller stopped attending weekly Democratic caucus meetings.

"Nine-eleven changed everything; that's what you've got to understand," Miller said Tuesday, after touting Bush to the Ohio delegation as "a president who will stand up and grab terrorists by the throat and not let 'em go so they can get a better grip."

But Miller has changed in other ways. The governor who supported abortion rights has become an angry opponent of abortion. The governor who invited the Gay Games to Atlanta now champions a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. The economic populist who counseled national Democrats to play down cultural issues such as public school prayer in favor of kitchen-table concerns such as shrinking incomes is chastising Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry for opposing prayer in schools. At Monday's forum honoring conservative authors, Miller called on Republicans to rise up against same-sex marriage, prompting conservative columnist John Podhoretz to warn against sowing divisiveness.

"He's gone from being Walter Mondale's state chairman in the 1984 primary to keynoter for Bill Clinton and now keynoter for George W. Bush. That's a feat worth an Olympic medal in political gymnastics," said Atlanta lawyer Keith Mason, a former gubernatorial aide.

Asked what changed him on social issues, Miller answered only, "Seeing my great-grandchildren come into the world."

As for economic policy, Miller said in 1996 that Americans were working more and making less because "the Republicans sold us out, with a generation of trickle-down economics that blew the deficit sky-high, drove poverty through the roof, and squeezed the middle class like a lemon at a county fair." In the Senate, Miller supported Bush's tax cuts, which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, left the top 1 percent of income-earners relatively richer and the bottom 80 percent relatively poorer.

In his signature achievement as governor, Miller won voter approval of a state lottery to fund public pre-kindergarten and HOPE scholarships, which pay public college tuition for students with a B average. Under Miller, the state sent 357,000 Georgians to college and 246,000 to pre-kindergarten. He also championed removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. And in a 1991 speech, written with help from his then-consultants James Carville, Paul Begala and Bob Shrum, he charted a course of economic populism and centrism that Clinton used to win the presidency. Begala said Miller's latest turn "breaks my heart because it gives his old enemies ammunition to say he was Zig-Zag Zell all along."

But old enemies are now new friends. Ray Taylor, an Atlanta real estate investor, was among Georgia Republicans cheering for Miller at a reception at a SoHo art gallery.

Wearing a button saying, "I'm a red hot Republican," Taylor said he never voted for Miller, who ran for office 23 times. "He was always Zig-Zag Zell, liberal one minute, conservative the next," Taylor said. "Now that he's at the end of the road, he's coming around to us. And I'm glad."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company