ATLANTA — Three former presidents representing both major political parties hailed former Georgia Gov. and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller on Tuesday, March 27, as an example of statesmanship and boldness that more politicians should follow in this era of factional acrimony.
Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush drew laughter, applause and an occasional “amen” at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church as they recalled the remarkable and sometimes paradoxical public life of a man who rose from Appalachia to become a Georgia icon.
Miller died Friday at his old family home in north Georgia, where he began a long career at city hall before ending it as a two-term governor and U.S. senator. He was 86.
Carter, also a former Georgia governor, said his fellow Democrat “has done more for children’s education” than “any other governor in America.”
Clinton filled in the details of the education lottery that anchored Miller’s 1990 campaign for governor. “There are 1.8 million people in Georgia who got college educations because they got Hope scholarships,” Clinton said, and “1.6 million little kids who are in pre-school programs.”
Bush, the lone Republican in the presidential trio, took head-on any notion that he was out of place.
“Zell stood up to speak for me. Now it’s my turn to speak for him,” Bush said, noting Miller’s 2004 decision to crossover and endorse Bush’s re-election. “How many governors of Georgia or anywhere had three presidents” at their funerals, Bush added. “He’s really one of a kind.”
It was a nod to Miller’s unique place as the only American to deliver keynote addresses to both a Republican and Democratic presidential nominating convention.
Miller spoke in 1992 to nominate Clinton, his friend and fellow Southern governor from Arkansas. Clinton said Miller encouraged his ambitions in 1991, advising him to hire Miller’s aides Paul Begala and James Carville “and to give shorter speeches.”
Clinton joked, “I took 50 percent of his advice.”
His voice at one point cracked with emotion. Clinton addressed Miller’s wife, Shirley. “I come to you almost in indentured servitude and gratitude for what you and Zell did … for giving me the chance to serve.”
That friendship never waned, but when Miller went to Washington in 2000, a reluctant Senate appointee after the death of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell, Miller grew increasingly dissatisfied with his national party. So in 2001, Miller embraced the new Republican president he first met as Texas governor.
“I needed to get some things done, and I wanted to find some Democrats I could work with,” Bush said. “While Zell was always a Democrat, he was never an ideologue.”
He said Miller floated the idea of the 2004 endorsement and convention speech “if it would help.” Bush laughed, saying Miller had left the governor’s office with an 85 percent approval rating. “Take it from me, that’s not typical for a politician,” Bush said, smiling.
The Democratic presidents recalled Miller’s 2004 decision, as well, with a twist.
“I’ve been a friend of Zell Miller, off and on, for 55 years,” Carter joked. Carter was among the Democrats angered by Miller’s Bush endorsement. Carter and Miller got their starts in state politics together as state senators in the early 1960s.
Carter mused that maybe if Miller had spoken at his 1980 convention “I would have been re-elected, too.”
Clinton alluded to 2004 as the time Miller “was driving me and every other Democrat crazy” and he recalled the derisive nickname Miller earned early in his political career — “Zig-Zag Zell.”
But, Clinton added, “in all the ways that are most important, he was phenomenally consistent.”
Miller “kept score the right way” in politics, Clinton explained, because he “respected public service as a public endeavor,” his “adversaries were not his enemies,” and he believed that “in times of great stress we should find a way to see each other as people and see across the lines that divide us.”
The funeral was the second in as many days for Miller. He will lie in state at the Georgia Capitol, where a state funeral is slated for Wednesday. Miller was honored Monday in his hometown of Young Harris in the north Georgia mountains where he was born and where he died.
His three-day rites are replete with the symbolism of his public life, his personality and his place in a changing Democratic Party once anchored by politicians like Miller and voters like those he grew up with.
It’s no coincidence that Miller’s presidential eulogists are the last three Southern governors to reach the Oval Office. Carter and Clinton grew up in small towns, just like Miller.
His hometown funeral in Young Harris was held within walking distance from his birthplace, a family home with no running water or electricity at the outset of the Depression. But his Atlanta church service was in a majestic sanctuary in the wealthy Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead.
Among the hymns sung was “My Hope is Built,” traditional evangelical fare with a nod to Miller’s signature policy achievement. But there also were selections of Mozart with a chamber orchestra punctuated by Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus.
Bush, in his eulogy, captured the Miller dichotomy, “He once attended the Atlanta Opera in a tuxedo top and blue jeans.”