washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Elections > 2004 Election > RNC > Terry Neal Reports

Old Zell Miller, Not the Same as the New

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2004; 10:54 AM

I, like many other people, watched Democratic Sen. Zell Miller's speech to the Republican National Committee last night in amazement. I was amazed, but not surprised.

I got to know Miller a bit when I wrote a profile of him for The Washington Post in 1998 as he was preparing to step down as governor of Georgia after two terms. I spent time with Miller over two days -- one day at the State House in Atlanta and the next day at his family's home in rural Young Harris. Over burgers at Mary Ann's restaurant there, Miller talked about how the area used to be staunch Democrat territory and about how much that had changed.

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Most people outside of Georgia had never heard of Miller until 1992 when he delivered a stirring keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that was filled with praise for his friend Bill Clinton and criticism for then-president George H.W. Bush. The Georgia Democratic party has produced an ad with snippets from that speech. You can view it here. The video uses Miller's own words to make him look like a flip-flopper, to use a phrase that has become familiar in this campaign.

A seminal moment in Miller's long political career, however, came in 1994 after he barely survived a reelection campaign against Republican Guy Millner, who pounded Miller for his efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag emblem from the Georgia state flag. Miller's reaction to this event was interesting and says much about his personality.

Miller had long been known as a populist with a real stubborn streak. But he'd also been known as a guy with his ear to the ground, a guy who talked not just to other party people and politicians, but to real people as well. And what he was hearing was typical in the South at that time: a real anger and disaffection with the Democratic Party. By this time, of course, many of the people -- OK, we can be honest here; many of the white people -- who had once made up the core of the Democratic Party had already become Republicans or were on their way. Today's southern conservative Republicans are the ideological successors of yesterday's southern conservative Democrats. Rather than change parties, Miller decided to serve his second term as less of a partisan, and by the time he left office in 1998, he was the most popular governor in America, beloved by Democrats and Republicans alike.

How did he do it? Miller took three lessons from his 1994 defeat:

1. Avoid polarizing social issues, like the Confederate flag and school prayer.

2. Focus on bread-and-butter issues like education and health care that all people care about. In the mid-1990s, Miller ushered through his signature policy, the HOPE Scholarship, which created a statewide lottery to finance scholarships for students at Georgia public universities and a pre-paid kindergarten program. Hundreds of thousands of young people have gone to school virtually tuition free on the program without using taxpayer money to do it.

3. Never let the Republicans get to the right of you. In his second term, Miller pushed welfare reform, boot camps for juvenile offenders and a measure that would require life sentences for people convicted of two violent felonies, exceeding the controversial three-strikes-you're-out provisions of many states. While some of these efforts drew the ire of Democratic leaders, Miller remained popular and openly began arguing that his party's hierarchy was out of touch with the people. At the same time, Miller didn't completely abandon liberal causes. He continued, for instance, to support affirmative action.

Miller's move to the right continued when he got to the Senate. He dismayed Democrats by openly advocating for President Bush's tax cuts and aggressive foreign policy. But he didn't leave his party. In 2002, he stood by fellow senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.) as he tried to weather a withering attack from the Republican Party over his opposition to a provision in the Homeland Security Bill that would have stripped workers of certain labor protections.

In March 2001, in introducing Kerry at Georgia's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, Miller said this: "My job tonight is an easy one: to present to you one of this nation's authentic heroes, one of this party's best-known and greatest leaders – and a good friend. …In his 16 years in the Senate, John Kerry has fought against government waste and worked hard to bring some accountability to Washington. Early in his Senate career in 1986, John signed on to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Bill, and he fought for balanced budgets before it was considered politically correct for Democrats to do so. John has worked to strengthen our military, reform public education, boost the economy and protect the environment."

But that was before 9/11. After the attacks, Miller moved further to the right. But he wasn't yet completely in the Bush camp. Even as he supported the president's decision to go to war in Iraq, he continued to ask tough questions. I'll leave you today with an excerpt from an opinion column Miller wrote for The Washington Post in September 2002 during the lead-up to the war in Iraq. Miller said that while he bought the president's rationale that Saddam Hussein must go, his constituents who chatted with him at the same Mary Ann's restaurant where I had met him were very concerned and had some questions. Here are the questions Miller raised in that column:

"(1) Even if Hussein has nukes, does he have the capability to reach New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta?

"(2) The old Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear missiles for decades, many of them capable of reaching our major cities, and yet we didn't get into a war with the Soviets. The president needs to explain why Iraq is different.

"(3) Who will join with us in this war and what share will they be willing to bear? (There was also some grumbling about our boys in Afghanistan 'just doing guard duty' to protect those warlords.)

"(4) What happens after we take out Hussein? How long will our soldiers be there? And, again, with whose help?

"(5) There is concern about too much deployment. We've got our soldiers stationed all over the world. Someone needs to bring us up to date on where they all are, why they are there and how long our commitment to keep them there is.

"(6) How does our plan in Iraq fit in with the whole Middle East question? How will it affect Israel? How will it affect our war on terrorism? Does taking Saddam out help or hurt that entire messy situation?

"(7) At Mary Ann's Restaurant, Tony is all right. But Putin is not. Why are we putting so much trust in him? Is he still with us in the war on terrorism, or was that just so much talk at a photo op?

"(8) The people at Mary Ann's know very well who fights our wars -- the kids from the middle-class and blue-collar homes of America. Kids like their grandchildren. They want to hear the president say that he knows and understands that.

"(9) Forgive my bluntness, but these folks also want to hear the president and the vice president say that this war is not about oil.

"(10) They also want to hear an explanation of why we didn't take care of this in the Persian Gulf War, and why it is on our doorstep again so soon."

The president's Democratic critics (and some Republican critics) say the administration's inability to sufficiently answer those questions has cost Bush some of his support. Miller, however, has drawn a different conclusion, one that he laid out forcefully in last night's speech.

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