YOUNG HARRIS — A governor and senator, friend and counselor to presidents, Zell Miller walked the marbled halls of American power. He was remembered more simply Monday, March 26, as a “Methodist and Marine” whose accomplished public life was the outgrowth of personal virtues traced to his Appalachian roots.
“In the art of politics, he was Michelangelo,” his former aide and prominent Democratic strategist Paul Begala told several hundred mourners at Young Harris College in Miller’s hometown, where he was born during the Great Depression and died Friday. Miller was 86.
“He knew not only how to win power in elections, but how to wield power in office,” said Begala, who worked on the 1990 campaign for governor that Miller won on the promise of a lottery that has permanently changed Georgia’s education system.
Monday’s funeral service launched three days of public honors for Miller, who served as Georgia’s governor from 1991 to 1999 and U.S. senator from 2000 to 2005. There will be a second funeral Tuesday, March 27, at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, where three former presidents will speak: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Afterward, Miller’s remains will lie in state at the Georgia Capitol until a state funeral Wednesday, March 28.
Miller is remembered throughout Georgia as architect of an education lottery that has financed pre-kindergarten programs for 1.6 million children cumulatively, while providing Hope college scholarships for 1.8 million more. Like most white Southern politicians of his generation, he once opposed civil rights legislation, but later condemned his own inaction and fought, unsuccessfully, to remove Confederate insignia from the Georgia state flag.
He is sometimes recalled nationally as the stridently independent Democrat who late in his career accused his party of veering left and coddling terrorists; he opposed same-sex marriage and in 2004, he backed the re-election of Bush, the former Republican president who will eulogize him Tuesday.
Begala gave a nod to some paradoxes, a “career politician” who campaigned “like an outsider,” a “deeply devoted Christian” who cursed like the Marine that he was. But he and other eulogists Monday argued for bigger takeaways, with a proper understanding of Miller’s formative experiences, from the abject poverty across the North Georgia mountains to the death of his father just days after his birth in a home with no electricity or running water.
“Why did this man apply this remarkable genius to education, to economic development, to helping lift up the people that others look down on?” Begala asked. “Because he’d been there. He never forgot who he was, where he came from or who sent him.”
Another former aide, Steve Wrigley, noted that Miller, despite being poor, was the son of two educators who taught at the local college, where he would become a student, meet his wife Shirley and teach history before entering politics. “This backdrop sparked an ambition in him to transform Georgia,” said Wrigley, now the chancellor of Georgia’s public university system.
Wrigley credited Miller’s “remarkable political radar” for his success in convincing a Deep South electorate with a religious bent to embrace a lottery. The key was tying proceeds to new education programs, without supplanting existing spending.
Miller’s credibility as a poor mountaineer didn’t hurt either, a political tool manifested in a distinctive twang that he could intensify with the emotions of a speech or let fly with a characteristic quip.
Among his favorites aired again Monday: “You won’t find average Americans on the left or on the right. You’ll find ‘em at Wal-Mart,” and, on his cursing, “My mouth is not a prayer book.”
Miller once described his own voice as “more barbed-wired than honeysuckle,” but it helped him to the distinction as the only American to deliver keynote addresses at both Republican and Democratic conventions. He pitched his friend and fellow Southern governor, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, to the nation in 1992. Twelve years later, he addressed the GOP and endorsed the younger President Bush as the man to keep the nation safe.
Recalling Miller’s explanation — “My family is more important than my party” — Begala joked: “Which is true, because he only had one family.”
Miller never did switch parties.
Miller’s mother, Birdie, died in 1980, a decade before he was elected governor, but she was invoked often Monday, including a lesson she gave her son. “Whenever I felt like one of life’s losers, my mother used to point to the one and only paved road in our little valley, a narrow little strip that disappeared winding into a gap,” Miller once told Begala. “She’d say, ‘Zell … from here, you can get to anywhere in the world.”
“Yes, Ms. Birdie,” Begala said. “You can. Your boy, Zell, did.”