Zell Miller is cooling the heels of his black cowboy boots in a White House lobby. The junior Democratic senator from Georgia is crowded into the small anteroom with five other senators and their hangers-on. All are former governors, waiting here beneath the varnished oil views of early America to discuss homeland security with another former governor, George W. Bush.

Briefly before the 11 a.m. meeting, Miller joins in the pol bonhomie. Greetings are brayed, hands are pumped back and forth like two men stirring a kettle together.

Miller talks hunting with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and football with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), but soon steps back and waits quietly away from the scrum. A welterweight former Marine with ramrod posture, he has hawk-sharp features, mostly unlined. His white hair is thick and tightly combed. Occasionally he fidgets with the blue tailored cuff where his drugstore Casio watch would be if it hadn't broken the night before.

A door opens and congressional leaders emerge from their own meeting with the president. Miller finds himself at the head of an accidental receiving line as lawmakers file past him into the sunshine of the White House driveway. No one mentions Miller's latest deviation from his party's line: The night before, on the eve of a unanimous vote by Judiciary Committee Democrats to block the nomination of Priscilla Owen to a federal appeals court, Miller -- who is not on the committee -- released a statement in favor of the Texas jurist. Republicans quickly trumpeted Miller's defection as evidence that Owen could have passed a vote by the full Senate.

Majority Leader Tom Daschle squeezes by and shakes Miller's hand. "Good to see you, Zell," he says warmly to the member of his caucus who most often sticks a thumb in the leadership's eye.

"Good to see you, Leader."

When the gold Simon Willard eagle clock outside the Cabinet Room reads 10:59, Miller and the others go in to meet the president. Forty-five minutes later, they emerge, having been pressed by Bush on the current partisan face-off over lifting civil service restrictions in the new Department of Homeland Security. A few of them pause by the driveway cameras. The other Democrat in the group, Nelson, squints into the sun and calls for compromise and more discussion. Miller steps up and, once again, stares down his own party: "I'm with the president on how he wants to do this department. He's got to have the flexibility he wants."

That H-Word Again

Miller hasn't always been such an assertive freshman. In 1951, in his first semester at Emory University in Atlanta, he was downright meek and miserable. Born and reared in the hollows of the north Georgia mountains -- and stamped with a bent-saw mountain twang and country manners that he retains to this day -- Miller was admittedly cowed by the worldly swagger of his city-boy classmates. He lasted six months before dropping out and heading back to his hills.

"The only worthwhile thing that came out of it was that my old English teacher, Miss Herren, had given me a season ticket to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra," says Miller, a lifelong country music fan. "The deal was I was to write her with my impressions of what I heard every time I went. It broadened me."

And toughened him. Miller doesn't run from hillbilly jokes anymore, he battles them, along with any other perceived slight to what he calls "mountaineer" culture. He condemns the "H-word" as one of the few slurs that remain socially acceptable. As a senator, he called Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to task for reportedly using "hillbilly" to refer to members of Congress and their staffs. (Rumsfeld denied it.) As governor of Georgia, he unloaded on anyone -- from editorial cartoonists to temporary Atlantan Jane Fonda -- who cracked wise about mountain outhouses or inbreeding. He so harangued succeeding editors of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the comic "Snuffy Smith" that the paper dropped the strip in 1989.

"It's obvious that you urban elitists continue to look down on those inferiors who come from the hills," Miller once wrote to the paper. "What would it take to convince you that we have rights and feelings, too -- a Million Hillbilly March?"

All in all, the city boys don't intimidate Miller anymore.

When Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell died suddenly in 2000, Democrats were delighted to have Miller fill the seat. He came out of retirement to accept the appointment as one of the most popular politicians in Georgia, a successful progressive governor who would easily hold the job in a crowded special election four months later.

But they went from delighted to aghast as the newest member of the caucus emerged as a Democratic version of John McCain: a chronic irritant to party loyalists and a reliable iconoclast on core issues. He promptly failed a string of partisan litmus tests by supporting John Ashcroft's confirmation as attorney general, oil exploration in the Arctic and -- his greatest apostasy -- sponsoring Bush's tax cut.

"It got pretty hot," Miller says. The 70-year-old has scorched his share of opponents in a four-decade political career, but says he still wasn't ready for the supernova state of partisan enmity in Washington. "My Senate colleagues never failed to treat me with anything but politeness and respect, but that wasn't always true of staff."

Some in Washington see Miller as a garden variety Southern conservative who never bothered to flip his "D" to "R." Others -- including Paul Begala and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- defend him as a centrist innovator who, at the end of his career, answers to no leadership but his own will.

It's a tungsten-hardheadedness, they say, that comes from his upbringing in the north Georgia mountains. When not in Washington, he still lives in his tiny home town of Young Harris (pop. 655) with two dogs and Shirley, his wife of 48 years.

"He didn't ask to be here," says former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a friend of Miller's since the 1960s. "He wanted to be home, in Young Harris. You can't understand him without understanding Young Harris."

A Backwoods Progressive

Main Street here in Young Harris runs right past Miller's house. It used to be a dirt lane. Now it's a proper highway, Route 76, whooshing steadily with tractor-trailers, local pickups and, increasingly, Volvos and Subarus from Atlanta heading to the second homes that now line the surrounding ridges.

"You used to could play hopscotch out there on that dirt road for 30 minutes at a time," says Miller, sitting in his living room by the stone fireplace. He's wearing jeans and a white Marine Corps sport shirt. His brown leather boots are stained from a half-hour morning walk along the nearby creek. Two yellow Labs lie at his feet, still panting. Gus lolls obediently on an old, hair-matted moving pad spread over part of the Oriental rug. Woodrow ignores the pad and sprawls on the carpet itself. Every few minutes, the room shivers as a big rig drives by. Miller has planted trees and shrubs to block the noise, but the traffic hardly matters. "I'm not ever going to move from this house."

It's a modest one, a handsome stone cottage recently expanded with a new kitchen and study. But it casts a huge shadow across Miller's life and career. His father, a state senator and a teacher at Young Harris College, died suddenly two weeks after Zell was born. The family eventually had to leave its college-owned house, but his mother, Birdie Miller, wanted to rear her two young children close to the father they wouldn't know. So she began pitching stones out of a neighbor's creek to build a house. It took years to finish. They raised chickens in one corner of the living room and didn't have an indoor bathroom until after Zell went off to college.

"I know everybody thinks their mother was special, but that woman was remarkable," Miller says, looking at a portrait of her that hangs over his television.

To support Zell and his older sister Jane, who still lives across the back fence, Birdie taught art, worked in an aircraft plant near Atlanta and painted gimcrack mountain views to sell to tourists. By Miller's back door is a black-and-white photo of his mother as the only woman in a mountain road crew.

"She used to tell me, 'Take what you want, sayeth the Lord, take it and pay for it,' " he says. "I was a grown man before I realized that wasn't in the Bible, it was her own scripture. The idea for the Hope Scholarship came from that. Take the tuition, but earn the grades."

The Hope Scholarship -- which uses lottery money to provide college tuition for any Georgia student making B's or better -- was Miller's chief legacy as governor. He also instituted a rare universal pre-kindergarten program and, as a first-termer, tried unsuccessfully to strip the Confederate stars-and-bars from the state flag. All of which, according to political observers, qualifies Miller as the most progressive governor in Georgia's history.

"He was really way ahead of the legislature and his own party on a lot of these things," says Emory political scientist Merle Black. "He devoted more resources and political capital to getting kids educated than any other Southern governor I know of. He really made a difference."

As a child, Miller led a "Foxfire" boyhood. When he wasn't playing baseball, he trapped rabbits and caught lizards to sell for fish bait. His Uncle Hoyle Bryson taught him the ways of the woods. "I've still got the little .22 that Zell used to shoot his finger off with," Bryson says with a chuckle at the old-timers' table in Mary Anne's Country Kitchen. "Told the doctor to just cut it off. He always was a stubborn one."

It was a short-barreled gun used to kill hogs, Miller says, pondering the half-inch stub of his left index finger. "My cousin and I were shootin' tin cans in the water and somehow I just didn't get my finger out of the way. I walked to the clinic and Dr. Tanner said we should just go ahead and take it off. It never has bothered me too much."

It didn't keep him out of the Marines, an institution that Miller credits with saving him from a wasted life. In 1953, soon after his disastrous stint at Emory, Miller began experimenting with the local liquor. "I had never even seen what we called 'bonded liquor,' " he says. "We drank moonshine and it would Knock. You. On. Your . . . "

In Miller's case, it also knocked him and his car into a ditch, and then into the Gilmer County drunk tank for a night. A few weeks later he signed himself up for Parris Island.

He's written a book about how Marine discipline changed his ways. In the Senate, he wears a Marine lapel pin every day, and an enormous copy of Joe Rosenthal's Iwo Jima photograph dominates one wall of his Senate office.

He stands, and the dogs scramble. It's time to go meet his wife for lunch at Mary Anne's. Woodrow and Gus gambol up into Miller's Chevy S-10, which sports a Marine bumper sticker and its own scrim of dog hair on the seats. Out of the driveway, he takes a look at the small green house where Uncle Hoyle lives two doors away. At 88, Hoyle still keeps three hounds in the pen out back, and takes them out fox hunting every Friday. "If Hoyle's truck is still there at 5 o'clock Friday, I know something's bad wrong," says Miller.

Guns and hunting are as much a fixture of life here as the mountain shadows. Last April, Miller infuriated national Democrats when he appeared -- to a standing ovation -- as the keynote speaker at a National Rifle Association convention.

"I'm for the Second Amendment and people's right to own guns because I grew up with Uncle Hoyle's rifle on the wall," Miller says with a shrug. "I guess that's way to the right. But in the 1970s, I was for the ERA because I saw my mother not able to get certain jobs. I guess that's way to the left. It's not some kind of pure philosophy. I think most people are that way."

Miller steers his pickup through the low-rise brick buildings of Young Harris College just across the street from his house. He drives past Zell B. Miller Field, the baseball stadium he raised money for with help from his friends Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle. He stops and lets the dogs out next to the creek that runs through campus, the creek that provided rocks for his mother's house.

His father taught history on this campus. So did Miller himself until politics took him increasingly to Atlanta: the state Senate in 1960, followed by a whopping four terms as lieutenant governor -- 16 years of second-bananahood -- and finally two terms as governor. Miller has waged more than four decades of campaigns in these mountains, where the partisanship is fierce but friendly.

"Right over here was Mr. Berry, who was a Republican," Miller says pointing down the road. "They would no more vote for me . . . ," he trails off, unable to think of anything quite as unlikely as a crossover voter in Towns County. "But they were wonderful neighbors 364 days out of the year."

Miller says that's far different from what he found in Washington. In one headline snub, James Carville -- whom Miller credits with helping him win his first gubernatorial race -- asked for his campaign donation back during the tax-cut flap. "I will never, ever forget what James did for me," Miller says. "But I just find it disgusting that a friendship could be wrecked because of a policy difference."

Carville says there's been too much talk about his split with Miller, but he allows that "I was probably closer to him than to any candidate I've ever worked for."

In fact it was Miller who introduced Carville to another Southern centrist, Bill Clinton, just as the Arkansas governor was preparing to run for president. Some even credit Miller as the co-author of New Democrat Clinton's "Third Way" approach to policy.

"They were governors together and they really hammered out these ideas together," says Hillary Clinton, one of Miller's closest friends in the Senate. "They were on the same wavelength about the kind of issues that the Democratic Party should be advocating."

At the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York, Miller delivered a blistering prime-time stemwinder. In his high mountain tenor, he brought delegates roaring to their feet as he skewered George H.W. Bush as a hapless aristocrat who "just didn't get it" on health care, education and the environment. "Give 'em hell, Zell," they howled.

As soon as he finished his second term as governor in 1999, Miller scampered back to the mountains, just as he had done after every other away chapter of his life -- Emory, the Marines, graduating from the University of Georgia. He was back teaching in a Young Harris College classroom three days after vacating the governor's mansion.

"The 18 months we had here were the happiest months of my life," he says of his brief retirement. Although he had run unsuccessfully for Congress and the Senate twice before, he says he had lost interest in coming to Washington by the time his term expired and Bill Clinton offered him a job as secretary of the Navy.

"Now I'd rather be secretary of the Navy than president of the United States," he says. "But what I really wanted to do was come home."

So when Gov. Roy Barnes flew up to Young Harris and told him Paul Coverdell's seat was his for the asking, Miller said no. At first. Then, Miller recalls, "Roy turned around in the driveway and said, 'I don't have a plan B.' "

Miller finally agreed to come to Capitol Hill if Shirley, a former bank president, would travel with him every week. They live in Howell Heflin's old two-bedroom apartment in the Methodist Building, right across from his Dirksen office. They socialize very little, and travel home every weekend.

It's a good setup. He can monitor C-SPAN from his living room and make it across the street in time for evening votes. "The only drawback is not being able to have Woodrow and Gus up there," Miller says.

His term is up in 2004, and he knows a lot of Georgia politicians are eager to learn if he will run again. According to friends, his mood has been improving in recent months. But he admits that he didn't initially enjoy the shift from governor to senator, which is one reason he's inclined to vote with Bush on homeland security and judicial appointments.

"I just think an executive ought to be able to pick their own batting order," he says. "It might have been different if I'd come up at age 40 without having been governor for those years. But now I wonder if I'm temperamentally unsuited to being a United States senator."

The Democrat and his dogs in the fields near his backwoods home.Miller with wife Shirley and the Labs, Gus and Woodrow, at home in Young Harris; below, with Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) last month in the less friendly confines of Washington, discussing the Department of Homeland Security.