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washingtonpost.com > Politics > Elections > RNC > Terry Neal Reports
Old Zell Miller, Not the Same as the New
Thursday, Sep 02, 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.

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.

- By Terry M. Neal

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Buchanan: Right's Anti-War Critic
Thursday, Sep 02, 2004; 4:19 PM

Former presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan has been one of the toughest critics of the Bush administration's foreign policy. But his argument that the Iraq war is the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam comes from the right, not the left.

My Yahoo Political Players interview with Buchanan is here.

- By Terry M. Neal

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Bright and Inquisitive Young Things
Thursday, Sep 02, 2004; 2:00 PM

I got outside the convention bubble for a bit this morning to participate in a panel with two other journalists at the High School for Leadership and Public Service in lower Manhattan. The other two people on the panel were James Poniewovik of Time Magazine and Shelby Coffey III, formerly of The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN and ABC News. Coffey now works at the Freedom Forum .

It was a real pleasure getting to chat with smart young people, and I'm happy to report that those who fret about whether the country is producing future leaders should rest easy. These young people were informed and eager to play a role in their communities and nation.

The purpose of the panel was to talk about coverage of the conventions and the election this year, but the students' concerns were broader than that. They wanted to know whether the media oversimplified politics by only focusing on the ideological extremes. They wanted to know why the journalists they see on television often seem to let politicians get away with not answering questions. And they seemed particularly concerned about coverage of the Bush administration's rationale for going to war in Iraq.

One young man wanted to know whether the media gives short shrift to third parties and ignores people in the middle of the political spectrum.

One young student asked why politicians spend so much time dwelling on issues such as Iraq rather than issues of importance to people her age. I asked her if she had any friends of family members who had gone into the military after high school. She said yes. "Well, then Iraq is an issue of importance for you," I told her.

If you're interested in how we answered these and other questions, check it out on C-Span today at 3 p.m. It will be shown intermittently during the next few days as well. The event was sponsored by the Close Up Foundation, a nonpartisan citizenship education organization.

- By Terry M. Neal

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Bushes Rally Sunshine State Voters
Wednesday, Sep 01, 2004; 2:20 PM

NEW YORK -- The hot place to be this morning was the Trianon Ballroom in the Hilton New York Hotel. This is where hundreds of delegates and activists from Florida -- yes, that Florida, the one of confused voters, recounts and dangling chads -- gathered for their morning meeting.

For the 99.9999 percent of you who have never and will never attend a Republican or Democratic convention delegates' meeting let me say, fret not, you haven't missed much. Not a lot of real news is made at these things.

Most people watching from home only see an hour or two of the convention floor during prime time, when the featured speakers take the stage. But much of the convention days are spent in delegation meetings and "rah-rah" sessions for the party faithful. Occasionally they can be amusing and entertaining, as the Florida meeting was this morning.

As befits its status as the big-state-that-makes-or-breaks, the Republican Party pulled out the big guns. The Florida crowd got a heaping dose of the ex-president (George H. W. Bush) and former first lady (Barbara Bush) and heartthrob up-and-comer (presidential nephew/gubernatorial son George P. Bush) to go along with their cold eggs and stale pastries. That was after super-conservative stalwart Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) fired them up by casting the effort to reelect President Bush as just one battle in the larger war over abortion and other social issues.

"A society that does not respect life is not a society that will survive," Santorum told the crowd. "We haven't done a good enough job in defining the war abroad. But we also haven't done a good enough job defining the war here at home."

Later, Republican operative/ubiquitous TV personality Mary Matalin took the stage to tell funny stories about her hubbie, Democratic operative/ubiquitous TV personality James Carville, including how Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came up with a now well-known nickname for Carville: Serpent Head.

Matalin kept the crowd warm with witticisms until the Bushes showed up a little after 9 a.m., when George P. (now married and officially off the market) said he was there filling in for his father, who decided to stay in Florida to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Charley and the threatening Hurricane Frances.

Barbara Bush, always a crowd favorite in these circles, did not disappoint. She joked about her husband's appearance on the Imus in the Morning show Wednesday morning. The former first lady, who is said to never forget a slight, recalled how Imus had "gotten my goat" some years back when, during an interview with former Texas governor Ann Richards, Imus called her a "prune faced, wrinkled old lady."

"Boooooooo," went the crowd.

Then with a comic's precision timing: "I beat her hands down in that category," the former first lady said of Richards.

Her husband followed her at the podium. The years away from the public spotlight have apparently been cathartic for the once uptight president, who now feels free to say things he never could before. He recalled how two years ago Democratic National Committee chairman, "that horrible Terry McAuliffe," had put his son Jeb's state at the top of the list of gubernatorial takeovers. Jeb, of course, went on to win with a double-digit margin. "I'm sitting there and I'm like, you take that Terry McAuliffe!"

The former president said he'd always told his kids not to just sit around watching TV complaining about the things they didn't like. "Now I just sit there and complain, and it's a wonderful feeling." What does he complain about? The baddies in the media, of course. (Take THAT Newsweek!).

Of course, all of the GOP starpower has a serious purpose. It is to remind Florida of its importance in electoral politics this year and that each and every vote matters (well, those that are counted anyway). The delegates here said they got the message.

"It might be close, but then again, it might not be as close as you think," said Sidney Charles, a delegates from Miami-Dade County, who heads Bush's Caribbean and Haitian Coalition. "People want consistency, and this president has led us through a horrible tragedy. He's working to make sure this country is still safe, and he's kept the economy going."

I was also able to grab a word with state Republican Chairman Al Cardenas, who predicted that the tide was turning in Bush's favor both nationally and in Florida.

"Politics is a lot like shopping for a car," he said. "You go in and look at it and it's very nice. Then you take it for a ride and start to look at all the details, and you realize maybe it's not so nice. This is John Kerry. He's not wearing well."

- By Terry M. Neal

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Pumping Up Mich., Pa. Delegates
Wednesday, Sep 01, 2004; 3:59 PM

Florida isn't the only battleground state.

So after the Sunshine State's delegation meeting, I wandered off to check out the good people of Michigan and listen to what they had on their minds. Michigan is a huge state, with 17 electoral votes, that went narrowly to Al Gore in 2000. Republicans have put it at the top of their switch wish list.

I walked into the Beekman Parlor, also at the Hilton New York, to find former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, whipping up the crowd. The prospect of tonight's keynote address by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) was making Fleischer giddy.

"Imagine that, a Democratic senator addressing a Republican convention," Fleischer said. "The significance of this is massive." Fleischer posited that if a Republican senator had similarly addressed last month's Democratic convention, "it would have been the story of the time, the story of the day."

But the big ol' liberal meanies in the press were diminishing the importance of this story, he said, by dismissing Miller as nothing more than a Republican in Democrat's clothing.

But Fleischer said Miller would play an important role this November in the re-emergence of the Republican-voting conservative Democrat.

"In Michigan, you call them Reagan Democrats," Fleischer told the cheering crowd. "Zell Miller may be from Georgia, but he speaks their language."

Afterward, I chatted with Stephen Shaya, a Michigan delegate and physician from Bloomfield Hills who said he was eager to hear Miller's message. Shaya described himself as a social conservative, but said he couldn't be put in an ideological box.

"I'm pro-life and pro-family, but on the other hand, as a doctor, I feel that health care is very important and should be a basic right for all," he said. Shaya, a Chaldean Christian of Iraqi descent, said he's pleased that the convention program has featured more moderate Republicans, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

"I'm happy to see the party reaching out to be a big tent, which as we all know has not always been the case," he said.

Later, I wandered down the hall where I found Bush campaign chairman Ken Mehlman making some rather liberal interpretations of John Kerry's positions while addressing a meeting of the Alabama, Maryland and Pennsylvania delegations. Of those three, only Pennsylvania is considered a battleground state. Alabama is dominated by Republicans and Maryland is a heavily Democratic state (although its Republican lieutenant governor had a speaking role at the convention Tuesday night.)

Kerry "said he would give veto power to certain members of the U.N." on certain foreign policy matters, Mehlman said. (Kerry has explicitly said he would not do that, but has said he would seek to more international cooperation on critical international matters.)

Boooooo!

"John Kerry went to his convention and said, 'I'll raise your taxes.' Now that's a promise a politician always keeps." (Kerry actually said he'll raise taxes only on individuals making more than $200,000 a year.)

Boooooo!

- By Terry M. Neal

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