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Zell Miller, the GOP's Grim Speaker

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK, Sept. 2

Is Sen. Zell Miller having fun yet?

The Bush-supporting, Kerry-savaging Democrat is soldiering through a lunchtime book-signing before a winding procession of GOP fans at the Hilton hotel on Sixth Avenue Thursday. He rarely looks up as members of an adoring public come before him, each spending $28.24 for a copy of his book, "A National Party No More." His face is the perfect visual expression of the word "ewwwww."

He brightens when an aide mentions that he's selling a lot of books. "I loooove selling books," Miller says. He keeps telling aides to pass him more books. He is all business.

He needs the rest of it like he needs a hernia: the autograph requests, the pictures, the fuss, the press attention (double ewwwww).

This was the day for the Georgia senator to bask in the afterglow of his blistering attack against Kerry the night before -- the Republican convention's keynote speech, in which he called his Senate colleague "more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure."

He was engulfed in cheers while standing on the Madison Square Garden podium Wednesday night. But none of the crowd's ebullience stuck to him. In an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews afterward, Miller told the "Hardball" host to "get out of my face" and said "I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel."

All of which made Miller an overnight idol to the Republican hard core here. As he crisscrossed Madison Square Garden Thursday afternoon, doing a series of interviews, he was trailed by clusters of photographers, reporters and many Republicans telling him how great his speech was.

"Stay back, stay back," two grim-faced aides kept saying to the trailing entourage. Even the senator let go an occasional "stay back" himself.

At the book-signing, which lasted from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Miller sat at a table next to a smiling Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC commentator who was signing copies of his book, "Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day."

"Be aware that Zell will not be personalizing books," an aide repeated for the benefit of those on line. "He's just writing his name. Got that?"

Got it.

The book-signing took place in a part of the Hilton designated the Grand Old Marketplace, an area in which vendors sold, among other things, Bush-Cheney T-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers, salsas, umbrellas and John Kerry flip-flops (actual rubber shoes). It's no surprise that the people in line to see Miller loved his speech. Many told him he was a "great patriot." No one here complained about the tone of Miller's speech, which some said was too harsh.

"This man gave a fantastic speech and it's funny that the Democrats try to portray it as mean," says book-buyer Stewart Larra, a convention volunteer from New York. (It wasn't only Democrats: Sen. John McCain criticized the speech, telling NBC's Tom Brokaw that he didn't agree with "the assertion that the Democrats are unpatriotic," and conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan said Miller's speech "added whole universes to the word crude.")

Even so, the speech moved books, which suits the senator. As the book-signing was coming to an end, Miller signed furiously, piling books on top of each other even after telling an aide to "shut off the line" of people waiting to meet him.

"Zell, can I get a picture?" a young woman says. Miller obliges, mustering a toothless grin.

"Okay, I'm outta here," Miller says, disappearing behind a curtain.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company