2007-03-28 / Columns

Bill Shipp


The 2007 Legislature is considering at least one really good idea: erecting a statue to the Republicans' favorite Democrat, Zell Miller.

Probably no Georgia politician in the last quarter-century has cast as great a shadow as the former governor and senator, which is the more impressive since that list also includes U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. Sam Nunn, and Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy.

What has made Miller so effective has been his ability to read the right tea leaves for that moment in time, even if he came up short. In the 1960s, he played to the white rural base; in the 1970s, he was the liberal reformer; in the 1980s, he was repairing old wounds; in the 1990s, he was the Southern Democratic populist in the Bill Clinton/ James Carville mold; and in this decade, he has been George W. Bush's best friend. The most partisan Democrat in Georgia became a hardcore Republican in everything but name just as the state's politics were shifting.

The only real consistency with Miller is his ability to recognize a change in the breeze, chart a new course and then pursue it vigorously.

With Georgia and the South wracked by racial strife in the 1960s, Miller became an outspoken segregationist. Running for Congress in North Georgia after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Miller attacked President Lyndon Johnson for selling "his birthright for a mess of dark pottage." Miller also served as the top aide for segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox.

Miller started on a different tack in 1974 by running as a reformer in his successful bid for lieutenant governor. Watergate was the talk of the day, and reform was in.

Then Zell ran as the champion of the Atlanta liberals when he challenged iconic conservative Sen. Herman Talmadge, who was wounded by corruption allegations, in the 1980 Democratic primary. In his greatest career miscalculation, Miller failed to recognize that the old rural Georgia Democratic machine still had enough power to ensure Talmadge's nomination, even if it couldn't get him past Republican Mack Mattingly in the general election.

Miller's moment to shine came in the 1990 governor's race. Tagged as a has-been at the start of the race, Miller conducted a brilliant campaign to win the keys to the Governor's Mansion. The race was so well run that his campaign operatives, James Carville and Paul Begala, used it as a springboard to managing Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign. Miller, who had previously strongly opposed a state lottery, made the lottery a centerpiece of his campaign at Carville's behest.

As governor, Miller followed through on his promise to be a Southern populist. No one was a bigger supporter of Bill Clinton in 1992, and Miller even keynoted the Democratic National Convention that nominated Clinton. The rhetoric of then-Gov. Miller is so different from the Zell of the last several years that it seems surreal to recall his words.

While rallying Democrats in 1991, Miller attacked the campaigns of fellow Democrats for not focusing on soaring health-care costs and failing to dismantle a tax code that favored the wealthy.

As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2000, Miller freely admitted in a debate that he supported Al Gore for president that year, and he criticized George W. Bush's proposed income tax cuts, saying that America should instead focus on paying down the debt for the benefit of future generations. He attacked former Sen. Mattingly, his Republican opponent, for voting for Reagan-era cuts to Social Security, Medicare and agriculture subsidies. Miller the Senate candidate was a moderate Southern Democrat in the mold of then-Georgia colleague Max Cleland, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and John Breaux of Louisiana.

All that went out the window the minute Gore conceded the election. Miller was literally on a plane to Texas before Bush was sworn in, and he became a co-sponsor of the same tax cuts he had just campaigned against. Almost overnight, he became George W. Bush's closest ally in the Senate. He topped it off by famously ripping Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry at the 2004 Republican National Convention and in the process made history by becoming the first person to keynote a national convention of both major parties.

Now Zell is quiet again. He asked of Kerry in 2004 whether he and fellow Democrats planned to arm our soldiers with spitballs. I wonder if he's noticed that it appears the Bush administration has been doing something close to that, with its overextension of our military and its cavalier treatment of wounded veterans. With national Republicans on the ropes, what will Miller do now?

Anyone betting on 2008 political races would be wise to watch Miller, considering his skill at adapting to political trends. That's why some have suggested his statue at the state Capitol should be a weather vane. Ah, but that idea is much too mean. A statue of Miller facing his beloved mountains would be more appropriate, but it should at least portray Zell with his finger in the air.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail shipp1@bellsouth.net.

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